On Syria

DANIEL BYMAN – What institutions can be used to pressure the Syrian regime, and what should be done if those mechanisms fail? 

Does the United States have any interest in keeping the Assad regime intact? With a nuclear aspirant Iran, would an anarchic or even civil-warring Syria further jeopardize US and allied security interests in the region?

Yes, a civil war in Syria would be quite dangerous for the United States. Policy has to walk the line between removing Bashar al-Assad and at the same time making sure Syria does not plunge into chaos. Achieving that balance is not guaranteed; many of the efforts the US and its allies are making to remove Assad make Syria, as a state, weaker. That could mean that, either under the current regime, or should that regime fall, Syria will not hold together.

Syria for a long time has been Iran’s sole ally in the region. During this period when the country has come under increasing condemnation for its nuclear aspirations, how has Iran responded to the unrest in Syria?

The Iranians have tried to bolster the regime; they have done that by providing Assad with weapons, through training and advice. Yet I think their biggest impact has been with their financial assistance. The Iranians have given the regime money, which in turn gives it a small cushion, but nevertheless an important one, from things like wide economic sanctions, the collapse of trade. The financial support as well as the broader sense that someone is standing by the regime has been extremely important in sustaining Assad’s intransigence.

Can the Iranians support the Syrian regime singlehandedly?

Yes and no. It is important to remember that the Syrian regime is receiving support from other entities, the Russians in particular. This international support has given the regime diplomatic top-cover to help it avoid greater international pressure. The Syrian regime has its own assets, and Iranian contribution may tip the balance.

In our interview, Noam Chomsky argued that US leaders look only gauge Middle Eastern sentiment by looking at and negotiating with dictators; for example, he notes that only 5% of the Middle East population opposes a nuclear-armed Iran. Looking at Syria, do western leaders adequately understand the regional sentiment regarding a possible western intervention? 

The sentiment in the Arab World is very much against any sort of western operation in the region, even in Syria, in terms of a boots-on-the-ground intervention. And that is, so far, the stance that the Obama Administration has taken; they have resisted calls from a number of governments in the region to be more aggressive, in part because I think they are concerned by the popular sentiment towards such an action. The Chomsky comment seems unusual to me. At times the United States looks at the region in terms of its own interests, and is not focused on popular opinion. However, this administration has been quite focused on, and at times siding with, popular opinion against dictators or existing governments. The US response to Hosni Mubarak in Egypt — a close US ally — is a prime example: American policymakers, rather unceremoniously, dumped Mubarak in order to gain the goodwill of the Egyptian people. The idea that the US sides and negotiates with regional dictators does have to be qualified.

In American policymaking circles, there seems to be a debate between those who advocate for slow, deliberate responses to situations like Syria (as you do in Foreign Affairs) and those (like Senator McCain who advocated for NATO intervention) who push for immediate intervention. How have international leaders quantified and analyzed the consequences of direct versus indirect intervention with respect to Syria? 

One of the biggest questions that International leaders have are focused on how much effort an intervention to remove Assad would take militarily and politically. What are the chances of success? And then, if the operation is successful, what next? The more involved a country is in removing a regime, the more responsible that country is for the aftermath of its operation. With Libya, there was limited NATO involvement, but the sense was that NATO therefore only had a limited responsibility to reconstruct Libya once Gaddafi fell from power. In Iraq, of course, the United States was completely responsible for Saddam Hussein’s removal, and appropriately, the world looked to the US when problems arose quite disastrously in the country. In Syria, people are weighing exactly that balance.

World leaders are trying to think of not only what will be needed during the next couple of months to push Assad over the edge, but what the long-term cost of this kind of pressure is. That is one of the trickier questions, because it is extremely hard to quantify the merits, effects, and ramifications this kind of operation.

An article in The New Republic argues that moral justification for intervention in Syria is far less important than regional legitimacy and support for such an operation. The efficacy of a military intervention is certainly dubious. Do you agree that there needs to be a separation between moral and political reasons for intervention? 

Sometimes these two elements are intertwined and sometimes they are not. In Syria, the United States has a strategic interest in Assad’s removal and a moral one: so the two qualities you outlined go together nicely. In other places, though, like Bahrain, there are democratic demonstrators; but in this situation, many argued the moral action was to support these people, and others argued the strategic action was to refrain from any kind of intervention, and to rather work with the Al-Khalifa regime — a close US and Saudi Arabian ally.

