By Alexander Corbeil
The International Sphere and the Domestic Situation in America
We are now witnessing a bloody and drawn own out plan of regime change by civil war in Syria. To put it plainly it’s government overthrow on the cheap for the United States, both in political and financial terms. It is true that all politics are local, and with a war-weary populace, rising unemployment, and a re-election campaign underway, a major foreign policy blunder would be damaging for the Obama administration. Internationally, the US now stands on shaky ground with China given America’s new military focus on the Pacific. Iranian-American relations are at an all-time low with sanctions crippling the Islamic Republic’s oil output. Last but not least, relations with Russia float in a continuous purgatory of non-cooperation.
The result has been multiple Security Council vetoes by the Russians and Chinese on any strong worded resolutions dealing with Syria, and thus an international stalemate. Given this precarious situation, any overt move to topple Bashar al-Assad or supply the Free Syrian Army with offensive weaponry would be an affront to the above mentioned states at a time when further international cooperation is needed. The solution: overthrowing Bashar al-Assad without involving American forces on the ground or in the sky, while foregoing the lucrative enticement of directly arming the rebels as not to create further tensions with Assad’s international backers.
While opponents of the Obama administration and of American foreign policy in general would point to this strategy as a neo-imperialist agenda, it is one of the only viable options left. We must acknowledge that we are living in an increasingly multi-polar world. Power does rule, and America does have a lot of it, but in a global recession economic prosperity is even more important. Enter Russia and China, two of the strongest economies in the world. The Syrian crisis, and the Security Council deadlock, the murder of civilians with heavy weapons, and the longevity of Assad’s survival are all sadly part of this new reality. The BRICS nations are carving out their rightful place on the international stage and moves by some will continue to be contradictory to initiatives and stances in the West.
For Washington, facing international deadlock, domestic war fatigue, and having just begun to peel away from two unsuccessful conflicts in Muslim countries, options for Syria are limited. But an American victory in Syria is lucrative: it would topple a long time enemy of the US; weaken Iran’s reach in the Arab world including its ability to threaten Israel; and undermine Hezbollah in Lebanon to the advantage of the pro-Western March 14 Alliance.
Out of many constrained options it seems that the Obama administration has chosen de-facto support for an increase in weapons and logistical support to the Free Syrian Army. The plan as it seems, is to ensure that only the most professional (and non-radical) rebel forces are equipped with anti-tank and anti-air weaponry. The latter weapons show an obvious sign of intended escalation, given that Assad will be increasingly forced to utilize his air superiority if threatened; which is quickly becoming a reality. As weapons are paid for by Syrian ex-pats and Gulf States the cost to the American tax payer and the defence establishment is minimized. Without NATO boots on the ground and no planes in the sky there is a zero chance of loss of Western life and importantly: plausible deniability.
The goal is to push the conflict into a hurting stalemate—a stage in which neither belligerent group can win but are at the same time unwilling to accept defeat. An agreement between Assad’s domestic support network (business elites and the military) and his international backers (most notably Russia) regarding a transition of power is the hoped for result. This would keep state institutions intact and allow for the stable development of a transitional period that could lead to free and fair elections. Further breakdown of the political system in Syria would be counterproductive to American goals in the region and contribute to instability in neighboring countries. That being said, it seems as if the goal of the Obama administration is to ensure that the rebels can stretch Syrian economic and military resources to the limit through armed engagement with the Free Syrian Army without pushing the country into a chaotic abyss. Furthermore, a stable and relatively safe transfer to free and fair elections, with US support, could also help repair America’s standing in the region. The Libyan mission, support for the monarchy in Bahrain, and the Israeli-Palestinian issue have so far undercut Obama’s popularity in the Arab world—support that the president would like to regain in the wake of a possible second term.
Coupled with increased resistance comes diplomatic coordination against the Assad regime through international forums and a rallying of those allied with the Syrian people—as explicitly seen with almost monthly Friends of Syria meetings. Although explicitly aimed at isolating Assad on the international stage, it also has the effect of putting pressure on Russian for continuing to supply the Syrian regime with arms and blocking diplomatic solutions. The goal of this smear campaign is to bring about one of two possible scenarios: either a military coup against Assad (Hosni Mubarak style) or a negotiated transfer of power to a transitional government (see Yemen). These two options would ensure that a Libyan situation, complete with the full decay of the centralized state and the emergence of a plethora of militias would not occur in one of the most unstable areas in the world—at the intersection of Turkey, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, and Iraq.
Both initiatives need the support of Russia given the country’s relationship with top Alawite officers who comprise a large section of Assad’s power base. Perplexingly, given the unstable relationship between Russia and the US, the Obama administration has opted to bully the Russian Bear towards this end, choosing to exploit the link between Russian military support and civilian massacres. Some analysts point to the Russia’s signing of the UN press statement condemning the Syrian regime for the Houla massacre as a step toward international consensus on the fate of Assad and a result of the American plan. Others pointed to the re-establishment of Vladimir Putin’s presidency as a step toward reconciliation with the United States and a solution to the Syrian crisis. Unfortunately, with the Russian president’s comments this month that he stands against foreign intervention and the toppling of Assad by other means, it seems as if the American plan has yet to yield any change of attitude in the Kremlin.
For the Obama administration’s plan to go succeed three main issues must be taken into consideration and acted upon in a timely manner. The first of which is ensuring the consolidation of a top-down power structure over the Free Syrian Army. While communications equipment has been provided by the US State Department as part of this effort, it has only been partially successful. The sticking point so far has been the inability of the Syrian National Council to present a viable political leadership structure on the international stage. While this may change with the appointment of Abdulbaset Sieda as SNC president, a Kurdish academic based in Sweden, it will be a drawn out process that could take months if not years at this pace. To put it plainly the Syrian political opposition needs to consolidate its own ranks before projecting its power over the rebel factions.
This ties into the next two elements which must be managed to see a “soft transition” of power in Syria. The appointment of Sieda was a clear indication that the SNC is attempting to broaden its support base among the minority groups in Syria. Kurdish delegations to the opposition organization had walked out in protest during previous meetings complaining about the lack of representation within the group. But Kurds are not the only minorities fearful of change in Syria and there has been a lack of outreach to both the Christian and Alawite populations by the opposition. Alawites, the Shiite confessional group from which Assad hails, are extremely fearful of sectarian reprisals given increasing divisions caused by the three recent massacres. The Obama administration must reach out to this group and provide them with assurances that they will not succumb to a campaign of ethnic cleansing in any resulting transitional period.
Russia will also need assurances from the Obama administration that its interests in Syria, including the port of Tartus, will not be undermined by the fall of Assad. As the Kremlin is fearful of any resulting chaos that may spread to the Muslim areas of the Federation it must be presented with a stable and entrenched transitional government that has both local and international support. A Yemeni style transition of power or a soft coup by the military echelons must be buttressed with an active role by the SNC to bring about a stable environment that includes Syrians from across the sectarian and geographic spectrum. This feat is only capable with both the consolidation of a top-down command structure over the various Free Syrian Army units and an emboldened SNC answerable to Sunnis and Alawites alike.
It is a long road ahead for the creation of a viable platform for transition in Syria. Alienating Assad from his Russian backers will require both a long term American plan for Syrian transition, one which is to Moscow’s liking, and pledges that Russian interests in the Levant will be protected.
Alexander Corbeil is the Senior Middle East Security Analyst at The Atlantic Council of Canada. He has consulted the Transitional Government of Somalia, NATO, and former Canadian politicians on a variety of issues regarding the Middle East and North Africa. He writes at The Atlantic Council of Canada and you can follow him on Twitter @alex_corbeil