On April 24, 2008, I became the first Syrian citizen to deliver a testimony in the U.S. Congress. My co-panelists included my colleagues from the Brookings Institution: Martin Indyk and Peter Rodman. In the testimony I try to set the record straight on the deteriorating internal situation in Syria focusing on Assad’s weakening grip and signs of growing popular discontent. The text of the testimony can be found below, and also on the House Foreign Affairs Committee website.
THE STATE OF SYRIA UNDER THE ASSADS & PROSPECTS FOR CHANGE
NOT FOR PUBLICATION UNTIL RELEASED BY THE HOUSE FOREIGN RELATIONS COMMITTEE
STATEMENT OF AMMAR ABDULHAMID, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, THE THAWRA FOUNDATION
BEFORE THE NEAR EAST AND SOUTH ASIA SUBCOMMITTEE OF THE HOUSE FOREIGN AFFAIRS COMMITTEE 24 APRIL 2008
The State of Syria under the Assads & Prospects for Change
Chairman Ackerman, Congressman Pence, and distinguished Subcommittee Members, I would like to thank you for this opportunity to testify on the prospects for change in Syria and implications for U.S. policy.
Change in Syria is not a matter of “if” anymore, but of when, how and who. Facts and factors influencing and dictating change are already in progress and are, for the most part, the product of internal dynamics rather than external influences. Although this assertion seems to fly in the face of traditional wisdom regarding the stability of the ruling regime in Syria, the facts are clear and plainly visible for all willing to see.
The problem has been that most experts and policymakers have always been more concerned with high-end politics to pay any real attention to what is actually taking place on the ground. Issues such as the International Tribunal established to look into the assassination of former PM Rafic al-Hariri, Iran’s growing regional influence, the Assads’ sponsorship of Hamas, Hizbullah and certain elements in the Iraqi insurgency, escalating international pressures against the regime, and the ongoing cat-and-mouse game between the regime and opposition forces continue to dominate the ongoing international debate over Syria’s present and future.
The dynamics of daily life, however, shaped more by inflation, unemployment, poverty, imploding infrastructure, and official corruption and mismanagement might actually be rewriting the usual scenarios in this regard. For as that old adage goes: “it’s the economy stupid!” And Syria’s economy is indeed imploding. The lack of government response in this regard, or, to be more specific, the fact that government policies seem to be making matters worse for most Syrians, is forcing people to organize around issues of local concern, and to begin to agitate. Albeit this agitation is not yet anti-regime per se, that is, no one is yet demanding the ouster of the current president, it is indeed anti-establishment in nature, that is, it is clearly aimed against official policies, corruption, mismanagement, neglect, lies, arrogance and impunity. As such, it marks an important departure from the usual docile attitude and an important milestone on the road towards the rise of a popular grassroots movement against the Assad dictatorship, if the situation is properly managed by opposition groups.
This phenomenon is still admittedly in its embryonic phase at this stage, and might take years before it produces a real challenge to the regime’s authority on the grounds; it should also be borne in mind here that this phenomenon may not automatically translate into grassroots support for any of the existing opposition movements or coalitions and might just lead, in the absence of active outreach efforts by the opposition, to the emergence of new more popular forms and figures of opposition, albeit the Damascus Declaration seems to be the one movement with the greatest popular appeal. Still, what is clear here is that the phenomenon is real and does merit observation. And, for those interested in ensuring the emergence of a “positive” democratic outcome eventually, it does merit support as well.
We shall endeavor in the following presentation to expand, albeit briefly, on these points, and we shall conclude by an assessment of the interaction between high-end politics and this grassroots phenomenon.
The Economic Situation:
1) Basics facts:
According to a 2004 UDNP report, 11.4% of Syrians (that is, 2 millions) live below the lower expenditure poverty line of $1/day, and 30% (5.3 millions) live below the higher expenditure poverty line of $2/day. Today, however, experts estimate the figures at 20% and 40% respectively, that is, 4 million Syrians live on less than $1/day, but 8 millions live on less than $2/day.
According to official figures, unemployment rates are around 12.5%, albeit, most Syrian and international experts would put it closer to 25% and higher, especially for the 18-30 age group. Every year over 200,000 aspirants enter into the job market, while the state has only been able to produce an average of 65,000 jobs per year in the last three years. As such, the emphatic assertions made by the country’s PM back in December of 2007 to the effect that the unemployment rate is dropping are not simply inaccurate, they are a blatant lie. Unemployment in the country continues to rise at faster and faster rates.
