Assad’s ouster is not enough: Syrian democracy is needed to turn the Arab Spring in America’s favour

In the Syrian tragedy is an opportunity. By promoting a political transition in Syria, the US can help put the Arab Spring back on track toward democratic consolidation in the greater Middle East

Protesters stand on an image of Assad's face in Syria
Pratik Chougule
On 7 March 2012 09:19

Over a year into the Arab Spring, there is little guarantee that the tumult in the Middle East will break in the United States’ favour.

Four regimes have fallen – all were secular and aligned, to varying degrees, with the US against terrorism. Islamism and instability are among the postwar victors. Should the monarchy fall in Bahrain, a new Shiite government may send the Fifth Fleet packing, shifting the balance of power toward Iran. Nor has the Arab Spring rocked the Iranian regime even amid crippling international sanctions and sabotage operations.

But the unrest in Syria provides a strategic opening for the US. By supporting democracy in Syria, the US can oust a key regional adversary while shifting the momentum of the Arab Spring behind the region’s liberal reformers.

In Syria, the US faces little dilemma between its values and interests. The Assad regime is not only a butcher of its own people, it stands as a cornerstone of the region’s authoritarian order and as a threat to core US interests. If Iran is the “most active state sponsor of terrorism,” Syria is its loyal, if craftier, sidekick.

Assad’s ouster alone would be a strategic gain for the US. But if the US hopes to turn the regime’s fall into a broader paradigm shift in the Arab Spring, the dictator’s fall alone will not be enough. The aftermath must result in the emergence of an inclusive, liberal democracy.

The likely alternatives to Syrian democracy would have negative reverberations throughout the region. Civil war could create vacuums for al Qaeda and other terrorist networks; sectarian violence would ignite proxy warfare between Shiites and Sunnis, which could spill into the Levant and the Gulf; a Sunni-dominated regime could encourage reprisals against the Alawis, Kurds, Christians, and other stakeholders in the previous regime; a coup – “Assadism without Assad” – would neither appease the protests nor shift the balance of power against the Iran.

All of these scenarios would deter democrats throughout the region who would calculate that the status quo is more tolerable than the destabilizing alternatives. Globally, backers of the current regional order – Iran, Russia and China – would be vindicated at the expense of the US and its broad but tenuous coalition of reformist partners.

Democratization in Syria will require a comprehensive US strategy involving four facets – military, political, regional, and international. Now that President Obama has called for Assad’s ouster, American credibility demands that the US help the opposition topple the regime. As an initial step, the US should provide the opposition with humanitarian relief and defensive materiel such as anti-tank weapons that would not pose a risk to Israel, Iraq, or other US allies should they fall into the wrong hands.

If the stalemate continues, the US should enforce a no-fly zone, protect fortified safe havens near the Turkish and Jordanian borders, and wage an air campaign against regime military targets. Heavier arms should be transferred only to like-minded rebel groups, which appear to comprise elements of the Free Syrian Army and some other independent brigades. The US can lay the groundwork for a stable political transition by promoting a broad-based government-in-exile.

Managing sectarian politics will pose the greatest challenge given Assad’s strategy of coopting Shiites, Christians, and Kurds against the Sunni majority. The Syrian National Council has made progress in functioning as a legitimate authority, but it remains too beholden to Turkish and Saudi-backed Islamists. Kurdish leaders – who have formed their own council in Erbil – appear close to a breakthrough with the SNC, but face pressure from Iran not to join the opposition. In addition to the Kurds, the US should condition recognition of the SNC on its integrating Alawis, Christian groups, military defectors, and liberals. The SNC also must resolve lingering differences with the FSA and deliver services to the population in liberated areas.

The US should help facilitate an inclusive coalition through energetic diplomacy as well as through covert and psychological operations.

US leadership is needed to prevent the Syrian crisis from turning into a regional war. The US should introduce and escalate punitive measures against Iran and Hezbollah so long as they continue to meddle in Syria. And, while coalescing a “Friends of Syria” group, the US should pressure regional allies like Saudi Arabia and Qatar on two fronts. First, they should increase oil production to keep Syrian instability from harming the global market. Second, their assistance must not be allocated disproportionately to Islamist and sectarian elements of the opposition.

Lastly, the US should build international consensus behind Syrian democracy. US diplomacy should focus not only on securing a broad coalition behind intervention, but also on formulating a strategic, adequately resourced plan for nation-building after the regime’s overthrow. Several non-aligned movement democracies have broken with past tradition to vote in favour of intervention at the UN. The US should exploit this potential alliance with rising democracies by working with these states to stabilize the Syrian economy and put Damascus on a path to democratic consolidation.

With regards to Russia and China, the US should deliver a clear ultimatum: while the US will accommodate reasonable economic interests, continued meddling on behalf of the Assad regime will be met with a campaign to isolate Moscow and Beijing in coordination with the broad coalition of states that sided with the US on the last UN vote.

In the Syrian tragedy is an opportunity. By promoting a political transition in Syria, the US can help put the Arab Spring back on track toward democratic consolidation in the greater Middle East.

Pratik Chougule served at the State Department in the George W. Bush Administration

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