Syria: U.S. Policy Options

Syria: U.S. Policy Options

The United States has long tried to compel Syria to adjust its behavior, but rarely with any result. This backgrounder examines the current U.S. policy options toward Syria.

Last updated September 15, 2006 8:00 am (EST)

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Bush administration officials rarely bestow kind words on the authoritarian regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. But after Syrian security forces repelled a September 12 attack on the U.S. embassy in Damascus, several members of the administration offered their praise. Among these was White House Press Secretary Tony Snow, who was quick to add: “The next step is for Syria to play a constructive role in the war on terror, stop harboring terrorist groups, stop being an agent in fomenting terror, and work with us to fight against terror as Libya has done.” But convincing Syria to do these things has long vexed U.S. policymakers.

The United States has censured Assad’s government for suppressing internal dissent, permitting Islamist fighters to cross its border into Iraq, supplying arms to Hezbollah, and continuing to otherwise interfere in the affairs of Lebanon. Syria occupied Lebanon for twenty-nine years, but after the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2004, massive public and international protests forced Damascus to withdraw its troops in April. An ongoing UN investigation has linked Syria to Hariri’s death.

As the recent war between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon demonstrated, Syria’s conduct is critically important to U.S. prospects for Middle East stability and progress toward an Israeli-Palestinian peace. Experts say U.S. policy options toward Syria include selective engagement, isolating the regime, and pushing for regime change.

What are the U.S. policy options for Syria?

The United States has censured the authoritarian regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for suppressing internal dissent, permitting Islamist fighters to cross its border into Iraq, and continuing to interfere in the affairs of Lebanon. Syria occupied Lebanon for 29 years before massive public and international protests forced Damascus to withdraw its troops in April. Syria’s location makes it critically important to U.S. prospects for Middle East democratization and progress toward an Israeli-Palestinian peace. Experts say U.S. policy options toward Syria include selective engagement, isolating the regime, and pushing for regime change.

How would each of these strategies work?

  • Selective engagement, also known as the carrot-and-stick approach, means the United States would impose costs—including targeted sanctions—on Assad if he does not cooperate with the United States, and deliver benefits to the regime if he does. Carrots to Assad could include an offer of U.S. expertise to help reform the economy and increased U.S. attention to Syrian-Israeli negotiations on the disputed Golan Heights region, writes Flynt Leverett, a Middle East analyst for the New America Foundation, in his book Inheriting Syria: Bashar’s Trial by Fire. Dennis Ross, the Clinton administration’s Middle East envoy and a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, began advocating engagement in the wake of the most recent war between Israel and Hezbollah. Diplomats should “make [it] clear that Syria has something significant to lose by not cutting off Hezbollah, and that it has something meaningful to gain from changing course,” Ross writes in the Washington Post.   
  • Isolating the regime is a strategy advocated by some experts, including Michael Young, opinion editor for Lebanon’s Daily Star, who writes, “History has shown that engaging this Syrian regime is a waste of time.” Young says Assad has little interest in helping the United States foster regional stability, as ongoing regional violence helps justify the severe security apparatus with which he maintains his hold on power. Futhermore, “Granting Damascus a reprieve from its well-deserved international isolation would undermine what remains of U.S. credibility with Syrian reformers and Lebanese democrats,” writes David Schenker,a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Some advocates of isolating Syria seem to be holding out hope that the ongoing UN investigation into the Hariri assassination will condemn and possibly bring down Assad’s regime.
  • Regime change is advocated by those who believe the dangers of maintaining Assad’s Syria outweigh the risks of toppling it. Regime-change advocates fall into two camps: those who hope to encourage a violent or non-violent rebellion against Assad within Syria, and those who believe U.S. troops could or should help topple Assad. Though he does not advocate a U.S. invasion, Max Boot, CFR senior fellow for national security studies, says Israel should consider attacking Syria. “History suggests that only force, or the threat of force, can win substantial concessions from Syria,” Boot writes in the Los Angeles Times. Others advocating Syrian regime change point to allegations by U.S. and Israeli officials that in the weeks prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Syria allowed Saddam to hide his chemical weapons on its territory. Of the three U.S. policy options, many experts say this is the least likely to become the guiding paradigm. “Given what’s happening in Iraq, I’m not sure the administration is willing to instigate regime change at this moment,” says Emile el-Hokayem, a Middle East security analyst at the Henry L. Stimson Center in Washington, a nonprofit organization dedicated to enhancing international peace and security. In his book, Leverett argues that pursuing military-led regime change in Syria would severely strain American forces and fan anti-American sentiment in the Arab and Muslim worlds.

