The Middle East Channel

Washington's seamless transition in Syria is an illusion -- and bad policy

During the last 18 months, Syria's leadership class has made almost every mistake in the book. The regime has no respect for or indeed understanding of basic governing concepts except those defined by the use of force. Its heavy hand transformed disparate, limited, local acts of disobedience energized by economic discontent into a national, sectarian revolt against the ruling Ba'ath Party and increasingly against the minority Alawite community at the Party's center. In this context, the regime's efforts at political reform, while unprecedented, have been overwhelmed by an exploding but still manageable challenge to the regime itself, which now must reap the fruits of its own grievous shortcomings.

The shortcomings of the regime have been more than matched by those defining the opposition. Syria's political class has failed to cast off the burdens of its own history. The serial coups of the 40s and 50s and 60s highlighted the inability of Syria's political leadership to rule effectively. Today's "opposition" -- a description that suggests a clarity and unity of purpose that is all but entirely absent -- remains a factionalized, personality-driven, almost apolitical assembly of  aspiring Peróns operating outside the growing circle of conflict in the country itself. They have learned nothing and forgotten nothing of their sorry history.

The limitations of Syria's political leaders across the spectrum have been exacerbated by the decisions of the international community. The first error was to see Syria through the lens of an idealized Arab Spring -- inaccurately branded as a twitter-fueled democratic revolution against autocracy. The second was to frame the rules of the game as a zero-sum military contest between Assad and his opponents. The third error was to sabotage through faint support the option of international support for a political transition. By doing so, both the regime and its opponents were encouraged to embrace what each does best. By acting in this manner, what began as a limited revolt against the center now threatens the very viability of state itself.

The regime and its opponents are locked into a race to the bottom. The international community, driven by its own competing interests, is feasting off of this grisly spectacle.

There is no deluxe transition, where the costs are manageable and the democratic outcome all but certain, but that is the option embraced by Washington. The Obama White House and political echelons at State elevated their own misconceptions about the Arab Spring into policy. Washington is mortified by Assad's methods, and it has been seduced by the prospect of an easy proxy victory over Teheran. Condemning Assad as an outlier and manufacturing the illusion of a political opposition have failed. The White House has created an environment where the prime U.S. architects of the strategic debacle in Iraq, like Paul Wolfowitz, rear their heads yet again. If Syria is to emerge whole, and its destruction today is more probable than not, Washington must lead and choose among a new series of unpalatable choices. 

For starters, should the nation state of Syria be preserved? The answer today appears to be a belated yes. In order to accomplish this objective, it is necessary to frame policies that, however unpalatable, maintain the basic institutions of the state - both in the security realm and its domestic governing, education and welfare institutions. In other words, to do the opposite of everything done in Iraq after the conquest of Baghdad and everything that has motivated Washington's efforts towards Syria until now. The Obama administration has at long last apparently begun to understand this critical requirement. However, in order to implement policies based upon this commitment, Washington will have to "walk back" its oft-declared preference for a zero-sum deluxe solution that removes Assad, the Ba'ath Party and the state institutions tied to the regime. This will not be easy for an administration that has all too often viewed the Syrian crisis as a morality play.

Saudi Arabia and Qatar foremost among others, will resist such a policy pivot. They too are determined not to revisit the debacle that is Baghdad. Only for them, this has meant getting out in front of Washington in support of Syria's Sunni and Jihadi opposition. By leading from behind, the Obama administration has put the Gulf paymasters in the driver's seat. But their definition of victory is not so much a Syria-at-peace as is it the destruction of the Damascus regime and the opportunity costs exacted upon Iran for its defense of the Alawis.

So too for the opposition, especially those fighting and dying inside the country: They will have to be weaned away from Washington's absolutist proclamations, an all but impossible task given their own history and composition. They may deserve better, but if Syria is to remain whole, the opposition's battle against the regime, as a prelude to even bloodier internecine battles now being anticipated, must be contained and an effective dialogue with regime elements initiated.

The choices made by Washington and the Arab League have had the effect of empowering Iran and Russia. There is precious little for show for an American policy aimed at shaming or threatening Russia into abandoning an ally, and the complementary vision of a cold war-style defeat of Damascus and its Shia allies Hezbollah and Teheran.

