Laying the Groundwork: Syria After Assad

At the United Nations, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called for an international response to the crisis in Syria, warning that if the UN fails to act it should consider itself complicit with the brutal regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. And there are certainly steps that the United States could take to assist in the downfall of one of the world’s most despicable regimes, although such an outcome is far from certain. Furthermore, prospects for a post-Assad government that aligns with U.S.

At the United Nations, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called for an international response to the crisis in Syria, warning that if the UN fails to act it should consider itself complicit with the brutal regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. And there are certainly steps that the United States could take to assist in the downfall of one of the world’s most despicable regimes, although such an outcome is far from certain. Furthermore, prospects for a post-Assad government that aligns with U.S. interests offer little basis for optimism if the aftermath of similar “Arab Spring” revolutions is any indication.

With fighting reported in the suburbs of Damascus and a near daily drama playing out at Turtle Bay, Syria has reached an inflection point. For the United States, however, attempts to contribute to a solution and take a constructive role in shaping Syria’s future are hampered by a long list of unknowns.

In the case of Libya, rebels fighting for the anti-Gaddafi National Transitional Council swiftly seized control of the eastern half of the country, including key ports, giving them a secure base from which to fight Gaddafi’s military as a conventional force. They also enjoyed easy links by sea and air to the outside world, which ensured a generous degree of media coverage. The situation confronting the forces fighting the Syrian government stands in stark contrast.

The Free Syrian Army (FSA), a hodgepodge force composed of former regime soldiers, is based out of a narrow swath of territory at the eastern end of Turkey, far from the sea and major airports. The FSA is vastly outnumbered and outgunned by Assad’s troops and has resorted to a guerrilla campaign with the goal of wearing down the military forces loyal to the government. Relatively little is known about the FSA owing to the group’s isolation. Moreover, it is not strong enough to hold Syrian territory even when it is victorious in clashes with government forces. How long the FSA’s campaign can be sustained is unclear.

An assessment of the Syrian opposition is made all the more difficult by the fact that the FSA suffers to an indeterminate degree from internecine conflict. Complicating matters further is the appearance of Islamist militias who are also fighting the Syrian government. The Islamist fighters have announced a radically different goal after the defeat of the al-Assad government – sharia law throughout Syria.

To say that there is a single Syrian “opposition” is an oversimplification touted by various global leaders seeking swift action against the Assad government. Unfortunately, there is not yet a coherent and coordinated government waiting in the wings to facilitate a smooth transition upon Assad’s downfall.

The Syrian National Council (SNC), the largest coalition of anti-Assad groups, sits across the Turkish border amid nearly ten thousand Syrian refugees. With offices in Istanbul and representatives making its case in major foreign capitals, the SNC is the most widely recognized opposition group, although it has thus far refused to call itself a government-in-exile. The SNC, which reportedly includes the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups in its ranks, claims a relationship with the FSA. It is unclear how direct or strong that relationship is. The National Coordinating Body for Democratic Change in Exile (NCB), a smaller opposition group composed primarily of leftist and Kurdish groups, operates mostly from within Syria.

The degree to which the FSA, SNC and NCB have credibility among the Syrian citizenry and whether they possess leadership figures around whom an interim government can be formed is unclear. As the main opposition military force, it must also be determined whether the FSA’s vision of a post-Assad Syria comports with that of the SNC and the NCB.

The Administration has already declared that it will not engage in military operations to assist the FSA. In her Jan. 31 statement, Secretary Clinton told the UN Security Council, “I know that some members here are concerned that we are headed toward another Libya. That is a false analogy. Syria is a unique situation that requires its own approach, tailored to the specific circumstances on the ground.” Nevertheless, an assessment of the FSA’s ability to accept and utilize aid to bolster its military capabilities should be made.

