Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Regional Consequences of Syrian Unrest

As protest movements sweep through the Middle East, few countries exemplify the opportunities and potential pitfalls of political change as well as Syria. Beginning on March 15, Syrians took to the streets in large numbers, demanding a more responsive and democratic government. After an initial promise of reform, the government of President Bashar al-Assad has cracked down on protestors with increasingly brutal force. The continued unrest in Syria has serious implications for Iran’s role in the region, the Israeli-Arab conflict, the stability of Lebanon, and organizations such as Hamas and Hezbollah.
Carnegie and the Brookings Institution co-hosted a panel of experts to discuss the prospects for democratic change in Syria and the implications for the region. Speakers included Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Tamara Wittes, National Defense University Professor Murhaf Jouejati, Syrian human rights activist Ammar Abdulhamid, former Israeli ambassador Itamar Rabinovich, and Paul Salem of the Carnegie Middle East Center. Carnegie’s Marwan Muasher moderated.
As Syrians face al-Khatibian style brutality, Moisés Naím explains why undertaking intervention to facilitate overthrow in Syria is vastly more complex than doing the same in Libya, though moral justifications obviously exist for both. Unfortunately, Assad seems to be somewhat protected, at least from international force, by circumstance. Also from CEIP:  
First: Syria's military is far stronger than Libya's. Syria has one of the largest, best equipped, and trained armed forces in the Middle East. It also has chemical and biological weapons and its paramilitary forces are among the largest in the world. In contrast, Gaddafi kept the Libyan military fragmented, ill equipped, and poorly trained.
Second: War fatigue. Libya exhausted the little appetite left in the United States to engage in wars that are not justified by clear threats to its vital interests. Syrian dissidents are suffering the consequences of the long and costly wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the recent raid on Libya. U.S. military support for remote causes will henceforth be more limited and selective. And, as far as wars are concerned, Europe won't act without Washington. This leaves the heroic Syrian dissidents all on their own.
Third: Thorny neighbors. Libya has Egypt on one side and Tunisa on the other--the jewels of the Arab Spring. Syria borders with one of the world's most volatile mixture of countries: Lebanon, Israel, Iraq, Jordan, and Turkey.
Fourth: No allies. Gaddafi has no friends and even his own children wanted to marginalize him. In an unprecedented move, the Arab League supported the establishment of a strictly enforced no-fly zone in Libya. In contrast, Bashar al-Assad has powerful allies inside and outside the region--starting with Iran (and, therefore, Hezbollah and Hamas). It is not even clear if Benjamin Netanyahu and the Israeli government would welcome a chaotic transition of power in Syria. Even Vogue magazine was smitten with this family and wrote a sycophantic article about Asma Assad, "the freshest and most magnetic of first ladies" endowed with "dark-brown eyes, wavy chin-length brown hair, long neck, an energetic grace." It's hard to bomb someone like that.
Fifth: Who to Support? Recently, two senior White House officials told the New York Times that the government's weak response to the events in Syria is in part due to the lack of interlocutors among the opposition. They just don't know who to contact. And another senior U.S. official--who requested anonymity--told me that in his estimate the chaos and carnage following the demise of the Assad regime would be far worse than what it has been so far in any of the other Arab countries undergoing a political transition.
(h/t Josh Lockman)

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