from From the Potomac to the Euphrates and Middle East Program

Syria, Iran, and Losing a Strategic Opportunity

May 3, 2011

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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

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Boys hold a banner during a demonstration in the the Syrian port city of Banias (STR New/Courtesy Reuters)

Everything that has been said about Osama bin Laden’s demise has already been said and will likely be said again and again.  It is an important symbolic moment and a tremendous relief to many people, but it is unfortunately not going to alter the threat of transnational terrorism and it will likely not have an impact on U.S. policy in the Middle East.  Speaking of which, I do not understand U.S. policy on Syria.  What exactly is the Obama administration’s goal?  Unless I am missing something, Washington has taken a relatively softer position on Bashar al Assad than certainly Muammar Qadhafi or even Hosni Mubarak.  Why?  It might have something to do with the peace process and the belief that Assad remains a critical link in the search for peace, or concern that instability in Syrian will have a negative effect on Lebanon and Iraq.  Perhaps the administration’s approach to Assad is the very definition of “leading from behind,” hoping that Syrians dislodge the regime without much help from Washington and others.

If these are, in fact, the reasons, Washington may be missing an important strategic opportunity.  After all, with Bashar and the Alawi power structure gone, it is unlikely that the Damascus-Tehran axis would survive. This would be a major blow to Iranian ambitions.  The end of the Assad regime would effectively shut down the channel through which Tehran plays in the broader arena of Middle Eastern politics, supporting Hizballah, Hamas, and placing traditional U.S. allies like Saudi Arabia and Jordan on the defensive.  To be sure, Iran would still be able to influence events in the region, but losing Syria would make it a lot harder.  The Syrian-Iranian relationship made sense three decades ago when Ayatollah Khomeini posed a challenge to Saddam Hussein—a sworn enemy of Hafiz al Assad.  Under Bashar, the relationship continued to serve Damascus’ interests even as Tehran has developed good ties with post-Saddam Baghdad.  Yet under new Syrian leaders—likely from the Sunni majority—it would make no sense at all to line up with the Iranians.  What possible interest could Tehran serve?  Iran no longer acts as a balancer to rival Iraq, Damascus would be able to acquire oil and financial resources elsewhere, and the end of the Syrian-Iranian special relationship would make it more likely that the Israelis agree to withdraw from the Golan Heights.

The tough question is:  How does the United States help bring about the end of the Assad regime?  Washington certainly isn’t going to take military action (though the Libya no-fly zone and the related military operation established a precedent the administration is apparently loath to acknowledge).  It would not hurt for Washington to sharpen its public position; instead of calling on Assad “to change course,” it would be more effective if President Obama stated that the Syrian leader “must go now” and that the United States stands with the Syrian people in their effort to throw off a brutal dictatorship.  The administration could also seek broader sanctions beyond what they implemented on April 29th.  Why not go to the UN and send emissaries from the Department of Treasury to reluctant countries to pressure them to cut the Syrians off?  I hear the guffaws from some of my friends and colleagues already, but it is not necessarily the efficacy of sanctions that is important, but the very fact that Washington would be calling for countries to turn up the heat on the Syrians.  The United States can’t bring Assad down, but it can do everything in its power to help create an environment that is conducive to that outcome.

Some observers argue that Assad’s fall would usher in a new, nastier dictatorship or generalized instability. Those are certainly risks, but it seems the potential for isolating Iran—a primary policy goal of the United States since the 1980s—is worth it.  My colleague, Ed Husain, who has spent far more time in Syria than me claims that Assad is more popular than I suggest and Damascus may choose a strategic relationship with Tehran, even if Assad goes.  I’ll give Ed a chance to respond, but the growing unrest in the country over the past seven weeks and the leadership’s response to it suggests that the defenders of the regime are worried, which is a pretty good indicator of how Assad calculates his relative popularity.  I find it hard to believe that a new Syrian leader would want to throw in his lot with the Iranians rather than return to the Arab fold and the likely Saudi goodies that go along with this new posture.

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