Early on, the Arab League took the lead in condemning the Syrian government for its brutality toward unarmed protestors, but failed to motivate Arab and western governments to endorse decisive action. Its delegation of observers in Syria was ignored. A Russian wall of resistance has neutered its push for a tougher stand in the UN against the Assad government. Moscow has firmly positioned itself as Damascus’ strongest supporter and appears to relish its role as spoiler, vowing to block any Security Council action on Syria. Some observers have likened this situation to going back to Cold War days of Soviet obstructionism. Going even further, Russia recently announced that it would continue to sell arms to Assad’s government.

Today, the Arab League and its supporters appear unwilling to fully back the FSA but have staked out a weak middle position. “We are not calling for a military intervention,” Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani told the UN on Tuesday. “We are advocating the exertion of a concrete economic pressure so that the Syrian regime might realize that it is imperative to meet the demands of its people … We are not after regime change, for this is a matter that is up to the Syrian people to decide.”

Other “Arab Spring” revolutions provide instructive lessons for what can be expected in the wake of the collapse of the Assad regime. While NATO and American support for the Libyan rebels was crucial to their victory, early indicators are that the government elected after Gaddafi’s demise – far from embracing the tenets of a democratic society – has shown decidely Islamist proclivities. The same can be said for post-revolution Tunisia and Egypt. Syria, however, presents an unpredictable and potentially dangerous proposition.

For much of the past three decades, under the leadership of Bashar al-Assad and his father Hafez, Syria has been a willing Iranian vassal, allowing Tehran nearly unfettered access to Lebanon and Hezbollah. After the Assad government lost the Arab world’s backing due to its bloody repression of unarmed demonstrators, Iran reinforced its position in Syria. This began with the quick dispatch of Revolutionary Guard Corps units early in the crisis to bolster Assad’s grip on power. An Iranian presence in Syria after Assad falls would clearly present a challenge to the formation of any interim government willing to hold free and fair elections.

Elections in Arab states held after the ouster of repressive, secular regimes favor the most well-organized and funded movements with a set agenda – Islamist parties. Islamists in Syria were dealt many harsh blows by successive Syrian governments, most notably the 1982 crushing of the Islamic Brotherhood in the city of Hama that claimed the lives of up to 20,000 civilians. Despite the repression, the Brotherhood and other Islamist groups are still forces to be reckoned with in Syria today.

There are, of course, vital American interests to be pursued following the demise of the Assad regime. They include:

  • Curtailing Syrian support for terrorist groups including Hezbollah, Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

  • Weakening Iran’s influence in Syria and Lebanon, which was facilitated by its close relationship with the Assad government.

  • Preventing the emergence of a radical Islamist government in Syria.

  • Securing or destroying Syria’s arsenal of chemical and biological weapons and confirming the destruction of its nuclear program.

  • Increasing prospects for a Syrian peace with Israel.

To these ends, there is surely more the Obama administration could be doing:

  • Build an international coalition of states to further isolate the Syrian government. Despite professed outrage from the international community over the mounting civilian death toll, precious little has been accomplished by the Arab League or the UN. The Arab world and Europe should be persuaded to sever their trade ties to Syria, especially in the energy sector, a prime source of revenue for Assad’s government.

  • Explore cooperation with Turkey. This is a necessary condition for an anti-Assad coalition to implement measures including no-fly zones and monitoring Syria’s borders, especially with Iran. Given the rocky relations of late between Ankara and Washington, such cooperation can hardly be considered a given.

  • Secure agreement with the FSA, SNC and NCB regarding the destruction and removal of Syrian WMDs and associated research and development programs in territories no longer under the Assad regime’s control.

  • Assist the SNC and NCB in reconciling their differences and in their preparation for future elections so that a cadre of leaders of varying views will be ready to campaign for office in a post-Assad Syria. This can be accomplished through direct assistance as well as through training provided by internationally accredited nonpartisan organizations.

Progress in these areas could greatly boost prospects for the formal recognition of a new Syrian government by the United States. Such steps would be a logical follow-up to President Obama’s recent call for President Bashar al-Assad to step down. Without such actions, the brutal crackdown will continue, and U.S. interests will continue to be at risk.