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Washington’s Self-Defeating Policy

Washington’s Self-Defeating Policy

Tony Badran
9th August 2012 - NOW Lebanon

In a steady stream of leaks and public statements in recent days, a number of US officials have offered a window into the Obama administration’s current thinking on Syria. Specifically, the administration has sought to highlight its top priorities in post-Assad Syria. Regrettably, its views reveal that the incoherence that has marred Washington’s approach is now leading to strategically self-defeating policy.
The US interest in Syria was always straightforward: breaking the Iranian alliance system through regime change in Damascus. Instead of relentlessly pursuing this strategic objective, the administration’s policy in Syria appears to be geared toward as much regime continuity as possible. As one unnamed American official put it, “You can’t have a complete dissolution of that [system].”
The Obama administration is aiming for this outcome by pushing the preservation of Syrian so-called “state institutions.” “We have to make very sure that state institutions stay intact,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stressed earlier this week.
But it was Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta who had earlier clarified just what institutions the administration has in mind. “[T]he best way to preserve … stability,” Panetta told CNN, “is to maintain as much of the military, the police, as you can, along with the security forces, and hope that they will transition to a democratic form of government.” Apparently, this constitutes such a priority for the administration that it is reportedly “warning” the rebels against disbanding Assad’s security apparatus.
The administration’s overriding concern is obvious. President Obama does not want Syria to become an albatross around his neck in the same way he perceives that Iraq was for his predecessor, George W. Bush. Consequently, the Iraqi template is now being applied wholesale, and uncritically, to Syria. For instance, administration officials have raised issues such as “de-Baathification” and the need to prevent its repetition in Syria. However, when applied to the Syrian context, the issue is really about the dominant position of the Alawites in these security organs.
Generic terms such as “state institutions” obscure the real nature of Syria under the Assad dynasty. If the Syrian revolution has done one thing, however, it has unmasked all of the regime’s pretenses, laying bare the country’s sectarian realities. These realities have been manifest precisely in the Syrian military. Defections have been overwhelmingly along sectarian lines, while the regime has largely relied on predominantly Alawite divisions, whose loyalty is not in question.
Accordingly, the Syrian army cannot possibly remain “intact,” as the Obama administration desires, nor should Washington want it to. What’s certain is that it is not in US interests to prevent the “de-Alawization,” of the military and security services—the same forces that have propped up the Assad regime for four decades and have been the primary supporter of Iran’s proxy, Hezbollah in Lebanon. The success of the revolution, as Lee Smith recently wrote, “can only be defined according to whether or not such institutions are destroyed once and for all.”
Similarly, the administration has been advocating an inclusive form of government post-Assad—shorthand for a power-sharing agreement. However, such scenarios, too, open the door to the preservation of an Iranian foothold in Damascus.
It is worth recalling here the revealing comments made by the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, in April. Lavrov expressed his belief that the fall of the Assad regime would usher in a “Sunni regime.” What Lavrov was articulating in sectarian terms was a concern that such a “Sunni regime” would alter Syria’s current strategic alignment, bending away from Russia and Iran and more in line with Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
Needless to say, this is precisely what the US should want to see happen in Syria, but is balking at, either inadvertently or intentionally. In contrast, a power-sharing arrangement would only allow the Iranians to keep a seat at the table—a net loss for the US and its allies.
All of this, of course, is assuming that Syria remains a unitary state. In fact, the Obama administration’s policy seems to be a series of false assumptions. It assumed that economic and diplomatic pressure would convince Assad to leave. It then assumed that the conflict could be managed with ceasefires and negotiations leading to a “peaceful transition.” It thus failed to game for the prospect that the fighting may continue until one side had attained total victory. Now the White House seems to be assuming that the opposition can attain such a victory without the US doing much to help, and that somehow this victory can be squared with preserving “state institutions” after Assad falls.
But the picture is never this neat. For instance, Assad may well fall in the Syrian interior and even in the major cities Aleppo and Damascus. However, he could well survive in Latakia and the Alawite coastal mountains.
An Alawite enclave would allow Assad to preserve his regime in contracted form. This enclave would essentially serve as an Iranian (and Russian) protectorate on the Mediterranean, thereby enabling Iran to maintain a bridgehead along the border with Lebanon and Turkey.
It is imperative, then, for the US not to lose sight of its actual strategic priority in Syria. That is the elimination of any scenario that allows Iran to keep a foothold in Syria, be that an Alawite enclave or a power-sharing deal. In other words, any measure of regime continuity is decisively not in the US interest. Ensuring the Syrian army and other illustrious “state institutions” like the mukhabarat remain intact is, therefore, not only delusional, but also self-defeating.
Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.

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arab-spring, assad, iran, obama, syria