Foreign Policy Blogs

The Case for Syria

It’s a beautiful April day here in Brooklyn. New York Spring might be only just taking root but in the Middle East, the Arab Spring is in full bloom.

The Case for Syria

I was there two months ago but thinking about it now makes it seem like decades ago. This morning I turned on Al Jazeera and watched a correspondent standing against the backdrop of the now closed Syria-Jordan border discussing her proximity to Daraa, the Syrian town where protests erupted a few weeks ago, only a few kilometers up the road. Citizens in Daraa have family in Jordan, she said, and they are using Jordanian SIM cards and cell phone service to communicate across the border. President Bashar al-Assad’s brother controls Syria’s main telecommunications company – the same company that requires foreign tourists to scan their passports and fingerprints before they can purchase a SIM card – so Daraa citizens probably can’t rely on domestic mobile phone networks.

I crossed that border two months ago in a car packed with rugs and other wonderful items from the Old City in Damascus, three friends, and a chain-smoking driver. Looking at a map today I realized we must have driven through (or just around) the city of Daraa. There are tanks in those streets now.

As the Syrian crackdown continues today I can’t help but wonder why Washington’s response to the crisis has been so tame. There still haven’t been any calls on Assad to step down. We intervened in Libya to save civilians who were in danger of a massacre by government forces. This is true – even more so – in the case of Syria, where between 10,000 and 40,000 people were killed by the current president’s father in a 1982 uprising. It doesn’t look like Assad the Younger’s policy toward rebellion will be any different.

And Syria is of much greater importance to U.S. national security than Libya. Syria is Iran’s only ally in the region, an important conduit for Iranian arms to Hezbollah and Hamas, and a long-time enemy of Israel, our staunchest ally in the region. The downfall of the Assad regime would relieve the U.S. of a persistent nuisance for Middle East policy. Even though the prospect of a friendly, pro-Western government establishing itself in Damascus is far from certain, Assad’s ouster would fundamentally change the nature of regional politics.

And yet it has taken until now for Washington to push ahead with sanctions against the Syrian leadership. Only two days ago, when the death toll in Syria stood at 400, did White House spokesman Jay Carney announce that the United States is “pursuing a range of possible policy options, including targeted sanctions, to respond to the crackdown in Syria and to make clear that this behavior is unacceptable.” It is perhaps worth noting that the sanctions will not directly target President Assad, and there are still no calls for him to step down.

There seems to be a consensus in Washington that the U.S. has no leverage over the Syrian government. They are wrong, writes Andrew Tabler, a journalist formerly based in Damascus. He lists three concrete actions the Obama administration could take: highlight Assad’s human rights abuses by bringing Syria in front of the UN Human Rights Council; work closely with European allies to develop sanctions; issue an executive order that allows the Treasury Department to freeze accounts used by Syria’s leaders; and to broaden those directives to target a wider range of Syrian officials responsible for rampant corruption – a central grievance of the Syrian protestors.

The first recommendation is unlikely to challenge Assad’s brutal crackdown because the UNHRC’s effectiveness and legitimacy has been questioned as a result of a 2003 decision to appoint Libya’s representative as its chair. The targeted sanctions and strongly worded condemnation of human rights abuses, on the other hand, are the very least the U.S. could do.

No doubt the Obama administration has also been considering the nature of a Syria without Assad, and been slightly worried. As Robert Kaplan recently wrote in Foreign Policy, Syria has only remained a nation as a result of strong and often brutally repressive central government. Because of the proximity of Syria’s major population zones to Jordan and Lebanon (already volatile themselves), weakened or no authority in Damascus would have a destabilizing effect across the region. As Kaplan writes, “Rather than face a ‘steadfast’ and rejectionist, albeit predictable, state as the focal point of Arab resistance, Israel would henceforth face a Sunni Arab statelet from Damascus to Hama — one likely influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood — amid congeries of other fiefdoms. The unrest in Syria brings the Middle East perhaps to a precipice. Peaceful or not, the future of the region will be one of weakened central authority. Mesopotamia at least has a historic structure, with its three north-south oriented ethnic and sectarian entities. But Greater Syria is more of a hodgepodge.”

It brings me great sadness to think of the violence being brought upon the Syrian people by the Middle East’s most repressive regime. Syrians are a wonderful people – walking through the Old City in February I was surprised by the smiles that spread on the faces of the shopkeepers when they heard I was from New York. “We love Americans,” they said, “such nice people.” My mother traveled through much of the rest elsewhere in Syria the same week, and reported similarly generous, hospitable, and pro-America sentiment across the country. As some have written, our intervention in Libya probably encouraged the Syrians to take to the streets in protest; the courageous protestors must have hoped that the West might intervene to save them from slaughter as we did for the Libyans. Washington’s inaction and muted response to this grave crisis does not live up to the faith in America held by those Syrians I met in February.