Inflation rates have hovered for the last few years around 8-10%, once again, according to the downplayed official estimates, but things have changed drastically over the last few months, and it is almost impossible to make an estimate at this stage, as the situation is still unfolding. Suffice it to note, however, that in the last two months alone, the price of basic commodities, including basic foodstuffs such as rice, olive oil, vegetables and fruits, rose by a factor of 75-200% in many cases, in comparison to the same period last year. This is a runway inflation to say the least.
These are very stark realities for Syria. For while some experts would argue that the country has been through a similar rough patch in the 1980s, there is a major difference between the two periods. In the 1980s, the economic hardships faced by most Syrians were more the result of the unavailability of the needed goods due to the international embargo imposed on Syria at the time, than a reflection of cash-flow problems. The Syrians were not rich then, but they were not that impoverished either. A real middle class did indeed exist, and did manage to survive, albeit in a quite bruised condition. Nowadays, however, everything is available, from the latest technological gadget to imported gourmet olive oils, but Syrians can afford none of it. In fact, they can hardly afford to buy the basic foodstuffs they need to last them until the end of the month.
The situation was made even worse by the failure of the government-sponsored campaign against unemployment, and its inability to factor into its economic calculations and policies the huge impact that the influx of over 1.5 million Iraqi refugees into the country have made on all aspects of daily life. More importantly though, certain government policies, such as lowering the interest rates on savings accounts, raising the prices of basic construction materials, including iron and cement, long before there was a global inflation, raising the price of gasoline (already the highest in the region), raising the costs of electricity, and ceasing its subsidy for Kerosene, the basic source of heating fuel throughout the country, all these policies have simply served to further exacerbate the situation. For these measures to have been adopted at a time when corruption is at an all time high is fueling popular anger and discontent.
Even such belated reversals as the recent decision to subsidize the cost of Kerosene for large families were simply too full of loopholes to be effective, or to help appease popular sentiments.
In reality then, and despite a recent report released by the Syrian Ministry of Economy and Foreign Trade decrying the current rise in prices and warning that the situation calls for urgent drastic action, seeing that the usual measures have proven ineffective, the Syrian authorities are, in effect, leaving the average Syrian citizen and the average Syrian family to fend for themselves during this crisis. But, and while Syrians in general have long detected that tendency in their rulers, and have gotten used it to an extant, the situation over the last two years has deteriorated at such an alarming rate, and the gulf separating the governor and the governed in Syria has grown so deep and wide, dismay and frustration have finally begun giving way to anger and rebelliousness.
2) Early signs of grassroots anger:
As usual in such cases, the first signs of local disaffection express themselves in various attempts to go over the heads of local officials and directly petition central authorities represented by government ministers and, at times, by the president himself. Indeed, in one well-known instance, protestors from the city ofHoms in central Syria, whose agricultural lands are scheduled for confiscation on orders of the local governor, a close associate of the president and his in-laws, went to the city of Damascus and demonstrated in front of the presidential palace. Palace officials took their petition and promised to relay it to the president. Unsurprisingly, nothing came out of this move, and the inhabitants continue to be in a rebellious mood. Indeed, there is a “revolution under the cinders,” as one inhabitant put it to one of our field reporters.
This was not a unique incident. Protestors from different impoverished communities in Damascus, Aleppo and elsewhere in Syria, have adopted similar tactics before, and gotten similar results. Different parts of Syria and different segments of the Syrian population have for years now been testing the metal of the Syrian president through these direct appeals to his alleged reformist impulses. So far, the response was quite disappointing. The great majority of interrogations and arrests which are taking place in Syria everyday at this stage are, in fact, aimed against local community activists, despite the apolitical nature of their concerns and demands. Often these arrests go unnoticed not only by international observers and human rights groups but by local ones as well, as everyone tend to focus on the more politicized activists and on dissidents and opposition members. Sometimes, security officials justify these arrests as preemptive crackdowns against Islamic militant cells, but they offer no proof.
