Small Wars Journal

Parsing the Options to Weaken Assad's Regime

Sun, 02/19/2012 - 8:50am

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With another double veto in the UN Security Council courtesy of Russia and China, the United States, Europe, the Arab League, and Syrians themselves are once again scratching their heads over how to compel Bashar al-Assad to cease his “killing machine” before its too late.  The Security Council has been effectively neutered by Russian and Chinese objections to any resolution that implies an Assad resignation.  Hours of tedious last-minute negotiations to salvage the text and get Russia on board proved to be a waste of time.  In the near term at least, the Security Council option has been shut down.

All of this leaves the Obama administration and its colleagues in Great Britain, France, Germany, and the Arab League clamoring for answers.  Unlike in Libya, where international institutions rose to the challenge and were fundamental in protecting the Libyan people from Muammar al-Qaddafi’s regime, there are too many diverging interests in the Syrian conflict for the world to speak with a unified voice.  Russia, concerned of losing its only remaining ally in the Middle East, is doing whatever it can, short of military intervention, to protect Assad’s regime.  This has left the rest of the Council flummoxed and disappointed, with US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice calling Moscow’s veto “outrageous.”

Washington, now fully invested in the conflict’s resolution, is now searching for new answers in order to press Bashar al-Assad and his security forces into a corner. Unfortunately, the list of options is short, with some like a new UN Generally Assembly condemnation symbolically powerful, but practically insignificant.  Others, like a Libya-style intervention or airstrikes on Syria’s defenses, is either impractical or politically explosive.  Thus, here are some of the steps that western and Arab may be mulling over, as the violence gets increasingly savage-like.

1.  Another UN Security Council Vote- Given Moscow and Beijing’s steadfast alliance in the Council, this alternative may sound a bit contradictory, if not entirely foolish.  Russia and China have made it abundantly clear that they view any anti-Assad measure as unnecessary foreign intervention in an internal conflict, which must be solved among and between Syrians.  But with the United States, Britain, and France picking up the support of rising powers (like India and South Africa) during the last Security Council vote, Russian and Chinese delegates are becoming ever more isolated in the world body.  The downside, of course, is that both countries would stick to their guns, despite the embarrassment of siding with a leader that has been asked to leave by the entire Security Council.

2.  Statements, Resolutions, and Action in United Nations General Assembly- Much like the Security Council option, any statement and/or resolution that the entire UN Assembly would endorse is unlikely to have any lasting effects on the ground.  But a statement denouncing Assad’s criminal behavior would at least demonstrate just how alone Syria really is in the world today.  Despite the many issues that continue to divide members of the United Nations (whether it concerns Iran’s uranium enrichment efforts or the Israel’s settlement building on Palestinian land), Assad’s demeaning and barbaric treatment of the Syrian people is a topic much of the world can agree on. 

Just yesterday, the UN General Assembly took its most substantive step yet in voicing its utter shock and frustration over the Syrian Government’s crackdown, voting 137-12 on a resolution that Russia and China objected to only two weeks ago. The groundwork was laid days earlier for this successful vote, when the UN’s top human rights official, Navi Pillay, unveiled her latest report to the entire Assembly.  Her words were both emotional over the plight of those held hostage in their homes, and contemptuous of the Syrian leadership’s total disregard of humanity and common decency.

After the huge disappointment that was the Security Council veto, it looks like US, Arab, and European diplomats have regained some of that momentum through improvising.US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, with US Ambassador Susan Rice leading the effort at UN headquarters, may find it worthwhile to extend that momentum a little longer in the Assembly by pressing those nations that have abstained into backing its overwhelming position.The Russians and Chinese will not admit it, but it is awfully difficult to argue that both have not been severely embarrassed by 137 countries.Whether Assad’s diplomatic cover has gotten thinner is still not a certainty at this point.

3.  Sponsoring an internal Syrian dialogue- Moscow and Beijing have both attempted to step into the international spotlight on the Syrian issue, sending delegates and low-level envoys to Damascus for discussions about the crisis.  Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov traveled to Syria last week and met with President Assad himself.  China has decided to once again follow Moscow’s tracks, mimicking Russia’s strategy by sending its own Vice Foreign Minister in the hopes that some kind of understanding between the two can be shared. And much like Russia’s meaningless venture to its Syrian ally, the United States, Europe, and the Arab League should expect nothing more from this exchange other than a few diplomatic niceties and promises to end the violence as soon as possible.   The Syrian opposition is in no mood for talks now that 7,000 Syrian civilians have been martyred by their own government.

