United States Policy in Syria: Masterful Inaction?

Salman Sheikh and I look at the rise and fall of the House of Asad in our chapter, “Syria: The Ghosts of Hama,” in The Arab Awakening. We note that Hafiz al-Asad ran a close second to Saddam Hussein as the most brutal dictator in the Arab world—an approach his son Bashar has continued. The chapter argues that the Asad regime is in a state of slow motion collapse, and it urges the United States to play a more aggressive role in hastening its fall. So far, President Obama has resisted demands for a more vigorous policy. To be sure, the United States has not been totally idle.

For instance, the ambassador, Robert Ford, has recently been sent back to Syria. Ford, one will recall, was brought home in October amid threats to his life by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Asad. What exactly is he going to be doing now that he is back in Damascus? State Department spokesman Mark Toner recently explained: “He’s going to continue the same kind of work he did previously, which is delivering our message of support for the Syrian people and trying to provide reliable reporting on the situation on the ground, and engaging as best he can, given the limitations, the full spectrum of Syrian society on how to both end the bloodshed and begin a democratic transition.”

Really? What good are messages of support to unarmed protestors as they face off against well-armed death squads? And are conversations on the ground what we really need in order to figure out how to stop the violence? Of course not. We already know that nothing short of President Asad’s ouster will bring this conflict to a close.

If so, then why doesn’t President Obama put together a diplomatic coalition dedicated to compelling Asad, by all means short of military intervention, to step down? The president is difficult to read on this issue. He probably fears a slippery slope. If he takes the lead, he risks becoming involved in an open-ended conflict that will generate calls for boots on the ground. After Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, Washington has had its fill of regime-change policies.  In addition, the president can clearly see that Asad’s days are numbered. He no doubt calculates that the United States can simply stand on the sidelines and reap all of the benefits of an aggressive regime-change policy without any of the costs. “We’re all waiting for the thing that will crack them,” an Obama administration official recently stated. “And it will be the economy that will wake everybody up, both those who support him, and Asad and his circle.”

The best name for this policy is masterful inaction. Critics, among whom I would number myself, would say that there is nothing masterful about it. In our eyes, it is cynical. It makes a show of trying to stop the violence while knowing full well that pious calls for an end to the killing will have only marginal influence. In addition, it amounts to an abdication of the traditional leadership role that the United States has played in the Middle East for the last fifty years. The key challenge for us critics, however, is to prove that a more pronounced American leadership role will lead to tangible benefits that will not be realized by simply standing on the sidelines. 

When the challenge is posed in that manner, the most important arguments center around the need to counter Iran and its influence. The fight in Syria today is two contests in one. It is a struggle between Syrians over the nature of their government and society, but it is also a regional rivalry between Iran and its adversaries. Tehran and its allies are working very hard to ensure that Asad stays in power. If he falls, they will work equally hard to shape the new order in a way that protects their key security interests. The United States has a considerable interest in weakening Iran regionally. It cannot assume that events will naturally lead to permanent damage to the interests of Tehran. If Washington does not join the game, it is unlikely to win.