Lobby: Why Washington keeps giving a pass to the Assad regime
How does a small, energy-poor and serially misbehaving Middle Eastern regime always seem to get a Beltway pass? Conspiracy nuts and other tenured faculty would have us believe that country is Israel, though the Jewish state shares America's enemies and our democratic values. But the question really applies to Syria, where the Assad regime is now showing its true nature.
Washington's Syria Lobby is a bipartisan mindset. "The road to Damascus is a road to peace," said Nancy Pelosi on a 2007 visit to Syria as House Speaker. Former Secretary of State James Baker is a longtime advocate of engagement with the House of Assad. So is Republican Chuck Hagel, who in 2008 co-wrote an op-ed with fellow Senator John Kerry in these pages titled "It's Time to Talk to Syria." The Massachusetts Democrat has visited Damascus five times in the past two years alone.
Yesterday, the New York Times quoted a senior Administration official saying the U.S. was reluctant to criticize the Syrian President because he "sees himself as a Westernized leader" and that "he'll react if he believes he is being lumped in with brutal dictators." This was meant as a defense of U.S. policy.
The argument made by the Syria Lobby runs briefly as follows: The Assad family is occasionally ruthless, especially when its survival is at stake, but it's also secular and pragmatic. Though the regime is Iran's closest ally in the Middle East, hosts terrorists in Damascus, champions Hezbollah in Lebanon and has funneled al Qaeda terrorists into Iraq, it will forgo those connections for the right price. Above all, it yearns for better treatment from Washington and the return of the Golan Heights, the strategic plateau held by Israel since 1967.
The Syria Lobby also claims that whoever succeeds Assad would probably be worse. The country is divided by sect and ethnicity, and the fall of the House of Assad could lead to bloodletting previously seen in Lebanon or Iraq. Some members of the Lobby go so far as to say that the regime remains broadly popular. "I think that President Assad is going to count on . . . majoritarian support within the country to support him in doing what he needs to do to restore order," Flynt Leverett of the New America Foundation said recently on PBS's NewsHour.
Now we are seeing what Mr. Leverett puts down merely to the business of "doing what he needs to do": Video clips on YouTube of tanks rolling into Syrian cities and unarmed demonstrators being gunned down in the streets; reports of hundreds killed and widespread "disappearances." Even the Obama Administration has belatedly criticized Assad, though so far President Obama has done no more than condemn his "outrageous human rights abuses."
Maybe this is all part of the Administration's strategic concept of "leading from behind," which is how one official sums up its foreign policy in this week's New Yorker. But the deeper problem is a flawed analysis of the Syrian regime's beliefs, intentions and capacity for change. Run by an Alawite minority, the regime was never going to break with its Shiite benefactors in Tehran and join the Arab Sunni orbit. A regime that builds its domestic legitimacy on hostility to Israel is also unlikely ever to make peace, even if it recovered the Golan.
So it shouldn't surprise that Damascus has only stepped up its anti-American rhetoric since President Obama came to office offering engagement (and lately returning a U.S. ambassador to Damascus after a six-year hiatus), or that its ties to Tehran have only grown closer (as Amir Taheri describes nearby), or that it continues to meddle in Lebanon, which it sees as a part of "Greater Syria." What is surprising is that for so long the U.S. has refused to stare these facts in the face.
Though the Administration complains of lacking leverage with the regime, it could recall our ambassador and expel Syria's emissary from Washington. As the Foundation for Defense of Democracies suggests, the U.S. and Europe could also freeze and seize the assets of the Assads, designate Syria's elite units responsible for human rights abuses as Specially Designated Global Terrorist entities, impose sanctions on companies providing the regime's tools of repression, and provide the Syrian opposition with encrypted communications technology to dodge the regime's surveillance. All this would damage the regime while signaling the opposition not to lose courage.
The Obama Administration's single biggest strategic failure during this Arab spring has been not distinguishing between enemies and friends. Syria's House of Assad is an enemy. The sooner the Administration abandons the counsels of the Syria Lobby, the likelier it will be that Syria becomes a country worth lobbying for.