The Syrian National Council (SNC) has time and again rejected any conference that would include Assad as an equal.  Doing so would inadvertently give Assad the national credibility he has been seeking all this time.  Syrians on the ground would also respond to the initiative as an insult to the sacrifices and hardship they and their families have endured for the past 11 months.  Yet on the other hand, proceeding with the conference and allowing Russia/China’s calls for dialogue to fail may just convince both powers that President Assad is not the heroic terrorism fighter that he claims to be, but rather an autocrat hell-bent on destroying the opposition through indiscriminate tank fire and mortar attack.

4.  Funneling Weapons to the Free Syrian Army- As the security situation in Syria has deteriorated further over the past month, a growing number of lawmakers in the US Congress are pressing the Obama administration to consider forging a closer relationship with the growing network of army defectors. John McCain and Joe Lieberman, two senior-level members of the Senate, have explicitly said in their own statements that the United States cannot simply sit while more Syrian civilians die at the hands of their own government.  Senator John Kerry, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has indicated that Syrians have the right to defend themselves.  Senators Bob Casey, Marco Rubio, Kristen Gillibrand, Dick Durban, and Barbara Boxer submitted a bipartisan resolution that would ask the President to use all of his authority to provide the Syrian opposition with “material and technical support.”  The Pentagon, always undertaking contingency options, has already begun to draw up plans in the event that the President orders a military operation of some kind inside Syrian territory. 

It is difficult to envision a loosely grouped bunch of fighters with questionable command-and-control driving back a fully equipped Syrian army without an assortment of heavy weapons, which at the moment is still politically sensitive in Washington.  With the weaker side getting armed, the violence in Syria would also get worse, resulting in a death toll that could potentially be far higher than the numbers we are witnessing today. The Iranian Government would be sure to increase their own arms shipments and intelligence support to Bashar al-Assad’s regime, which is highly likely due to Syria’s central location in an otherwise anti-Iranian Sunni Arab world.  Perhaps even more self-defeating, the empty narrative that Bashar al-Assad has used throughout the conflict—that he is confronting armed groups financed and assisted from abroad—would strangely be given some credence.  With the Syrian Government line suddenly plausible, Assad would be granted the gift of using foreign assistance to the Free Syrian Army as an excuse to ramp up his crackdown to an even fiercer degree.

5.  Forming a “Friends of Democratic Syria: Contact Group- This is the most likely option for the United States, both in the short and long terms.  The creation of a contact-group would bring dozens of countries together under the same umbrella, for the same purpose—pushing Assad out of power and assisting Syrians who are being cornered by the regime’s security forces.  Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is adamant about forming such a group, which would increase coordination among western and Arab nations outside of the UN process.  If such a group were to be formed, civil society organizations, watchdog groups, and the opposition Syrian National Council should be given seats at the table—attacking the regime both through formal governments and through independent and nonpartisan humanitarian organizations.  The mere formation of a “Friends of Democratic Syria” group would serve a purpose in and of itself, both as a force-multiplier for increasing morale within the ranks of the opposition, as well as providing a visible and comforting commitment to others in the region who are still fighting for democratic transitions in their own countries.

6.  Establishment of a Joint UN-Arab League Monitoring Mission in Syria- Arab League Secretary General Nabil Elaraby is reported to have broached the subject of another observer mission inside Syria to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, this time with UN assistance. A previous Arab League observation resulted in nothing more than increased media coverage of the crisis, which has dominated the newspapers worldwide since then.  No Arab monitor was able to get anything done due to the mission’s narrow mandate in watching what was happening on the ground.  Elaraby eventually decided to temporarily scrap the program altogether, allowing its members to go home for a break. 

It is difficult to see what another observer mission, even with backing and participation from the United Nations, would achieve other than documenting what the world already knows about Assad’s security forces.  Unless the monitors were permitted to do their work unencumbered by the Syrian Government and allowed access to all parts of the country, any Arab-UN venture would simply be more of the same.  The benefit, of course, is that the United Nations would be intimately involved in the process.  Yet Assad has shown contempt for the international community for 11 months now.  Thus, Assad magically changing his behavior is slim at best.   And this is assuming that the Syrian authorities would allow the mission to take place.

7.  Humanitarian Corridors in Neighboring Countries- France has been especially outspoken in supporting programs inside Syrian borders that would alleviate the population’s suffering and dire conditions.  French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe recently proposed setting up a system of internationally-guarded humanitarian safe-zones, which would presumably be located along Syria’s border areas.  Under the plan, international forces would defend the area in the contingency of a Syrian Government attack, providing the Syrian people with partial relief from the hellish life they have been experiencing over the past year. 