Which strategy is the United States currently using?

For the most part, the Bush administration is trying to isolate the regime. There is communication between Washington and Damascus, but the only real diplomacy on Washington’s part consists of calls for reform and threats of repercussions if Damascus refuses to cooperate. “It seems the administration is using a lot of sticks, but not providing a road map for how [Syria] can get out of its predicament,” says Edward M. Gabriel, President of the American Task Force for Lebanon.

Leverett writes in The American Prospect that what the United States really wants is regime change in Syria, which it hopes to achieve through “diplomatic isolation and political pressure.” Others say the United States and its allies are ambivalent about regime change, especially given the instability of the region. Experts also disagree on the extent of leverage the United States has over Assad, and whether Assad has sufficient power internally to respond to U.S. prodding. “How much the United States can pressure Syria at the moment is up to discussion,” says Hokayem.

Does the United States impose sanctions against Syria?

Yes. Syria has been subject to sanctions since 1979, when it was one of the first countries on the U.S. list of states that support terrorism. In December 2003 President George W. Bush signed the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act (PDF) into law, which levied additional sanctions against Syria. The new restrictions, which went into effect in May 2004, include freezing Syrian assets in U.S. banks, banning commercial flights between Syria and the United States, and restricting the movement of Syrian diplomats in the United States. U.S. exports to Syria, except food and medicine for humanitarian purposes, were also banned. Experts say it’s difficult to tell what effect, if any, the added sanctions have had on altering Syria’s behavior. “The risk is that they [could make Syria’s behavior] get worse,” says Daniel Byman, associate professor at Georgetown University.

What has Assad’s reaction been to U.S. pressure?

Bashar al-Assad depicts his policies as reformist but argues he must go slowly to prevent societal upheaval. In a 2005 interview with the New York Times Magazine, Assad says he is consolidating power and removing members of his father’s old guard to prepare eventually for the day he can be peacefully voted out of office. He says his government has arrested more than 1,500 extremists trying to cross the border with Iraq, and further, Syria has repeatedly offered to cooperate with the United States on intelligence and border-control issues. “The situation today…is…definitely not the same [as it was 10 years ago],” Assad told the magazine. “So it’s a road. You should walk the road. They want us to jump. But if you jump, you will fall on your head.” Assad also said he is focusing on economic change before political reform. Gabriel, who has met Assad several times, says the president “genuinely believes in modernizing Syria and bringing it to join the community of nations.” The problem, Gabriel says, is that Assad, who is forty-one, is still learning to be a decisive leader, and that the reforms he presents as a “continual evolution of change” may not come fast enough.

How strong is Assad’s regime?

“The Syrian regime is profoundly fragile,” says Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. The western-educated Assad (he did his ophthalmology residency in a London hospital) was greeted with reformist hopes when he took over power from his father, Hafez al-Assad, in June 2000. Among his first actions was fostering the opening of salons encouraging political debate, leading to a brief period of free speech called the “Damascus Spring.” However, critics call him an upstart lacking authority, charisma, and experience, and in early 2001, entrenched regime elements forced him to clamp down on the salons. Many of those who had criticized the regime were arrested. Experts say Assad’s efforts to open Syrian society and improve the country’s image around the world have failed. “After nearly five years in power…Bashar al-Assad has exhibited neither the strength nor calculating ability of his father (PDF),” Ross wrote in the Summer 2005 issue of Washington Quarterly.

