from Middle East Matters and Middle East Program

How to Help Syria without Intervening Militarily

January 23, 2012

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The Arab League met yesterday to assess its observer mission to Syria so far and to consider further steps. Syria’s reprehensible behavior and the Arab League’s inability to stop it will doubtlessly lead to stepped-up calls for international military intervention. While such calls may be justified, any military intervention in Syria is still a long way off. Few countries are prepared to intervene militarily in Syria, nor are the goals of such military action entirely clear.

Against this backdrop, I’ve just published an article on Fareed Zakaria’s Global Public Square in which I both assess the Arab League’s efforts so far and suggest eight practical steps the international community could adopt short of military intervention. The piece can be found at and is posted below as well.

Danin: How to help Syria without intervening militarily

Editor’s Note: Robert M. Danin is Eni Enrico Mattei Senior Fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is a former Director for the Levant and Israeli-Palestinian Affairs at the National Security Council. 

By Robert M. Danin – Special to CNN

The Arab League’s decision on Sunday to renew its monitors’ mandate consigns Syria to further bloodshed and the pan-Arab body back to its longstanding position of irrelevance. Arab League representatives argue that they’ve ratcheted up the pressure by calling on President Bashar al-Assad to surrender power to a deputy, form a national unity government, and hold multi-party elections. But who can take this call seriously?

Damascus agreed last November to the Arab League’s original plan to pull back its heavy weapons from Syria’s cities, halt attacks on protesters, open talks with the opposition, and allow human rights workers and journalists into Syria. The Syrian regime did little other than let in a fraction of the Arab League monitoring team into the country and restrict their movements. In the one month that those Arab League monitors were in Syria, Assad’s savagery only increased along with the daily rate of Syrians killed.

The Arab League had earlier shown promise with its decisions to request non-Arab engagement in Libya, and then its subsequent decisions to suspending Syria from its body and impose economic sanctions on Damascus. But those sanctions are still largely unimplemented, and the Arab League seems to have lost its resolve. Had it demonstrated courage, the Arab League would have admitted that the monitoring effort was a failure, or put serious muscle behind its actions.

Clearly, that’s what Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal wanted. In response to Sunday’s Arab League decision, Prince Saud announced, “My country will withdraw its monitors because the Syrian government did not execute any of the elements of the Arab League plan.” Instead, Faisal called for the international community to take greater responsibility for countering Assad’s carnage.

Sunday’s Arab League decisions are a profound disappointment to those of us who had hoped that the Arab League was adapting itself to the unrest sweeping the Arab world by making itself responsive to the needs of the Arab people. Instead, the Cairo-based body has reverted back to its traditional form, disconnected from the sentiments of the people it purports to represent. In doing so, the League squandered an opportunity to state honestly that its monitoring mission has only provided additional time and cover for Assad to increase the daily killing of scores upon scores of Syrians. The credibility of this monitoring effort was illustrated by the fact that over twenty of the more than 100 monitors allowed into Syria have resigned out of conscience.

The silver lining in all this is the Arab League’s dismal efforts have drawn attention to a conflict that the international community otherwise seems to want to just go away. The Obama Administration’s high-level inattention towards the bloodshed in Syria is curious, given just how inimical such a posture is to American interests and values.

Syria’s recent unrest has already diminished Damascus’ ability to support terrorists and other retrograde elements - witness Hamas’ move to find safer haven and Iran’s move to step up its direct support for Gaza’s Islamic Jihad given the loss of Syria as a middle-man. With Syria strategically located at the region’s epicenter bordering countries vital to U.S. interests - including Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, Israel, and Lebanon - there is no reason to believe that increased turmoil and instability in Syria will remain contained there.

Bashar al-Assad has a demonstrated record of recklessness and of efforts to export violence, unrest, and subterfuge towards all of these neighbors. For Syria’s neighbors, Bashar is simply an accident waiting to happen. Moreover, with Syria the sole Arab country that has openly and actively facilitated the expansion of Iranian influence into the Arab world, success in rolling that back would be a victory of strategic significance.

No doubt, there are grave risks inherent in the collapse of the Assad regime. Those who back Assad today do so not out of affection or respect for the man or his regime, but out of fear of chaos or an Islamist take-over in Syria. These concerns have some legitimacy. But the status quo in Syria is equally if not more dangerous. The country is clearly sliding into civil war and intense sectarian strife. The stability once offered by the Assad family business has long since ended.

President Obama no doubt understands all this. Otherwise, he would not have long ago crossed the Rubicon by calling - repeatedly - for the Alawite ophthalmologist, Bashar al-Assad, to go. Yet the Administration seems to think this will happen by itself. For months, officials have been saying that Assad’s days were numbered. In early November, Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs, Jeffrey Feltman, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that Assad’s departure was “inevitable.” Yet when Administration officials are asked about timing, their assessments vary widely, ranging from days and weeks to months and years. Indeed, in the long run, all leaders’ days are numbered.

The Istanbul-based Syrian National Council, an umbrella group of oppositionists, asked the Arab League recently to request the United Nations Security Council authorize a no-fly zone over Syria. Even if such a no fly-zone were militarily desirable as a panacea to the ills that plague the Syrian forces fighting to topple the Assad regime - a questionable proposition from a military perspective - the political and diplomatic pieces needed to legitimate and effectuate such an action are a long way off.

The Arab League won’t request it, the Russians are implacably hostile to it, and NATO’s senior military leadership misses no opportunity to articulate its adamant opposition. Syria is not Libya, and even Libya is not looking so great these days. Syria is currently mired in a tragic situation that does not lend itself to a single magic step to end the bloodshed.