When will the cinders of revolution turn to fire remains unclear, but the insistence on dealing with these popular challenges from a security angle is bound to exacerbate the situation. In due course of time, heavy-handed tactics might just engender the very thing that they are meant to contain.
The starkest example of how disillusioned the Syrian people are with their current leaders and the entire system that they constructed can be seen more clearly through the thing that they have chosen not to do, namely: vote. Indeed, despite the massive spending by different candidates during the parliamentary elections, which took place on April 22-23, 2007, and the gargantuan spending during the month preceding the presidential referendum on May 27, 2007, the turnout was less than 5% of eligible voters for the first event, and did not in all likelihood exceed 30% during the second, despite official assertion of over 95% turnout and 97% yes vote. Syrian officials are no strangers to lies in this regard, and have become the butt of joke internationally as a consequence.
Of the two events, the popular boycott of the presidential referendum was indeed the most stunning, as it coincided with opposition calls for boycott. The real story that Syria lived at the time, then, did not unfold in brightly lit public squares where regime officials organized endless celebrations and forced thousands of state employees and college students to dance and sing the praises of Syria’s new “immortal” leader. Rather, the real story took place in those dark alleys and neighborhoods, poor and rich, where electric supply was interrupted for days on end in order to divert power to the main squares. People were not simply unhappy in these neighborhoods, they were downright indignant. The unfolding show was worse than anything Hafiz al-Assad, the father of the current president, has undertaken. The massive spending involved at a time when most people were being forced to tighten their belts was simply disgusting. Bashar al-Assad might have won that day as expected, but he did so at the expense of losing his last reformist fig leaf. The referendum was nothing more than an unwitting act of political striptease, at the end of which everyone knew that their president was nothing more than a card carrying member of the ACLC – the Assad Club for Libertine Corruption. As a result, following the elections, the internal popular debate shifted from a discussion of possible reformist potential still lurking inside the inner folds of the regime and its leaders, to a discussion on which is the lesser evil: challenging the system head-on, or indirectly, and when and how this can and should be done.
The Kurdish enclaves in Syria seem to have resolved this debate years ago, in fact, ever since their March Revolt in 2004. Indeed, ever since that time, prevailing conditions in the country’s Kurdish enclaves, such as Kobani, Efrin, Amude and Qamishlo, became increasingly Gaza-like in nature. The presence of Syrian security forces there these days has all the hallmarks of occupation rather than law-enforcement. Clashes between the local population and security forces take place frequently, and have often resulted in civilian deaths and injuries, not to mention, of course, arrests, which have marred the lives of thousands. Unsurprisingly, the situation is further fueling the separatist tendencies among the younger population of these enclaves. This is making matters well-nigh unmanageable for the more established activists and leaders in the Kurdish community, who prefer to push for a solution that does not bring national sovereignty issues into the mix, allowing room for compromise with the country’s Arab population.
Here again, the president himself has played a very negative role. His repeated reneging on promises to resolve the issue of the country’s 300,000 denaturalized Kurds has deprived him of all legitimacy in the eyes of the Kurdish population, setting the scene for continuing escalation. It should not be a surprise then thatSyria’s Kurdish areas boasted the lowest turnout in the country’s farcical presidential referendum.
The Rise of Organized Opposition:
The Syrian opposition, especially the internal opposition, has not been oblivious to any of these realities. In fact, they were aware of them long before they became such festering wounds. But in the beginning, and in the hope of avoiding a direct confrontation with the regime, the great majority of opposition figures and movements opted to give Bashar al-Assad a pass regarding the at once macabre and farcical way in which he was selected for the job back in the first referendum on 2000. They hoped that Bashar will indeed live up to the collective wish regarding the implementation of serious political and economic reforms (for opposition elements clearly understood the intimate link between the two within the context of Syrian realities). Bashar al-Assad, however, neither deserved this freely given break nor sought to later earn it. On the contrary, it did not take him long before he embarked on a process of crackdown against the opposition, using the same old tactics that his father did.
Consequently, and following a number of last minute appeals to reason, the Syrian internal opposition realized that they had no choice but to signal their rejection of the regime whole, stuck and barrel, and seek to strip it out of any legitimacy, domestically and internationally, by making their rejection public. This was the climate that led to the emergence of the Damascus Declaration in October of 2005.