In 1982, the US barely responded to Hafez al-Assad’s shelling of the Syrian city of Hama, yet in the wake of the US pullout from Iraq and the Arab Spring, American leaders seem more willing to speak out against the situation in Syria. What has caused the United States to become more loquacious? 

There are two elements to this question. First, in 1982 news of the Hama situation trickled out of Syria. There were reports of the violence, but there was no daily feed of cell-phone video or images that forced the issue onto the screens of policymakers. By the time the scale of the slaughter was apparent to everyone, it was way too late to intervene. Today events are reported much faster, in real-time, which forces the responsibility on the international community. It is impossible now to say that “it is too late to stop the situation.”

Second, during the Cold War, there was a sense that anything the United States did would immediately be countered by the Soviet Union. If there was an intervention, the Soviets would attempt to block it diplomatically and would increase military aid for the regime in question. Intervention during the 1980s was seen as largely fruitless and much more difficult. Today, that counter-pressure is at times still there — this situation is apparent with the Russian veto in the United Nations Security Council against direct intervention in Syria, for example — but it is much less pronounced. There is much more ability to act as well as a far stronger political driver to do so than there was during the last crackdown in Syria.

In 2011, an article in Foreign Affairs noted, on the eve of the first protests in Syria, that Assad has almost no public support, and that violence will prove to be his only means of staying in power. This prediction appears very true. Yet, given the continued emphasis on a diplomatic solution, is it legitimate to assume that Assad will only negotiate with and against military force?   

The short answer is yes. The long answer is that I think the Assad regime is not fully confident in its ability to use force. It is tremendously concerned about military defections, and more broadly about the solidity of the elite. Diplomacy can play on that insecurity. Because the Assad regime does not feel that all the cards are in its hand, that is a distinct vulnerability on which western diplomats can capitalize. The danger of escalation in terms of arming the opposition or direct intervention — from the Assad regime’s point of view — makes the regime more likely to come to a deal. Yet at the same time, a deal is a rather risky proposition for western powers because it presumedly preserves much of the regime in power, and that is undesirable.

On April 2 the New York Times reported that the Syrian government agreed to withdraw its security forces from population centers by April 10. Yet, Susan Rice retorted that “we have seen promises made and promises broken” by Assad. What can we make of this most recent assurance — is it simply too late for the Syrian government to ameliorate their situation?

The Syrian regime believes that the longer the debate surrounding intervention drags on without any action, the less consensus there will ultimately be for an international operation against them.   At the same time western countries have expressed their desire to assist the Syrian population on a humanitarian level; if the regime can make false promises, do half-measures to drag the situation out, it will serve the Syrian government in the end, preventing the drastic action they fear from the West.

What should be done if the Syrians fail to respect this particular agreement?

The United States, working very closely and in support of allies, should help arm the opposition.

[Editor’s note: There has been an update to this story, as fighting continues despite Assad’s promises]

What are the short- and long-term results of the barriers posed by the Russian support for the Syrian regime? 

The short-term results are that the Russians are giving the Syrian regime a sense that it can weather the storm of international condemnation, in much the same way as the Iranians are doing. This support has been very important in making sure that elites who might otherwise abandon the regime will stand by it. The Syrian regime also views the Russian veto in the UN Security Council as a way of legitimizing its escalation of violence behind a veil of immunity to any sort of repercussions.

Nations like Russia on the Security Council seem to be a barrier to progress in the United Nations. What role can the UN play in Syria?

The United Nations can play a role once all sides are ready to move towards a deal. I do not think either the opposition or the regime is ready to do that at this point. Should there be greater weariness on both sides, should one side appear to be winning and the other side seeks an exit, the UN can help broker a deal at that point. The UN has a sense of legitimacy that enables the creation of a way out for one side or both. But before this exit can be provided, the realities on the ground need to be decided; without this, the UN cannot do anything effective. When both sides think they can win, it is hard, if not impossible, for the UN to broker a deal: both sides currently think that if they wait a month, they can emerge victorious.


DANIEL BYMAN is a professor in the School of Foreign Service and was director of the Security Studies Program and Center for Peace and Security Studies from 2005 until 2010 at Georgetown University. He is also the Director of Research of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. He has served as a Professional Staff Member with the 9/11 Commission and with the Joint 9/11 Inquiry Staff of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees. 

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