from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

Syria: Realpolitik or Folly?

July 1, 2011

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

In the last week the news has brought reports of additional repression in Syria, and of the American response: to urge Syrian dissidents to negotiate with the Assad regime.

This Washington Post account describes typical events on the ground in Syria:

“Around 100 peaceful protesters calling for freedom were met with police and baton-wielding security forces Thursday at Damascus University.  Students gathered outside the faculty of economics in the Baramkeh area of Damascus minutes after 3pm today calling for freedom. Dozens more students joined together with the small group as the chanting became more forceful. One female protester managed to unfurl a flag before police and security forces charged on the crowd.”

On June 23, the New York Times reported that “Syrian forces backed by snipers and tanks stormed into the border town of Khirbet al-Jouz…sending hundreds of refugees fleeing to Turkey from the informal camp where they had sought shelter from a violent crackdown on protests in the country’s rural northwest.”

The Assad regime has adopted a diplomatic and propaganda plan so clear in its duplicity that I had assumed no one would fall for it. While the killing and jailing continue, the regime has also allowed one single meeting of dissidents in Damascus. In response, according to the Guardian newspaper in London, “The US is pushing the Syrian opposition to maintain dialogue with Bashar al-Assad’s regime as details emerge of a controversial ’roadmap’ for reforms that would leave him in power for now despite demands for his overthrow during the country’s bloody three-month uprising.”

The Guardian account continues: “Quiet US interest in the roadmap dovetails with public demands from Washington that Assad reform or step down. Robert Ford, the US ambassador, has been urging opposition figures to talk to the regime, said Radwan Ziadeh, a leading exile, who insisted the strategy would not work. ‘They are asking Bashar to lead the transition and this is not acceptable to the protesters,’ he said. ‘It is too late.’”

The State Department denies that it is pushing the opposition into compromising its objectives and principles, but the Guardian then reports this: “A state department spokesman said: ‘We are encouraging genuine dialogue between the opposition and the regime but we are not promoting anything. We want to see a democratic Syria but this is in the hands of the Syrian people.’”

So, it is in the hands of the Syrians—but just in case they don’t get the message it is again clarified: the United States wants the regime to talk, not to fall. In recent trips to the Middle East and in conversations with Arab democracy activists, I have often been asked why the United States is backing Bashar. After months of denying it, I can only conclude they were right. How else can one read these news reports?

It is not possible to have “genuine dialogue” with a regime that has murdered roughly fourteen hundred peaceful protesters, jailed up to ten thousand more, and continues to shoot and imprison anyone it pleases. The American call for such “dialogue” is an act of realpolitik that abandons all claim to morality.

That is bad enough, but realpolitik must then be judged by its logic and its fruits. There are none, except for undermining the moral position of the United States. To repeat what has been written here before, the Assad regime is an enemy of the United States. It has the blood of tens of thousands of Syrians on its hands but also of thousands of Americans, killed in Iraq by jihadis it led into Iraq for that purpose. It is Iran’s only Arab ally, and provides Iran with a Mediterranean port, a border with Israel through Hizballah, and an arms trafficking route from Iran to Hizballah.  It supports and houses Hamas and other Palestinian terrorist groups. The fall of the Assad regime would be the greatest blow we can strike against Iran and its terrorist allies today.

“Encouraging genuine dialogue” is a pitiful position for the United States to take when our interests—and those of our enemies—are so clear, and when astonishingly courageous Syrians keep risking their lives to bring down the Assad regime. Our interests and our values coincide in Syria, and both are undermined when our policies have the effect of prolonging in power a vicious, anti-American regime allied to terrorist groups and to Iran. This policy is folly, not realpolitik.