For while some observers have tended to see a connection between the emergence of the Damascus Declaration and the increasing international pressures on the Assads regime following the Hariri assassination, in reality, the Declaration came as an expression of complete and utter disillusionment with Bashar al-Assad and the ruling elite, following a final act of reaching out on part of certain dissidents who rallied behind the embattled regime in the aftermath of the US-led invasion of Iraq. Their motivation for doing this came as a mixture of ideology – as leftist intellectuals they basically suspected the United States, and hope – Bashar al-Assad and his ministers had once again begun promising reforms. It did not take long for the dissidents involved, however, to discover that they were being duped. For most, this marked the last straw.
It took many months of hard dialogue between the country’s top opposition figures to finally agree on the text of the Damascus Declaration, and, as usual in such documents, many serious issues were left unresolved. Still, there was enough pragmatism and agreement for the text to appeal to all major currents in the field. On board were leftists, nationalists and liberals, conservative Muslims, Alawites and Kurds, among other ideological and ethnic groups. A spirit of defiance also colored the document, as it no longer called for reform but for change. This was a not a petition meant for the country’s rulers, but a manifesto aimed at the Syrian people and the international community.
Following the publication of the Damascus Declaration, and as the media and the regime shifter their attention to dealing with issues related to Lebanon and Iraq, many of the activists affiliated with the Damascus Declaration embarked on a mission of reaching out to the grassroots, using the popularity of certain key figures, such as former MP Riad Seif and Dr. Fidaa al-Horani, among other signatories, to expand the size and scope of the Declaration’s grassroots network. In the process, the movement became the largest opposition coalition in the country, and its activities seem to have played a key role in ensuring the successful boycott, initiated by the Damascus Declaration, and that took place of the parliamentary elections and presidential referendum back in April-May 2007.
The next step took almost a year to achieve, due to the tight security environment maintained by the regime, and their repeated interferences to physically disperse meetings that took place in the house of Riad Seif.
Still, despite all this, on December 1st, 2007, over 160 members of the Declaration, representing all currents within it, met in the house of Riad Seif and held their first open election. The results were stunning: the most pragmatic and liberal members won. Riad Seif was elected as the head of the Secretariat General, while Dr. Fidaa al-Hornani was elected as the General Council’s President. This was, in effect, a shadow government formed not in exile, but right in the lion’s den in downtown Damascus.
The world seemed to have missed the implication of this bold move, but the regime definitely did not, hence the wholesale imprisonment of all 12 members of the Declaration’s General Council, including Mr. Seif, who suffers from prostate cancer, and Dr. al-Horani, who suffers from a hear condition, among other active members of the movement.
But this did not mark the end of the movement, as the regime had hoped and as some thought. The Damascus Declaration movement was not a centralized operation or a political party, but an umbrella organization with clear vision for change designed to appeal to the largest number of Syrians inside the country and abroad. By conducting such internal elections, its memberships demonstrated its strong commitment to democratic principles, even under these harsh security conditions, and it gave the world a glimpse of what the future could hold if free and democratic elections were held in Syria.
The General Council of the Damascus Declaration is the closest thing we have to a truly legitimate government in Syria. The onus is now on the Declaration’s activists to continue to spread the world throughout the country, and on all those figures and movements outside the country that have endorsed the Declaration to keep international attention focused on the internal situation in Syria, especially the issue of human rights and the continuing struggle by the Syrian people and opposition movements alike to challenge the suffocating hold of the Assad regime and bring about a real democratic change in Syria.
Indeed, we are standing at the very beginning of this new phenomenon in Syria, but it is quite a serious phenomenon, pragmatic, with grassroots appeal and connections and strong commitment to institutional work and democratic principles, and it has already crossed several important milestones. With proper support and endorsement by the international community, this movement could go a long way, in charting a promising future for Syria.
But before we go into a discussion of what the international community in general, and the Unites States in particular, can do to support this phenomenon, a brief discussion of the political situation and the dynamics of the Assad regime is in order.
The Internal Dynamics and Priorities of the Assad Regime:
1) The Family:
While the Syrian regime is obsessed with keeping the security situation under control in the country, while they might lull themselves into believing that they are doing a pretty good job of it, and while certain members of the family are busy taking direct control of the country’s most profitable and promising economic sectors, such as the telecommunication and banking sectors, further enriching themselves and their relatives, the primary focus of the major actors in the regime are back to the familiar, albeit increasingly uncomfortable, realm of foreign affairs. The International Tribunal, strained relations with Europe and the US, the troubles in Iraq, the increasing tensions with Israel, and all other related developments continue to occupy most of their time and thinking, and explain much about their behavior and their policies.
