Bashar, the authoritarian opthalmologist
If the outcome of the Iraq war had been even remotely close to that imagined by its architects, the authoritarian regime of President Bashar Assad in Syria would be ripe for the plucking right now. As loathed by the Bush administration as it is by its own Sunni majority (although for entirely different reasons), the minority Allawite autocracy – whose real power is centered less in an ethnic group than in a series of extended family and patronage network that intersect with the levers of power in the security apparatuses – appears to be more brittle than ever. Under different circumstances, the UN report that fingers top Syrian officials for involvement in the killing of Rafik Hariri, the Saudi citizen and protégé murdered in Lebanon on Valentine’s Day after he refused to do Syria’s bidding in the Lebanese political process, would provide the U.S. the excuse needed to launch political, economic and even military initiatives designed to bring down the regime. (And, by the way, this one actually does have weapons of mass destruction – a stock of chemical warheads that Damascus has been amassing since the 1970s, which they see as their strategic counterweight to Israel’s nuclear capability.)
Instead, the U.S. looks likely to hesitate, having learned a nasty lesson in Iraq: Before you take down a regime, consider whether you find the plausible alternatives more or less palatable than the status quo. (One of the basics of foreign policy realism .101, you might have thought, but these guys had to learn the basics the hard way.) And the answer, in the case of Syria, is far from clear. Indeed, the consensus even in Israeli strategic circles is that there is no “good alternative” to Bashar’s regime. They want him bloodied and intimidated into toeing Washington’s line, but not toppled – a position that probably accords with that of the dominant element in the Bush administration. But given this administration’s track record of intervention in the middle east – anything but surgical – even the likely attempt to calibrate pressure on Damascus to achieve this outcome could spin easily out of control. (Put it this way, if the neophytes and ingénues running the show today had been in charge in 1962, the Cuban missile crisis would far more likely have resulted in a U.S.-Soviet military showdown.)
Still, just as the Reagan administration in its second term, while hardly renouncing the “evil empire” rhetoric, nonetheless pursued policies of pragmatic accomodation with a changing Soviet Union that had the neoconservatives screaming betrayal, so does the second Bush term look set to produce a foreign policy long on revolutionary rhetoric but in practical terms guided by some of the same “realism” they so loudly decry. That’s because the U.S. is overstretched in Iraq, and has failed to remake the region on its own terms. The revolutionary rhetoric emanating from the administration is going to sound increasingly hollow.
The Syrian regime is an almost bizarre caricature of decreptitude: A three-decades old military dictatorship headed by a mild-mannered opthalmologist called home from London to reluctantly assume his “birthright” after his older brother Basil, long-anointed heir to the mantle of Hafez, was killed in a plane crash. Old hands in Washington would be forgiven for sighing that Bashar’s was “not your father’s Assad regime.” Then again, Bashar and his cronies would say exactly the same about the Bush administration – indeed, they had expected Bush’s election in 2000 to restore more of the balance between Arab and Israeli interests in US foreign policy that had been the hallmark of the first Bush administration. Assad-pere got along pretty well with Bush-pere, so much so that he actually sent troops to fight alongside the Americans against Saddam in the first Gulf War. That’s right; the soldiers of the same tyrannical, Baathist, anti-Israel, Hezbollah enabling, chemical-weapons armed dictatorship fighting alongside the U.S. against Saddam Hussein.
But the junior Bush’s administration is nothing like its predecessor, as the New Yorker’s piece on Brent Scowcroft so clearly showed. Nor is Assad-junior anything remotely like his father, the Middle East’s consummate Machievellian. He’s obviously a lot weaker in the authoritarian power structure that he inherited, and has made a number of mistakes as a result — in particular by being so openly hostile to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, even though in practice Syria’s position may not be all that different from those of Iraq’s other Arab League neighbors. As he was going out to whip the Arab world into line, Bush the Younger found the posture of insubordination by Assad the Younger intolerable, and Syria has been in Washington’s sights ever since.
Still, Syria has cooperated very effectively with U.S. intelligence operations against al-Qaeda — a mutual enemy, to be sure — and will likely step up its efforts to police the border with Iraq. Indeed, the institutional memory of the Assad regime is well-apprised of the fact that its survival amidst hostile geopolitical currents has always been premised on its readiness to play a gendarme role on behalf of Western powers, most notably the U.S. and France.
Indeed, it was that gendarme role that had taken Syria into Lebanon in the first place in 1976 — an invasion for which Damascus had sought and received tacit consent from both the United States and Israel. It was the Syrian role to tamp down the Palestinian and radical Lebanese militia to help stabilize the situation. But, of course, Syria also has a longstanding conflict with Israel over possession of the Golan Heights, and so Lebanon became an avenue for proxy warfare (via enabling Hezbollah) to maintain pressure on Israel.
Lebanon, in time, came to represent not only a geostrategic asset to a regime that had precious little diplomatic, economic or military leverage, but also a liferaft for the decrept Syrian economy — hence the extensive and vicious micromanaging of Lebanese politics from Damascus. And the shifting foreign policy focus of the U.S. as well Syria’s failure to toe the line on Iraq, saw Syria’s grip on Lebanon become a pressure point on Damascus. The assassination of Rafik Hariri, symptomatic of the clumsy thuggery of the Syrian regime, was a spectacular error (Hariri’s closeness to the Saudi Royal family and also to the French president merely compounding the diplomatic disaster for Damascus). The resulting international pressure forced the Syrians to withdraw precipitously – far more rapidly than the U.S. and Israel had expected.
But the U.S. continued to press, hoping to force Bashar to crack down on men and material crossing to the Iraq insurgency, and also to endure the humiliation of having to close down the offices of Palestinian radical groups in his capital. And curiously enough, this time the U.S. had France in its corner, Paris chagrined by the impertinence of Bashar daring to carry out a hit on one of its friends in a zone the French still consider part of their sphere of influence.
The Mehlis report into Hariri’s killing, in which a UN investigation has now found senior Syrian officials likely complicit in the assassination, might therefore have been welcomed as an opportunity to activate the opening movement of yet another “regime change” symphony – or, at the very least, to impose sanctions designed to further isolate an already fragile regime. Instead, the U.S. and its allies appear to be moving decidedly cautiously. Russia has already indicated it will veto sanctions, but that may not be the only brake on the process: U.S. intelligence has recognized that the toppling of the Assad regime will not only unleash bloody chaos in Syria; it will make life a lot easier for the Iraqi insurgents. In fact, it would merge that insurgency with a Sunni Arab rebellion in Syria, long suppressed with boundless viciousness by the Allawite-minority regime.
The U.S. plainly doesn’t have the means or the stomach for yet another occupation of a large Arab country. And its officials have no faith in the ability of exiled groups to present an effective option to replace the regime. So, while they may loathe Bashar, they don’t see any credible alternative – except, perhaps, some rival general from within the regime who might be willing to string up the Assads in the town square but still keep the regime intact.
In other words, the Bush administration (43) has come full circle to the sober realism of 41. They may not like the regime in Damascus, but it’s an indispensable gendarme, a necessary evil. Still, they’re trying to modify its behavior — make it a more obliging and less uppity gendarme by posturing towards isolation and regime change. Still, such a nuanced game of carefully callibrated moves designed to achieve lesser effects than the rhetoric that accompanies them may suggest could be beyond the capabilities of the current guardians of national security policy in Washington. Combine that with a very insecure, very skittish and equally inept ruling echelon in Damascus, and I fear that despite the best intentions of both sides to avoid a catastrophic confrontation, accidents may still happen.