Syria ill-equipped to deal with increasing political and diplomatic pressure

Developing Just Leadership

Abbas Fadl Murtada

Ramadan 28, 1426 2005-11-01

Occupied Arab World

by Abbas Fadl Murtada (Occupied Arab World, Crescent International Vol. 34, No. 9, Ramadan, 1426)

Watching the US's increasing pressure on Syria, it is difficult to escape the feeling of history repeating itself. The parallels with the feverish swirl of diplomatic manoeuvres that built up to the US-led war against Iraq are inescapable. That Syria finds itself increasingly locked in America's crosshairs has become clear since the assassination on February 14 of Rafik Hariri, the late former prime minister of Lebanon.

Pressures on Syria came to a head with the release on October 20 of the results of the UN investigation into the assassination of Hariri, in the form of a report. Led by German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis, the probe has made a connection between top Syrian and Lebanese intelligence officials and the assassination, which it said was carried out by an Iraqi suicide bomber: he was misled into believing that Hariri's motorcade was that of former Iraqi prime minister Iyad Allawi, who was visiting Beirut at the time. Although the report failed to connect all the dots and stopped short of pointing the finger explicitly at Syrian president Bashshar al-Asad or his inner circle, it implicated members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command, a pro-Syrian Palestinian group that is led by Ahmad Jibril, in the killing: these PFLP-GC members allegedly cooperated with Lebanese and Syrian security officials in preparations for the truck-bombing that killed Hariri and some 20 others. The report says that “many leads point directly towards Syrian security officials as being involved in the assassination”. It also claims that Syrian officials failed to cooperate with the investigation. “While Syrian authorities have cooperated to a limited degree … several [Syrian] interviewees tried to mislead the investigation,” the report reads. One example in the report to support this assertion is a “letter addressed to the commission by the foreign minister of the Syrian ArabRepublic [which] proved to contain false information”.

In their effort to put events that led to Hariri's killing into context, the report's writers have at best fallen into the temptation of highly conjectural arguments, instead of preferring to rely on hard evidence. For instance, the report argues that: “There is probable cause to believe that the decision to assassinate … could not have been taken without the approval of top-ranked Syrian security officials and could not have been further organized without the collusion of their counterparts in the Lebanese security services.” In a similar vein, it also states that, “Given the infiltration of Lebanese institutions and society by the Syrian and Lebanese intelligence services working in tandem, it would be difficult to envisage a scenario whereby such a complex assassination plot could have been carried out without their knowledge.” The logical structure of such a line of argument is very weak. It leaves no room for the possibility of intelligence failures, undisciplined security officials carrying out operations without referring to their chain of command, or simply the ability of criminals, terrorists and urban guerrillas to exploit weaknesses in law-enforcement to their advantage. If we accept the validity of the report's specious logic, then security apparatuses the world over must be blamed for assassinations and other sophisticated terrorist operations or criminal activities taking place in their respective countries. The logical conclusion of this reasoning is to blame the US security and law-enforcement agencies for the attacks on the WTC and the Pentagon in September 2001.

Even before the report was issued, it was widely believed that Washington would not let Damascus off the hook even if the Mehlis report did not implicate Syria directly. America has long made public its interest in curbing Syria's regional influence. The series of events set off by the death of Hariri, carefully and cunningly exploited by the US and France to isolate Syriadiplomatically, has pushed Damascus further into the political wilderness than at any time in its modern history. The wave of diplomatic pressure has forced Asad to order the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon, where Syria was the dominant military and political force for nearly three decades.

The US and France are now exploiting Syria's increased isolation to push for tough new international sanctions against Damascus. They want two UN Security Council resolutions, not only to impose economic sanctions for allegedly smuggling weapons to pro-Syrian factions in Palestinian camps inside Lebanon but also to extend the UN investigation into Hariri's murder to include decisions about the next steps to be taken against Syria. US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice has paved the way for this process with a diplomatic offensive. As she touredEurope and Central Asia last month, Rice repeatedly brought up Syria's alleged role in allowing foreign fighters into Iraq and in Hariri's murder.

Officials in the US government can choose from several possible courses of action to deal with Syria. These options range from “low-end” scenarios, such as increased diplomatic and economic pressure aimed at forcing Damascus to change its ways over key regional issues such as Palestine, Iraq and Lebanon, to “high-end” scenarios involving military action. One scenario in this matrix of options that has gained prominence in the discussions of Arab analysts is what might be called the “Iraqi option”. This involves concerted and internationally-sanctioned military action against Syria, aimed at either overthrowing the regime directly or at further weakening its grip on power in order to precipitate a general uprising. An indication that this option is on the minds of US policymakers emerged during a hearing on October 19, which had been called by the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee to discuss American strategy in Iraq. Pressed by senators about whether the US government is considering military strikes against Syria, Rice did not rule out the military option, saying: “The president never takes any option off the table and he shouldn't.”

A full-scale ground campaign against Syria, similar to the one that toppled the Iraqi Ba’athist regime in 2003, seems unlikely at this stage. The ability of the US to implement this option is restricted by the lack of international diplomatic support for another Iraq-like adventure. Moreover, the US's freedom to utilize its military muscle for another full-blown ground invasion is constrained by the fact that the increasing costs of its military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan are already pushing US public tolerance of such large-scale adventures to its limits. Add to that the severe US military overstretch resulting from the deployment of large numbers of troops in the Iraqi and Afghani theatres, and it becomes clear that a large-scale US-led military action against Syria is unlikely.

