The Obama administration appears closer to acting, but it will have to do more than carry over old ideas from Libya or elsewhere
The White House yesterday said again, this time in a written statement, that the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad regime does not deserve to rule Syria.
We urge Syria's few remaining supporters in the international community to warn Damascus that if the Arab League initiative is once again not fully implemented, the international community will take additional steps to pressure the Assad regime to stop its crackdown. Bashar al-Assad should have no doubt that the world is watching, and neither the international community nor the Syrian people accept his legitimacy.
What are these additional steps? Is this a bluff? Or have they got something in mind?
If the White House is planning something, let's hope it doesn't simply go back to some shopworn ideas that wouldn't have any real relevance to the situation in Syria. A no-fly zone? The Syrians aren't using aircraft to attack demonstrators. Safe areas? They will quickly become targets for shelling by the regime, as they did in Bosnia and will have to be protected with force. This may be what those who call for them hope, but we should not be tricked into it. Corridors for deliver of humanitarian assistance? There seems to be no lack of food, water and shelter.
But we do have options. Here are a few less talked about notions that might have an impact:
1. Make sure the Arab League observers have real access. This means guiding them to places where we see concentrations of military force. It means making sure that they can communicate instantaneously with their home governments without being eavesdropped on by Syrian security forces, including by uploading text and photos. It means using diplomatic pressure to counter any intimidation or restrictions they encounter.
2. Ensure that the Syrian National Council and protesters inside Syria continue to communicate and collaborate. There are already efforts in this direction, but they will need to be redoubled. The regime will offer "dialogue," hoping to split the opposition and find a way to remain in place for a promised transition period. There can be no serious transition with Bashar al-Assad inside Syria. This was Yemen's mistake, and we should avoid it.
3. Help maintain the opposition's nonviolence. The regime has ratcheted up its killing to hundreds per day, including many army deserters or others who have refused orders to fire on demonstrators. This makes it exceedingly difficult for the opposition to maintain nonviolent discipline, but in force-on-force clashes the demonstrators are bound to lose more than they win. Violence also disincentivizes people from joining the demonstrations, limiting their numbers and making them easier prey for violence by the security forces (see, for example, Egypt). More Syrians should be trained in nonviolence outside the country; they can then return and train others.
4. Encourage the Syria National Council to present its transition plans publicly. The opposition group in exile is working on them already, and maybe they are not perfect yet. But the time has come for the SNC to tell the country what is supposed to happen after Bashar al-Assad falls. The constitutional framework the Libyan Transitional National Council presented last August made an enormous contribution to improving the prospects for a successful outcome. The failure of the Egyptian military to present and stick with a comparable plan has been enormously delegitimizing. The Syrians should try to follow the Libyan path, not the Egyptian one.
5. If you must consider force, aim it at the security forces' headquarters, including their communications capabilities. It would be a mistake to respond to attacks on civilians with responses targeted against those who perpetrated the attacks, who may be conscripts acting on orders. The killing in Syria is instructed, not spontaneous. Destroying the regime's capability to communicate with and coordinate its forces would be far more effective.
Former Middle East advisor to the Obama administration Dennis Ross, fresh from a White House that still seems behind the curve on Syria, is touting the notion that the regime is doomed. I agree, but it makes a great deal of difference how it goes down. If it falls to a unified and nonviolent opposition, one with representatives from different sects and ethnic groups and a plan for the transition period, Syria has a chance to imitate Tunisia, admittedly a much smaller and more homogeneous society. But if the process is drawn out, with sectarian and ethnic violence as well as looting of state assets, the chances for a halfway democratic and unified Syria will be sharply reduced.
Time to make the inevitable happen the right way.