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7 Theories to Explain Failed U.S. Policy in Syria

Author: Elliott Abrams, Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies
May 11, 2011


Editor's Note: Elliott Abrams is former senior director for the Near East and deputy national security adviser handling Middle East affairs in the George W. Bush administration. He is now a senior fellow for Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, where he writes the blog Pressure Points.

As the days go by and the Assad regime kills more peaceful demonstrators, U.S. policy becomes less and less possible to comprehend, much less defend.

The latest news makes the situation there even clearer and more horrifying: “At least 10,000 protesters have been detained in the past several days in a mass arrest campaign aimed at quelling a seven-week uprising in Syria against the government of President Bashar al-Assad, activists said, as fresh shelling of a residential neighborhood was reported on Wednesday from Homs, the country's third largest city. The shelling, most intense between 5 a.m. and 8 a.m., appeared to signal a further escalation in the crackdown.”

U.S. policy in the face of these horrors has been weak.  Last Friday Secretary Clinton was still saying Assad might be a reformer.  The President has yet to say one word about Syria himself.  A statement was issued a couple of weeks ago, but he has not yet said anything on camera to denounce the regime's violence or support the demonstrators. Our new sanctions do not name Assad.  The Syrian ambassador remains here in Washington and ours remains in Damascus - even after a member of the embassy staff was detained by Syrian police, hooded, and beaten.  The net effect is to make Syrians and Lebanese who are struggling for freedom wonder why the United States is still supporting Assad.

Good question.  Here are some possibilities.

Theory One: Sheer incompetence.

In this take, the Administration doesn't want Assad to stay in power but its Middle East hands are overwhelmed by events in the region and very slow to react.

Perhaps this reflects a deep-seated view in the State Department that we must and can do business with Assad.  That view certainly spread to Capitol Hill, where in the last few years then-Speaker Pelosi and Senator John Kerry were among its supporters.

In the Administration's defense, U.S. policy toward Syria has been unproductive for a long time, under several presidents.  In the Bush Administration, Syria was for some years isolated successfully; we even persuaded EU foreign ministers to stay away.  But it's evident that there were neither sufficient carrots to get Assad to change nor sufficient sticks to force him to do so or to bring him down.

In those years Syria was jihadi central: every jihadi who wanted to travel to Iraq to kill Americans went through Damascus International Airport, and we did nothing in response.  So failed policies toward Syria are nothing new.

Theory Two: The Vogue View.

Perhaps current policy is explained by the remnants, the detritus, of the older “Bashar is a young reformer” view.  Assad was seen as someone who wanted change, was modern and had lived in London, spoke good English, and - above all! - had a young and glamorous wife.  Secretary Clinton cannot seem to shake this sentiment. (Vogue Magazine has removed the puff piece on Assad's wife from its internet site, and one can only wish it were as easy to erase from Western minds the underlying nonsense about Assad being a reformer.)

Theory Three: Can't Admit Mistakes.

Here, the Administration knows the policy approach it had adopted and defended is dead, but is unwilling to admit it - not yet anyway.  It is unwilling, for example, to admit that sending an ambassador to Damascus was a mistake.  This defensiveness is eroding far too slowly but if this theory is right it will not prevent a better policy, sooner or later.  The problem is that the regime will have killed a lot more Syrians by then and may have crushed the protest movement.

Theory Four: The Engagement is Still On.

Under this theory, the Administration is adhering to its initial policy of engagement with Syria (as with Iran).  This would explain its apparent blindness to the remarkable strategic gains for the United States if Iran loses its only Arab ally, its border with Israel (through Hamas), and its Mediterranean port (in northern Syria).

Perhaps the Administration is still praying for Israel-Syria peace talks, especially now that peace talks with the new Hamas/Fatah coalition are obviously impossible.  This would help explain the more general misunderstanding of how important it is that those Arab regimes that resist change with guns must lose, and lose fast.

Theory Five: Defeatism.

Perhaps the Administration has concluded that Assad simply will not lose, but will survive under any realistic set of circumstances.  The Sunni elites and the Army have not deserted the regime and will not, they may think, so he'll be there and there is no point in making relations with him worse or in prolonging the violence.

This, if true, would be a remarkably defeatist policy and I would argue a dishonorable one.  It will have a broad impact in the region, especially on how those fighting for democracy - and those fighting against it - view the United States.

Theory Six: The Brotherhood is Coming

It may be that the Administration agrees with those who say any successor regime in Damascus will be worse, as it will come under the control of the Muslim Brotherhood or some other form of extremism. No evidence is ever offered for this conclusion, though it is a mantra I have heard for years.

The Brotherhood is very weak in Syria - far weaker than in Egypt, where the Administration called for Mubarak's departure.

Assad's jails are full of political prisoners who could man a new government, and in the protest movement itself there is no evidence of extremist influences - yet.

And here is the fatal flaw of this argument: surely if Assad wins and wreaks vengeance with a further reign of terror, extremists will gain influence.  This whole experience would have led many Syrians to conclude that peaceful protest led by moderates is a bad bet, and the only real way forward is through terror and bloodshed.

Theory Seven: We Are Helpless.

This is the theory that we have no real influence in Syria and there isn't anything we can do anyway. But there are things we can do.  We can act to make Syria a pariah state, as it now even more clearly deserves.

We should seek a joint agreement with the EU and Canada that none of our foreign ministers will visit there nor will theirs be received in any Western capital.  We should impose harsher sanctions, targeting more regime officials and starting at the top with Assad.

We should put top regime officials and cronies on no-fly lists and bottle them up in Syria, and start denying landing rights to Syrian Arab Airlines.  We should go after regime corruption, which is vast.  We should supply more money for the opposition in Syria and in exile, if they want it and can make use of it.  We should push again and again at the UN Human Rights Council and in other international bodies to keep Syria on the defensive and to show our moral and political support for the democracy movement.

It isn't possible for someone outside the White House to know which of these theories explaining its behavior are valid, and to what extent.  But it is possible to see that whatever the basis for U.S. policy, it is failing and must be abandoned in favor of a far more assertive opposition to the vicious Assad regime and a far more energetic defense of the Syrians now struggling, and dying, to end a regime that has brought decades of repression, violence and terror.

This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.