The Obama administration must decide if its prime policy objective is to succeed in its vision of a post-Assad Syria, intact and on a rocky path to consensual politics. It may well be too late for such an outcome no matter what Washington's preference. But absent such a commitment, energetically pursued, Syria is doomed.

Geoffrey Aronson is director of research and publications at the Foundation for Middle East Peace and organized the "Swiss Track" negotiations between Israelis and Syrians in 2007.  The views expressed in this article are his own.

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The Middle East Channel

Syrian and rebel forces clash in Aleppo as top envoy to Britain defects

Fighting continues in Aleppo, Syria's largest city, although neither government forces nor opposition fighters made decisive gains. Both sides claim they have control of Salahedinne, a district on a main road the army could use for bringing in reinforcements. The opposition appears to control an arc including the eastern and southwestern districts, and aims to move toward the city center. Helicopter gunfire was reported for the first time in the battle in the eastern districts. Additional clashes have taken place near the Air Force Intelligence agency headquarters. A U.N. convoy was reportedly hit by small arms in an opposition-controlled area of Rastan after crossing through a government checkpoint. On Monday, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said that violence in Syria has impeded the observer mission preventing it from carrying out its full duties. But, it will continue to assist by patrolling and facilitating local ceasefires. Syria's top diplomat to Britain, Khaled al-Ayoubi, has resigned in protest of the Assad government, calling on remaining members of the regime to step down. Turkey has deployed additional troops, tanks, and ground-to-air missiles along the Syrian border, as their concerns increase over Syria allowing border districts to fall into the control of Kurds. Meanwhile, Iran warned Turkey not to intervene militarily, saying, "Any attack on Syrian territory will [be] met with a harsh response, and the Iranian-Syrian mutual defense agreement will be activated."

Headlines  

  • The kidnapper of an Italian embassy guard has been identified and is asking for $70,000 ransom.
  • Palestinian official Saeb Erekat called U.S. presidential candidate Mitt Romney's comments in Israel racist, and said it seems he lacks "understanding of this region and its people."
  • U.S. Congressional negotiators have struck a deal, on new sanctions on Iran, further restricting oil revenue as well as the shipping and insuring of oil cargo. They hope to pass the bill this week.
  • An Iranian court has sentenced four people to death over a $2.6 billion bank loan embezzlement scandal that has implicated President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's government.

Arguments & Analysis 

The Mirage State of Egypt' (Mahmoud Salem, The Daily News Egypt)

"Technically we believe Egypt to be a functioning state: it has institutions, democracy, elections, laws, economy, judiciary, police, a military, parties, political activists, a prime minister and a president. Unfortunately, while it seems like we have all the trappings of a country and a state; it's more like an optical illusion. None of it is the real thing. We have institutions that have employees and budgets and paper work, but almost nonexistent output; we have a democracy, but that is only in so far as we have elections; we have elections where the voters vote for the symbol but have no clue who they are voting for or what the candidate's policies or history is; we have laws that don't get enforced unless there is a political will behind it...The Mirage State."

'Iraq's Secular Opposition: The Rise and Decline of Al-Iraqiya' (International Crisis Group)

"A key player in the political crisis currently unfolding in Baghdad is the Al-Iraqiya Alliance, a cross-confessional, predominantly Sunni, mostly secular coalition of parties that came together almost three years ago in an effort to replace Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in the March 2010 elections. It failed then, and its flailing efforts now, along with those of other parties, to unseat Maliki through a parliamentary no-confidence vote highlight Iraqiya's waning power as a force that could limit the prime minister's authority. They also show that what remains of the country's secular middle class lacks an influential standard bearer to protect its interests and project a middle ground in the face of ongoing sectarian tensions that Syria's civil war risks escalating. Finally, they underline the marginalisation of Sunni Arabs and Sunni Turkomans by the Shiite-led government, further increasing the potential for violence."

Turkey must work with Syria's Kurds' (Ranj Alaaldin, The Guardian)

"A Syrian Kurdistan, however, would offer a lifeline to the PKK in the same way the uprising in Syria has provided an opportunity for other political movements to assert their presence. Further, the PKK is closely linked in Syria to the Democratic Union party (PYD) which controls most of the liberated areas as part of a broader coalition of Kurdish parties in Syria, known as the People's Council for Western Kurdistan (PCWK). The other main Kurdish opposition bloc of parties is called the Kurdish National Council (KNC)."

--By Jennifer Parker & Mary Casey 

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