The idea is an interesting one, in that it appeals directly to the needs of the Syrian population without pushing for regime-change.  Such language could help ease the concern that Russia and China have been having over Assad’s immediate future.  Assad’s regime, however, is sure to reject any option that encroaches upon its sovereignty and territorial integrity—two phrases that the Syrian authorities have used as a crutch ever since peaceful protests have brewed into an armed insurgency.  There is a high likelihood that the Syrian security forces would view the corridors, whatever their humanitarian intentions, within the context of Libya, where a safe-zone in Benghazi eventually coalesced into a lethal revolutionary army against Muammar al-Qaddafi.  Assad’s ability to cause trouble in the immediate neighborhood could also give Syria’s neighbors (particularly Jordan, Iraq, and Lebanon) second thought on even considering hosting the corridors in the first place.

8.  Officially Recognize the Syrian National Council- Of all the opposition movements in Syria today, the Syrian National Council (SNC) remains the most prominent, both in its membership and in its relationship with the outside world.  The SNC, composed of a combination of exiles and young Syrian dissidents, repeatedly issues news releases and press conferences on the Syrian Government’s brutality.  As the conflict has gotten deadlier, SNC representatives have reached out to the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the group of army defectors resisting the Syrian security forces, with outstretched hands.  The two have attempted to increase their coordination on all aspects of the Syrian revolution, issuing press statements together and keeping one another informed about their own developments, inside and outside of the country.

Unfortunately, SNC ranks are still not completely united.  The council encompasses a vast range of ideologies, political beliefs, and opinions—including on the issue of whether the international community should intervene militarily.  The disparate collection of varying beliefs is, at least today, as much of a negative as a positive.  The United States, Britain, France, and Arab nations have yet to officially recognize the SNC as the legitimate representatives of the Syrian people (although SecState Clinton met with the SNC in Washington last year.)  Libya’s interim National Transitional Council is the only state so far to have named the SNC as Syria’s government-in-exile.  Many are still not convinced that the SNC is fully supported by most Syrian protesters, let alone on possessing what it takes to govern the country if and when Assad’s regime implodes. 

Nonetheless, official recognition would be a major boost to the morale of a large chunk of the political opposition, perhaps persuading smaller dissent groups in Syria to drop their own claims for international legitimacy.  But for this to happen, the SNC must continue its work on giving Syria’s minority communities a say in their leadership.  Without providing Alawites, Christians, Druze, Assyrians, and Shia an escape clause for a brighter future, they will continue to cling onto Assad as their best hope for their personal security on the cusp of an uncertain, if not repercussion-filled, transition. 

These are only a few of the policies that the United States and its allies may be considering.  There are doubtless many more.  All have their potential benefits, costs, and effects on the region as a whole.  Yet for the Syrians who are dying every day, anything is better than confronting the weight of a fully-stocked army alone, without concrete international support. 



Categories: UN - Syria - r2p

About the Author(s)


Daniel R. DePetris is an independent researcher and a Small Wars Journal contributor.  All views expressed are the author's alone.


Scott Kinner

Sat, 02/25/2012 - 1:44pm

Concur with the other comments - most of the articles I've seen posted here and elsewhere seem to use, as their point of departure, an assumption that "we" should do something, that "we" possess the moral authority to do that something, and that "we" possess the correct solutions to impose upon the warring parties.

To put it another way - how can you posit "solutions" if you haven't already assumed a position of righteousness? I, as well as others, challenge this base assumption.

This is not a detour into post-modern relativism to ask this question. I find the paradox disturbing that we can both recoil from attempts to "nation build" in one part of the world while embracing the concept in another. One of the things we state we have learned out of the Iraq and Afghanistan experiences (which we supposedly had already learned in Somalia) is that we lack the willpower necessary to confront a culture head-on, destroy it, and rebuild it in our own image.

We should be learning from the Arab Spring that the revolutionary face presented to us by the media - inevitably pro-Western - probably does not actually represent the outlook and nature of the rest of the populace in terms of ideology, belief, and outlook.

The vetoes of Russian and China have much to do with their own interests in the area, but also much to do with a reaction to what they see as "the West" appearing to fall back in love with Manifest Destiny and the White Man's Burden, but under a different name - for example, the "right" to protect. A "right" largely created by the West, unchallenged within the "West," by a "West" that assumes the moral authority to create and exercise that "right."

I would think, but apparently this is not the case, that those loosely associated with the West should have learned by now that large swaths of the rest of the world do not assign us the pure motives that we assign ourselves...