That does not mean the situation is impossible or irrevocably in stalemate. The difficulties posed by the Assad regime and its international supporters should not allow the Obama Administration to conclude that nothing can be done. There are a number of things that can be done, short of military intervention, to increase the pressure on Bashar al-Assad, isolate his regime internationally, weaken his base of support in Syria, and help begin to prepare the environment for a post-Assad Syria. What follows are eight steps that the United States and other members of the international community could adopt, well short of military action, to this end:

1. Recall the U.S. Ambassador from Syria.

Washington’s envoy to Damascus, Robert Ford, has been valiant and courageous in his public outreach and his efforts support legitimate protests in Syria. But given the growing illegitimacy of the Assad regime, Ford’s continued presence there makes little sense. It undermines the President’s message that Assad must go. He should be withdrawn. This withdrawal is all the more timely as Washington begs the Syrians to provide adequate security to the U.S. Embassy. The most visible American in Damascus is not necessarily best positioned anymore to have discreet discussions with the Syrian opposition. Other Americans on the ground should do that.

2. Put the Syrian regime on notice that it alone will be held responsible for any harm to American officials in Syria and threaten to close the U.S. Embassy if American officials’ safety and freedom of movement is not guaranteed.

In the past few days, Washington has asked the Syrian government to bolster security around the American compound in Damascus. According to the State Department, the Syrian government is “considering the request.”

This approach is unacceptable. With bombs regularly exploding in Damascus, and the government struggling to create a narrative that the Syrian government is the victim of foreign intrigue, the U.S. has inadvertently put the initiative (and American lives) in the hands of proven killers. It is desirable to keep our embassy open to reach out to opposition elements and civil society. But closing the embassy is far preferable than waiting for the next Syrian rent-a-crowd or bomb to attack American facilities. This has happened several times before in Syria. How long before the Syrians attack again?

3. Create an international Syria contact group or “Friends of Syria” to unite efforts to help the Syrians people, heighten diplomatic pressure on Syria, and prepare for the “day after.”

Such a contact group was remarkably effective in uniting international diplomatic efforts and drawing international attention towards Libya. It could serve to coordinate efforts by those Arab states, like Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Jordan, that have clearly broken with Bashar al-Assad and those in the West, such as France, Britain, and hopefully the U.S. that claim to have done the same.

4. Provide greater support and deploy a senior American official to the Syrian opposition.

The Syrian opposition is clearly fractured along sectarian, ideological, and programmatic lines, not to mention between those located inside the country and those based in neighboring Turkey. Divisions and disorganization is not surprising, given Syria’s heterogeneity and the opposition relatively recent formation. Yet it is unrealistic, if not disingenuous, for foreign governments to withhold support to the opposition until they overcome their differences. Left to their own devices, they will remain divided and unable to reach out to the significant minority groups that remain fearful that a post-Assad Syria will offer them no protections.

Greater organizational and diplomatic support should be provided immediately. While full diplomatic recognition as the sole representative of Syria should be conferred only under the right conditions, in the meantime, the U.S. should take other steps, including sending a full time and visible representative to the Syrian National Council, just as we did when the able diplomat Chris Stevens was assigned to work with the Libyan opposition in Benghazi.

5. Push for an Arms Embargo on Syria.

Russia has brazenly defied calls to halt its arms shipments to the Syrian government and threatened to veto any resolution at the United Nations that calls for an arms embargo. This should not deter efforts to unite the rest of the world around a resolution endorsing an arms embargo, even if in the end Russia is forced to stand alone at the Security Council by casting an embarrassing and indefensible veto.

6. Keep Syria on the Security Council Agenda.

Since at least last October, Russia has agilely stymied efforts to condemn Syria at the United Nations by providing watered down resolutions that create moral equivalencies between the Assad regime and the protesters demonstrating again it. As a corollary to its efforts to impose an arms embargo on Syria, the international community should introduce the harshest possible condemnation of the Syrian government’s reprehensible actions, and then force the Russians to have to stand alone in defending Bashar al-Assad. No doubt gaining unanimity even without Russia and without Arab League endorsement will require scaling back the punitive effect of such a resolution. But even a purely symbolic resolution condemning Syria is important in keeping the international community’s human rights’ compass properly aligned.

7. Tighten sanctions on Syrian government officials and their supporters.

Broad sanctions against Syria are clearly having a devastating impact on the country’s economy. But it is not clear that it is forcing the key pillars of the regime’s support - the army and the Aleppo and Damascene business communities. Designating key individuals who are most critical to supporting Assad’s continued rule would be more effective and less blunt an instrument. These measures would include freezing assets of more senior officials, tightening travel bans on them and their families, encouraging Europe to expand the list of individuals, companies and institutions targeted by European Union sanctions. To date, EU sanctions target 30 entities and 86 Syrian individuals.

8. Initiate steps to indict Bashar al-Assad and his key henchmen at the International Criminal Court.

Syria is not a signatory to the Rome Statute that established the Court in 2002. Nonetheless, Assad’s regime could be held accountable if the Security Council were to ask the ICC’s chief prosecutor to investigate the situation. Such a precedent was set in February 2011 when United Nations Security Council Resolution 1970 referred Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi’s regime to the ICC. Some government officials argue that even Russia and China may be amenable to some action along these lines.

No doubt, there are more steps that governments and institutions can adopt to further pressure and isolate the Assad regime. Government mandarins can and always will provide compelling arguments against taking any given course of action, suggesting that such steps are either bad ideas or have already been tried. That is why senior officials must lead and take difficult decisions.

The current international paralysis and relative silence about Syria, just like the Arab League’s efforts to effectuate change in Syria, will be seen in Damascus as either a sign of weakness or a tacit if uncomfortable preference for the status quo. Changing that perception is necessary to forcing real behavior change, if not regime change, in Syria. Yet that perception can only be changed through serious, concerted, and ongoing high-level international attention. It was once called diplomacy.

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