Posted on August 22, 2011 in Washington Watch
For months now, the world has witnessed an acceleration of deadly violence in Syria, as the Assad government has resorted to increasingly brutal methods in an effort to smash a mass uprising in the country. While the government maintains that it has offered the protesters a range of reform proposals, their heavy-handed and lethal repression of largely peaceful demonstrations has called into question the seriousness of their intention to change their approach to governance. Negotiations between the regime and the opposition leading to a transition to democracy may have been possible at one point, but given the harshness of the government's behavior, that moment has long passed. As a result, the protesters have sharpened their resolve, now demanding that the regime be toppled. This, in turn, has brought on even more repression.
The images of tens and hundreds of thousands bravely confronting tanks, troops and snipers has been inspiring. Just as the resiliency and courage of the Syrian people have been a wonder to behold, the stubborn pathology of the regime has been confounding. The current path being pursued by the government is a dead end, and yet they have steadfastly rebuffed all appeals to change direction, even those coming from formerly friendly states. As one Lebanese leftist analyst put it, "the regime is committing suicide."
Our concern for Syria is heightened by the fact that while the regime has lost all legitimacy, the country's fragmented opposition is not in a position to govern and ensure the safety, security and basic rights of the Syrian people. Particularly worrisome is the situation of vulnerable minority religious and ethnic communities and large populations of Palestinians and Iraqis who have found refuge in Syria. Many feel that they may now be at risk of an Iraq-like scenario playing out in the country. This fear of an unknown future is the last card the regime can still play, allowing it to hold onto the support of some segments of Syrian society.
This violence and repression have gone on too long and there are dangerous signs that should they continue, the situation may spin further out of control, with lawlessness, calls for revenge and sectarian violence growing. While this, too, has been a mantra of the regime, there should be no mistaking the fact that the current state of affairs is due to the behavior of the regime itself: its egotistical self-absorption; its deafness to the cries of its people; its brutality; and its history of refusing to allow any real independent political institutions to develop in the country.
This week President Obama took the step of declaring that President Assad should "step aside" and "get out of the way" of a transition in Syria. He coupled this with "unprecedented sanctions to deepen the financial isolation of the regime." Shortly thereafter his efforts were matched with similar moves by many European allies. While some hawks here in Washington have criticized the administration for not acting sooner and not doing more, they are dead wrong.
The Obama administration's policy to date has largely been appropriate. America can ratchet up pressure, impose sanctions, speak out in defense of freedom and political rights, and coordinate strategies with allies, but we should not assume that America can play a broader role by directly intervening. After two reckless and failed wars in the region, and our history of callous disregard for Palestinian rights, the U.S. is not in a position to lead in Syria. Most Syrians (and most Arabs, in general) would reject such a U.S. role.
I wish that an easy solution or path forward were apparent. It is not. What is clear, however, is that the situation in Syria has reached the point where the Arab World can and must respond. It is unacceptable for the current situation to go unchecked and equally problematic for Arabs to remain silent and appear powerless while mass atrocities continue to be committed.
Back when the Arab League suspended Libya's membership, I wondered whether any other Arab government would ever pursue policies so reprehensible that they would follow suit and become a pariah state. It appears that the regime in Damascus has done just that.
The Arab League should make it clear that the Assad regime has lost whatever legitimacy it once claimed in the Arab World and promptly suspend its membership in the organization, declaring that the regime has forfeited the right to play a role in Syria's and the region's future. While this step will not, by itself, bring about either an end to the violence or pave the way for a managed transition of power, it will further isolate and expose the regime. And because the current opposition is not ready to take control of the country, the Arab League could join with Turkey in convening a conference of Syrian stakeholders to help prepare them for transition, offering to provide the resources and hands-on support for this transition. It is especially important that in convening this conference an effort be made to involve all segments of Syrian society, creating a national dialogue that will assure religious and ethnic minorities that their rights as equal citizens in the Syria of tomorrow are secure.
Some worry that steps of this sort may embolden Iran to play a more active and supportive role in Syria. But Iran and its surrogates are already backing and investing in the regime. It is Syria's people who have no regional patron. They need a strong and dramatic display of support from their Arab brethren. And the sooner they receive the support and backing they deserve, the better.