One major truth that we should accept about the Assad regime is that it is, in fact, a multi-headed monster and that decisions in it are literally a family affair. This is not a new situation by any means, it’s just that family dynamics under Bashar are quite different than they used to be under his father. Bashar came to the position with very limited leadership experience and was, in effect, a compromise candidate. As such, he is always expected to prove himself. More importantly, he is never allowed to run things on his own. A family consensus needs to be reached on every major issue. This is at once the source of the regime’s strength, and its Achilles Heel. For while all members of the family are interested in preserving their rule, and share, for the most part, similar ideological predilections, they tend to exhibit different temperaments, and sometimes clashing visions for how things are and how they should be. As a result, it takes them a relatively long time to reach consensus, and their consensus have often favored the status quo and/or falling back on familiar patterns of behavior – the very troubling patterns that so many in the international community and the United States want them to abandon.
Still, Bashar does have a certain edge in this situation, because, in the final analysis, he is the one who carries the title of “president” with all the “legitimacy” and recognition that this does bring him inside the country and internationally. For this reason, Bashar’s own quirks of mind have had a greater influence in shaping the policies of the regime.
These quirks have manifested themselves from the very beginning of his rule in two major trends: his fascination with the personality of Hassan Nasrallah and the concept of national resistance, and his belief in the greater Syria ideology rather than pan-Arabism. Indeed, if Bashar has any Arab nationalist spirit in him, it can only be discerned in the manner in which he treats Syria’s Kurdish population, and the way he regurgitates the same worn-out resistance rhetoric in connection to the Arab-Israeli Conflict. In everything else though, his nationalist sentiments and credentials are clearly missing in action, even after eight years in office.
The two trends also go a long way in explaining why Bashar could not come to an agreement with former Lebanese PM, Rafic Hariri, who was pushing for a more normal relationship between and Syria, the kind that exists between two sovereign and independent yet friendly states. Such relations would have gone against the ideological convictions of Bashar. Furthermore, they would have necessitated a reorganization of the family business in Lebanon in a manner that would have involved some losses and cutbacks. In the mind of Bashar, and other members of the family, there was no reason to accept such a loss. They could not fathom that things have drastically changed on the ground in Lebanon, as well as across the region and internationally, and that, for this reason, new ways, styles and visions were now needed to manage the complex relations between the two countries.
On the other hand, Bashar’s fascination with Hizbullah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah and the entire discourse of national resistance was noted by observers from Bashar’s early days in office. True, Bashar had to deal with a collapsed peace process from the very beginning, and as such, his recourse to reviving the rhetoric of national resistance may not have seemed surprising, but this does not in itself explain his elevation of the stature of Hizbullah from a mere card in Syria’s hands, to a full-fledged strategic partner. This change seems to have been mostly related to the personal dynamics that developed between Bashar and Hassan Nasrallah. But this situation did not simply give Nasrallah a greater influence over Bashar’s thinking, Nasrallah’s hard-line backers in Iran had an advantage here as well. As such, the Bashar-Nasrallah connection has played a major role in facilitating the continuing development of Syria’s relations with Iran, which seem to be reaching their zenith at this stage, to the extant that Iranian influence in Syria today is quite visible and quite reminiscent of Syria’s own influence in Lebanon in the 80s and 90s, with the caveat that the Iranians are far more subtle in this regard, or at least they try to be.
By insisting that the above situation was mostly the product of Bashar’s own quirks of mind, we do not mean to suggest that the other members of the family are necessarily in disagreement with him on these issues. On the contrary, there seems to be a family consensus at work here. The problems in the Assad family are all about personal temperament, differing styles, and clashing ambitions and personalities. But, in families, as every human being on this planet can attest, such problems are far more dangerous and destructive than ideological differences. That’s the nature of the Assads’ predicament, and the nature of the world’s predicament with the Assads.