How has Assad handled foreign crises?

Especially since Israel’s July 2006 invasion of Lebanon, Assad has aligned Syria closely with Iran and Hezbollah, even signing a mutual defense pact with Tehran. This has helped buttress him against the political pressure on Damascus, but may have backed Syria into a corner while providing ammunition to advocates of isolation or regime change within the United States.

Prior to the war in Lebanon, Assad’s record was dismal. Bashar “achieved a stunning degree of incompetence,” Satloff says. Syria was one of the strongest opponents of the Iraq war and openly rooted for the United States to fail there. At one point, Assad declared Arab friendship with the United States was “more fatal than its hostility.” During the buildup to the war, Syria reportedly sent weapons to Saddam Hussein’s regime and allowed foreign fighters to gather in Damascus en route to fight U.S. troops in Iraq. Experts say Assad misread the depth of U.S. commitment to the war on terror, and made a tactical error in defying the United States at a critical time.

On Lebanon, experts say Assad’s mishandling of the political situation caused Damascus to lose a prized strategic possession it had held for nearly three decades. “Bashar has achieved single-handedly what many people have worked very hard on for years: the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon without a single shot,” Satloff says.

Who else is vying for power in Syria?

Loyalists of the late Hafez al-Assad, who ruled with an iron fist from 1970-2000, are reluctant to relinquish power to his inexperienced son. This group includes the heads of the country’s army and security services, both of whom, like the Assad family, are members of the minority Alawite sect of Shiite Islam, which makes up about 10 percent of the population. It also includes political bosses, entrenched bureaucrats, and other members of the Baath Party, which has ruled Syria for more than thirty years.

Syria has a number of secular and religious opposition groups who wish to see the end of the Assad regime. These groups are outlawed—their leaders live outside Syria in exile—and the degree of support they draw inside Syria cannot possibly be determined. Prominent among these is the Muslim Brotherhood, which has long opposed the Syrian leadership, but less so since 1982, when an insurrection in the city of Hama was harshly put down by the Syrian military. In a 2005 interview, Syrian Muslim Brotherhood exiled leader Ali Sadreddine Bayanouni said of the Syria’s government, “A minority elite has seized a state and is oppressing the majority.”

What is the extent of Syrian support for terror?

 “Twenty-five years ago, you’d see direct Syrian involvement in terrorist acts,” Byman says. “Now it’s much more subtle.” Although Syrian agents are suspected in the high-profile car bomb assassinations of Hariri and other Lebanese opponents, Syrian policy on terrorism now is generally what Byman calls “passive support.” Still, Syria remains on the U.S. State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism because it allows extremist groups to have offices in Damascus and keeps control of its borders lax enough that jihadis can use the country as a transit station to Iraq. Syrian officials have publicly condemned terrorism, which they distinguish from the “legitimate armed resistance” of many Palestinian groups.

During the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, Syria was widely accused of being the primary transit hub for munitions bound for Hezbollah. For this reason, the UN force in Lebanon is trying to police the Syria-Lebanon border, something to which Assad has voiced loud opposition.

What problems does Assad face at home?

A host of major issues: a soaring birth rate, economic stagnation, rampant unemployment, and growing poverty. The country’s unemployment rate is estimated at between 20 and 25 percent, and more than 60 percent of its population is under the age of twenty. Thousands of the roughly 250,000 Syrians who were working in Lebanon have been expelled since the end of April, reports say, depriving their families of income. Syria’s socialist-based, centrally controlled economy is faltering. In addition, Syria has its own ethnic tensions. Strained relations between Kurds—who make up about 10 percent of the population—and the police erupted into violence in March 2004. Assad’s government also has to worry about the influence of Sunni Islamists in a country where Sunnis make up some 75 percent of the population. Sunni extremists attacked the UN headquarters in Damascus in April 2004, killing four, in what experts say was seen as both an assault on the West and an attempt to destabilize Assad’s regime.

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