The American Interest
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End, Don’t Mend, the Syrian Regime
Published on March 30, 2012

David Ignatius thinks that “it’s time for Syrian revolutionaries to take ‘yes’ for an answer from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.” The Washington Post columnist believes that an opposition that, by some estimates, has already suffered more than 10,000 dead, should “back a U.N.-sponsored ‘managed transition’ of power there, rather than rolling on toward a civil war that will bring more death and destruction for the region.”

Ignatius is optimistic that Kofi Annan’s plan to stop the bloodshed in Syria will also be able to dislodge the man responsible for the violence, Assad. The former UN head’s six-point initiative—including calls for a ceasefire and a dialogue between the regime and the opposition—has now been endorsed by both Russia and the United States. This marks something of a reconciliation between the two powers, who over the last several months have disagreed sharply over Syria.

In short, the White House has sought a way to bring the violence to an end, and eventually concluded that the best way to do that was with Assad leaving power. In August, five months into the uprising, Obama demanded that he step down—without, however, putting forth a policy to make that happen. On the other hand, Moscow’s goal was to ensure Assad’s survival, and sent him arms to ensure that the regime owned the preponderance of violence.

The Russians have not backed down from their one goal: The Annan initiative has Russia’s support because it is essentially drawn from Russia’s talking points. While the White House also insists that it has not given up its demands that Assad leave, in reality the U.S. endorsement of the Annan plan represents a turnaround on U.S. policy. As analyst Tony Badran notes, neither the Annan plan nor the UN Security Council resolution that followed it call for Assad’s exit . David Ignatius conveniently ignores this rather salient fact because he is trying to sell a Russian-driven initiative that ensures Assad’s survival as a diplomatic victory for the White House.

“Yes, I recognize that moderate diplomatic solutions like these are for wimps,” Ignatius writes.

The gung-ho gang has been advocating supplying arms to the Syrian opposition, setting up no-fly zones and other versions of a military solution. Morally, it’s hard to dispute the justice of the opposition’s cause; the problem is that these military solutions will get a lot more innocent civilians killed and destroy the delicate balance of the Syrian state.

By “gung-ho gang,” Ignatius is presumably referring to Senators McCain, Lieberman and Graham, along with others, who have called for supplying the Free Syrian Army with arms and setting up a no-fly zone with international airpower. It’s worth noting however that many of Washington’s regional allies have also been calling for more active support of the opposition. Turkey, for one, has an interest in avoiding a major refugee crisis—one that will likely explode should the rebels put down their arms, thereby giving Assad loyalists a free shot to root out and slaughter the Sunni-majority opposition.

Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and other Arab powers have also urged the White House to arm the opposition. Their reasoning is based not only on fellow-Sunni solidarity, but also on a reading of the strategic terrain. Assad is Tehran’s one Arab ally, and toppling him would greatly weaken Iran’s position, not least by cutting off Hezbollah’s main supply line across the Syrian border. It is curious that there is no mention of Iran in Ignatius’ column, and if it’s true that he faithfully reflects the White House’s views, it is discouraging that the administration, in spite of the advice of its regional partners, still seems incapable of taking advantage of the Syrian uprising in terms of the larger regional conflict with the Islamic Republic.

Ignatius’ columns have shown over the years a careful cultivation of sources within the Assad regime, useful insofar as they were able to convey the policies, convictions and paranoid fantasies of the ruling order and how this might affect the regional balance. However, it seems that these high-level sources may have also distorted his view of Syria. There is no Syrian state as such, only a regime; Syria’s “delicate balance” is one based solely on terror—both outside and inside Syria.

Since Hafez al-Assad came to power as President in 1970, Syrian stability was based on destabilizing neighboring regimes—Jordan, Egypt, Iraq, Turkey, Israel, Lebanon etc.— before they could destabilize the regime in Damascus. Terror was so much a part of the regime’s strategy that it became the regime’s nature.

What held true for regional politics was the same on the domestic front as well; it was a regime whose domestic legitimacy was fortified only by resistance to Israel. Even its Arabism was a thin mask barely hiding the reality from the majority Sunni Arab population that they are ruled by the long-despised Alawite minority. It’s true, as Ignatius says, that there should be some concern over the fate of Syria’s minorities, but that overlooks the fact that the Alawites have violently repressed the Sunnis for more than four decades. This is a civil war that started when the Alawites first came to power.

Ignatius fears the civil war will destroy Syrian state institutions, but as the U.S. Treasury Department has underscored in sanctioning the Assad regime, there aren’t any Syrian state institutions—only powerful friends, family members and security chiefs. As the uprising has shown, there is no Syrian army: At this point it is nothing but a Russian-armed sectarian militia firing on the Sunni opposition in order to maintain its privilege and power. In the end, this is what the Syrian uprising is all about—that for the majority of Syrians, there is no state, and the only state institutions that matter are security services, paramilitary gangs and a handful of army units composed of Assad loyalists.

White House policy should be directed toward dismantling those institutions, not, as Ignatius writes, preserving them. The bloodshed won’t end with a Russia-U.S. condominium that will ensure Assad’s survival, but only by bringing to a conclusion the career of the regime that is responsible for so much bloodshed throughout the region for the last forty years.

Lee Smith is a senior editor at the Weekly Standard and a fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.