2) The Establishment:
While the Assads continue to dispute and spar among themselves, the second tier of leadership in the country, especially in the security apparatuses and the army, are engaged in a continuous and dizzying process of alignments and realignments, with each figure and each group trying to position himself or itself with this or that camp: Bashar’s, his brother’s, or his brother’s-in-law. The third tier of leadership is witnessing a similar phenomenon with regard to the second tier, and son on, down to the last person involved in the power structure in the country.
In this continuous jockeying for power and profit, some people get promoted, others demoted, and still others arrested or referred to trial on corruption charges, some simply retire, by choice or imposition, and a few have left the country, or were forced out.
Meanwhile, the gate is wide open for competing Iranian and Saudi influences and dabbling, with the upper hand going to Iran, since it can operate openly and with the regime’s support and blessing. Other Gulf countries, especially Qatar, Kuwait and the UAE, are also entering the fray buying influence and property in many parts of the country. There is a growing Turkish influence here as well, especially in Syria’s northern parts, with Erdogan’s government seeing potential political and economic benefit for Turkey.
But if there are any economic benefits to be derived by the average citizen here, they remain to be seen. For now, the voracious appetite of regime officials are not allowing for any trickle down effect.
In the meantime, many players seem to live in anticipation of a near future power vacuum that will need to be filled. No group or figure is necessarily plotting a coup, but no one seems to think of Bashar as being the “final solution” to the leadership crisis generated but his father’s passing. Bashar’s only real backers at this stage seem to be the hardliners of Iran, that is, the very people some international observers want him to divest himself from.
And so the jockeying goes on.
On the basis of the above analysis, the following assertions can be made:
- Weaning the Assads out of their reliance on Iran at this stage will not be an easy task by any means, and might, in fact, be an impossible one. Those who want to pursue such a strategy should be aware of the intricate relations that exist between the two counties, and of how deeply Iranian fingers have slipped into the fabric of the Assad regime. For this reason, they are better advised not to invest everything they have in this endeavor, and to pursue other possibilities and options in tandem with their efforts in this regard. They should also bear in mind that convincing Iran’s leaders to divest themselves from the Assads might be an easier task, since they are the real puppet-masters in this show. At this stage, the family squabble seems to center on Iran’s growing influence in the country, something that not all members seem comfortable with. Some were hoping for some kind of a strategic partnership with Iran, not subservience to her. But, should Bashar’s opinion and style continue to prevail, Syria will be effectively transformed into an Iranian protectorate, if it’s not already.
- Killing the International Tribunal is the key concern for the Assads, as they seem to be clearly implicated, judging by their behavior. In this regard, the Assads seem to think that their best strategy is to shift international attention back to the Arab-Israeli Conflict, and the issue of the Occupied Golan Heights. Hence the various signals they continue to send regarding their willingness to sit with Israel, and their willingness to “forgive” the recent Israeli air raid in northern Syria. But it is exactly this willingness of theirs that makes it clear that the Assads are more interested in the process than in reaching an actual accord. For the Assads will conduct peace talks with their eyes on the Tribunal: only when the Tribunal issue becomes moot can a peace deal have a chance at being concluded. But the only way for the International Tribunal to become moot is for there to be an international will in this regard. But there is no visible evidence that this might take place at this stage. Even Russia has paid its dues regarding financing the Tribunal. No one, then, seems to be willing to undermine the processes of international legitimacy for Bashar’s blue eyes, and I seriously doubt that the Congress or any future administration would want to do that. As such, the Assads’ hopes and concerns here are quite a toll order, and they might just preclude and trump any attempt at successful engagement of any sorts.
- The familial nature of decision-making in the regime, with regard to key and sensitive issues, considering the existing differences in temperament and styles and the clashing ambitions, means that decisions can only be reached by consensus, a matter that can take a lot of time, especially when the issues involved are regarded as existential. Time, however, might prove an increasingly scarce commodity in this day and age. In families, temperament and styles count more than ideological differences in family feuds. When ambitions are also involved things tend to become even more complex. This means that decision-making within the family will always be problematic and difficult. Meanwhile, stalemate rules the day. Breaking the stalemate might require breaking the family, which is no less problematic and thorny an issue than contemplating regime change. But so long as the Assads are left to dictate the rules of the game, this is the dilemma with which the world will be presented. The only way out of this corner is to go over the heads of this multi-headed monster, and address the Syrians in general. The real choice when it comes to the kind of relations that Syria want with the world and its neighbors should be given and made by the Syrians. More below.