America's second-best military option is to apply its air power. This would involve a concerted campaign of air-strikes against Syria's air force, air defence facilities, troop concentrations, key command-and-control facilities, and internal security and intelligence services. The goal would be to inflict a humiliating military defeat on the Syrian military and intelligence services, and demoralize the regime's supporters in order to lay the groundwork for the overthrow of Asad.

But air-strikes as a military course of action suffer from strategic disadvantages. Air campaigns by themselves cannot be aimed at specified objectives. Their ability to cripple the internal security apparatus that keeps a regime in power is not certain. Moreover, their effect can be limited by a well-planned dispersal strategy, whereby arsenals, military hardware and troops are spread in many facilities and locations across the country. If such a strategy were adopted by the Syrians, it would make it very difficult for air strikes to inflict debilitating costs on the Syrian military. The US's so-called “pinprick” strikes proved useless to destroy Saddam's conventional capabilities in the 1990s. In Syria the Asad regime, with its wider base of popular support and a largely anti-American public, might prove much more resilient than the Saddam regime did in the face of a targeted air campaign.

True to its name, should the “Iraqi option” succeed in toppling the Syrian regime it could result in a catastrophic repetition in post-Asad Syria of the current situation in post-Saddam Iraq. There is no guarantee that the dust of war in Syria will settle to the US's advantage. It is also very likely that in the ensuing widespread chaos and low-intensity resistance, Syria would be engulfed by al-Qa‘ida-like or al-Qa‘ida-affiliated activists. Such chaos could spread like forestfire throughout the region. As Syria shares borders with both occupied Palestine and occupiedIraq, the kind of violence that has thus far mainly affected Iraq could spread throughout the Middle East, with Israel feeling at least ripples of the increasing chaos.

This possibility makes the “Iraq option” less appealing to US decision-makers. Another option is to find a military strongman who is capable of pulling off a military coup that removes Asad and his inner circle, but keeps the Syrian state intact and averts another Iraq-like mess. The new regime would be granted economic assistance and rehabilitated politically in return for concessions with respect to Lebanon, Palestine and Iraq. Yet the prospect of a successful military coup is thin, considering the efficiency with which the Ba'athist regime has been able to maintain a strong grip on power in the country by a combination of fear, coercion and patronage. Fears of harsh retribution for decades of abuse, and of the loss of privileges if they lose their power, will prompt the Ba'athist elites and their associates in Syria to rally to protect the regime. So as long as the internal security apparatus and Ba'athist elites remain intact and loyal to Asad, coup attempts are most likely to fail.

Parallel to the difficulties involved in organizing a successful military coup, there are also difficulties involved in promoting regime-change by providing support (either covert, overt or both) to opposition groups to challenge the Asad regime. Indeed, there has already been open discussion in some US thinktanks, including the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, about measures to weaken Asad's grip on political power by funneling money to non-governmental organizations in Syria. In March a bill was introduced in the US House of Representatives that called for “assistance to support a transition to democracy in Syria and restoration of sovereign democratic governance in Lebanon”. This would exploit the existing hatred and resentment of the Syrian regime that have resulted from decades of internal repression and economic suffering, as well as pent-up feelings of disillusionment and failed promise surrounding Bashshar al-Asad. Nevertheless, like the former Iraqi opposition to the deposed Saddam regime, the Syrian opposition is weak and fragmented, and lacks significant popular support and credibility in the country. The only exception to this state of affairs is the Ikhwan (Muslim Brotherhood), which is not acceptable to the US government. In addition, the decidedly anti-American Syrian public is highly sensitive to the idea of political change with outside help, which they would regard as interference, whether it were American or not.

Given the very low prospect of success for regime-change, and the high costs that would be incurred, the US government finds itself trying to change the Syrian regime's 'behaviour' by other, non-military means such as diplomatic and economic pressure. The recent joint American-French attempt to lobby support for UN resolutions imposing sanctions on Syria can be aptly described as the “Libyan option”, in reference to Libyan leader Mu'ammar Qaddafi's concessions in return for the lifting of sanctions on Libya. Accordingly, the sanctions are not designed to overthrow the Asad regime but to make it yield to the US's demands.

Yet sanctions are not likely to produce quick results. As shown by Iraq, sanctions can actually contribute to the survival of a regime rather than its demise. Besides, sanctions tend to erode over time. It is extremely difficult to focus sanctions on a government, so sanctions tend to affect oridinary people instead of the political elite.

Asad may soon find himself walking a very narrow tightrope. He cannot be seen to offer too many concessions that are unlikely to be reciprocated by the West. Any free concessions on his part would lead to pressure on him from the Syrian old guard. Sanctions might also have a boomerang effect. Asad is not likely to stand idly by while America increases its diplomatic and economic pressures on Syria. Iraq is a potential wild card in Asad's hands: Syria could take carefully calculated measures to make life more difficult for US troops in Iraq by lifting the lid on military supplies and fighters crossing the border, while at the same time avoiding a full-blown confrontation with the US military.

So, as tensions continue to escalate between Syria and the US, no easy way out looms on the horizon. For all the bombastic rhetoric of the neo-conservatives in the US government, Syriapresents US decision-makers with a dilemma involving daunting risks and challenges. Much like the difficulties posed by the Saddam regime to the US's policymakers, and the aftermath of its fall, Washington is finding out that if living with the Asad regime is difficult enough, living without it could be even harder.

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