Robert C. Jones

Mon, 02/20/2012 - 8:31am

How do "WE" "Weaken" "Assad's regime".

There are so many problems with this:

1. Why "we" and who is "we"?

2. Why "weaken" or "strengthen,” why not "improve"?

3. Why worry about "Assad's regime" and not focus more on "Syrian governance"?

When we can ask questions more along the lines of: "How does Syria best get to better governance, and what, if anything, can external parties do to assist that process"? Then we will be moving into a topic area that can produce some productive outputs.

This is not about Assad, and this is not about the US. So the two most powerful "legitimate" actors in the mix need to just check their egos at the door. It's not about you. This is primarily about the Syrian people, and like all "people" of any nation, it is a complex mix of populaces, justice and injustice, haves and have nots, winners and losers, privileged and excluded, etc. All in a framework of shared history, blended cultures, and the geopolitical realities of where they are located on the planet and the times they live in.

In times not that far past, a powerful state believing itself to have interests in the region could easily overwhelm the military and popular power of a small state like Syria, suppress revolutionary activity and impose whatever type of government they thought would best suit their interests there. In fact, that is the path that leads us to where we are today.

In those times past, leaders, like Assad's father, could similarly employ loyal security forces and the power of the state to crush any excluded populaces who felt compelled to act out for change with little consequence. That too has changed.

Foreign polices much become smarter, less focused on controlling specific outcomes, and more attuned to the nature of the unrest, the identities that shape the populaces in play, and the issues that truly move those populaces to either act out, remain semi-neutral, or actively support the current government. Foreign policies also need to put a much finer point on what things are truly a nation's "interests" and of those, which are truly "vital." When one fails to do this one turns into a clumsy, self-serving meddling ass. British foreign policy was like this once upon a time, certainly US foreign policy is today. So, in many ways it naturally comes with being a powerful, globally engaged maritime/commerce-based nation. But one must learn to curb the natural tendencies of being in that role, or deal with the consequences of poor decisions.

There is, I believe, a role for foreign intervention to help the Syrian people get to a more stable nation with a form of governance that more effectively serves the entire populace in a manner found generally acceptable and over which the populace feels they exercise reasonable control. I doubt very much, however, that the US is the proper nation to lead that effort. I also doubt very much any such effort would not fall into the pitfalls of the type of thinking that frames the title of this article. One viable, but messy, COA is to simply let things play out. Hold coats and keep others from pitching in to upset the natural balance of the contest. Another is to encourage more credible voices to engage and encourage Assad to evolve with the times, and listen to his people; to work with them to enact small changes that can have major impact.

The Bible tells us that when offered any power, Solomon prayed for wisdom. Seems he had more of that than the average leader to begin with.

Bill M.

Mon, 02/20/2012 - 10:00pm

What seems to be missing is the reason we would want to weaken the Assad regime? What do we expect to follow his fall? Why is that in the interests of U.S., the region, and the "majority" of the Syrian people? This conflict has been presented in the media as forces of good versus evil, but the reality is more complex, which is why several nations voted no or abstained.

On a related manner, I wasn't surprised at the number of Latin American nations that opposed Yankee intervention in the internal affairs of other nations, but do we really want to continue pursuing a global foreign policy that is isolating us from the nations in our backyard. Most Latin American nations are tired of us isolating Cuba and intervening in their internal affairs, and they see that same behavior globally. The Cold War is over, but we continue to pursue Cold War policies that are a detriment to our economic interests (which implies our security interests) because of a few far right voices that claim to be fighting against tolatarism, but are in fact prolonging it with their policies, and the people of Latin America can see this.

We can't save the Middle East from itself, but we can definitely improve our relationship with Latin America. This is a region we currently tend to view from a counternarcotic lens only, but it is rapidly developing and if we're not careful we'll continue to be left on the sidelines because we want to intervene in a situation that is far from black and white in Syria (and other places), and continue to isolate Cuba instead of creating an environment that creates its own graviational pull that will prompt Cubans to voluntarily reform their country, their way.

On the UN resolution for Syria:

12 countries that voted no: Bolivia, Belarus, Cuba, China, Ecuador, Iran, Nicaragua, North Korea, Russia, Syria, Venezuela, Zimbabwe (5 from Latin America/Caribbean)

16 countries that abstained: Angola, Armenia, Fiji, Cameroon, Comoros, Myanmar, Namibia, Nepal, Philippines, Sri Lanka, St. Vincent, Suriname, Tanzania, Tuvalu, Uganda, Vietnam (2 from LA/Caribbean)