The Role of the United States
So, what role should the United Stated play at this stage?
Well, for starters they should not make the same mistake that the Assads made in Lebanon. The Assads dabbled in Lebanon as if they were back in the 1980s and 90s again, and, as a result, they got burnt. The United States should realize that a return to the real politick of the Cold War with regard to the Middle East, or even those of the 1990s, is simply not feasible anymore. The wave of change is reaching the Middle East, for better or worse, and it has clearly reached Syria, otherwise there would not be a Damascus Declaration.
Indeed, doing business with Syria’s rulers at this stage, regardless of the questionability of their legitimacy (the way they manipulated the elections and popular reactions in this regard should be always borne in mind), and regardless of how they continue to treat their people, is a veritable recipe for disaster, not just for Syria, but for America as well. For it will make the Unites States once again be perceived as a partner in the crime of oppression and corruption being perpetrated by the Assad regime. Clearly the interests of the United States will better served if it managed to avoid getting caught supporting and engaging a regime at the very time when its people are rejecting it. The miscalculations that the United States made in 1979 with regard to Iran are still haunting it to this very day. There is no reason for this scenario to be repeated with Syria.
As such, the first act of support that international and American policymakers can provide is to measure their words and statements regarding Syria very carefully, for they could be sending the wrong message to the Syrian people. If US policymakers want to speak of engagement with the Assads, a clear element of conditionality needs to be clearly added and emphasized here each time the subject of engagement comes up. America should require that the Assads regain some much needed legitimacy internally, before they are treated with any credibility and respect. For the US, or anyone in the international community, to simply ignore the infractions of basic rights committed by the Assads through their security officers on a daily basis, or brush aside the way the Assads manipulated the results of the presidential referendum, is nothing less than a slap to the face of the Syrian people. And the Syrian people are just tired of being slapped around. I know I am.
The best way for engagement to take place, in a manner that is respectful of the Syrian people and their aspirations, is for it to take place at a time when no political prisoners are around anymore. The first act of legitimization that should be demanded from the Assads is, therefore, quite simple and straightforward: the release of all political prisoners, including the members of the Damascus Declaration General Council, and their colleagues, Michel Kilo, Aref Dalilah, and others, as well as the young members of the Syrian Youth for Justice, a group of twenty year-olds sentenced to 3-7 years in prison just for publishing some critical articles on a website, among others.
When the Assads choose to respond positively to this call, the United States could send then its Ambassador back to Damascus initiating a series of quid pro quos, acts of goof faith and trust building measures that could help the Assads break out of their old habits. In time, this process should be managed to lead not simply to the revival of the peace process between Syria and Israel, but, more importantly, to the launching of:
1) a reconciliation process between Syria and Lebanon, for this is indeed the only logical way for the Tribunal to be stopped without undermining the processes of international legitimacy; and
2) an internal reconciliation process between the regime and its opponents. For this is what’s really involved here: in order for Syria to be at peace with any of its neighbors, it needs to be at peace with itself first. This will logically entail reaching agreement on a new constitution, and conducting new and free parliamentary and presidential elections. The Assads may not end up controlling or leading the system leading, but they will be part of it and will be immune from prosecution.
Should the Assads refuse to cooperate in such a plan, which is, admittedly, the more likely outcome, then, they will have earned their isolation in the eyes of their people, the American people, and the international community. US policymakers should not preoccupied with what the Assads will or won’t accept, since every iota of evidence we have suggests that they crave something that no one can actually deliver. As such, what they need is a reality check. I believe that the proposal elaborated above provides just a check, especially when delivered by both the White House and the Congress.
In the meantime, the US should not shy away at all from actively and openly supporting the country’s opposition groups and dissidents, especially those with established connections to the internal opposition and the fledgling grassroots network. Contrary to what some might think, assigning international legitimacy to Syrian dissidents and opposition elements is not a kiss of death, especially when it is put within the context elaborated above: an over the board deal offered to all.
In many ways, then, the Unites States needs to enunciate a message of hope and change for all actors involved in the region: a message of hope AND change, not hope and the status quo, not hope and the status quo ante. This message is as relevant abroad as it is here.
Thank you for your kind attention, I will now answer any question that you may have.