by Sol Schindler
Events in Syria appear to be heading to a point where one can say with reasonable certitude that the al Assad regime is in its last year. The rebels continue to gain ground while public appearances by Bashir al Assad are rare, his last being simply an inflexible iteration of his position in contrast to hints by his two international allies, Russia and Iran, of possible truces and negotiated settlements. Where does the United States stand in the face of these developments? Up until now our preferred position has been in the back seat, either because we found it the most advantageous position to be in to exert our influence, or simply because we had no idea of what to do if we were in the front seat. But now things are coming to a climax and we may expect within the next few months a new government to be formed in Syria, although fighting may not necessarily come to an end. Should we maintain our position in the back seat and simply say outrageous when a massacre is reported, or should we actually try to influence events as best as we can?
Many writers have pointed out that in the murky scene of Syria it is difficult to distinguish a crypto-fascist Islamist from a moderate, liberal-leaning secularist. Both will accept with gratitude any arms we give them, and both will use them against the current dictator. But we have no surety on what will follow. Accordingly, we have given arms to no one, and, accordingly, there is no feeling of kinship with the United States, or feelings of mutual effort against the crimes endemic with dictatorships.
On this whole question of identity, of who is with us and who is agin us, I ask the question of what happened to the Foreign Service. Back in the dim golden years when things occasionally worked, I was sent abroad to learn something about the country I was assigned to, and interact with the local population. If it was simply a question of writing a press release I could have done that easily at home. Surely we now have enough Arab experts who can give us guidance on how to choose Arab friends. Granted not all foreign service officers are mental giants, but there must be some in every embassy who know what they are doing.
Several months ago the Syrian Free Army told us that a no fly zone over some corner of Syria would be very helpful. This would indeed have been a public diplomacy coup of the first order. A public area where people could line up in front of a bakery without being shot or bombed, thanks to the U.S.A. Who could object other than the Assad regime whom we have already told to step down and make way for a more democratically constituted government. We did not respond to this request presumably because such a move would put us into conflict with the Syrian air force and its anti-aircraft elements. The administration was determined not to have to send troops into Syria, a position backed by most of the public, and therefore refrained from initiating any conflict that a no fly zone was bound to make happen. If, however, we look at the relations between Syria and Israel we will note a number of air combats, all of them disastrous for Syria, but none precipitated a war. War came when the Syrians thought it would be advantageous for them. We can rely on our air force not to go beyond the boundaries set for them and to take care of anyone attempting to interfere with their objective. As for Syria’s presumed allies, our relations with both Russia and Iran are already strained and a decisive action such as a no fly zone might persuade them that we actually mean what we say; but we have refrained and it is probably too late now to reconsider.
There are other, non-violent, strategies that have worked elsewhere and though not particularly original might still be useful. A reward could be offered to any Syrian Air Force pilot who brings his plane to a neutral airdrome and therefore puts it out of action. Even if such a reward is never claimed its mere existence could cause confusion and worry in the Syrian administration and snarl defensive action. Other simple and not so simple tricks are known by our strategists but we refrain.
There is an element of our population that does not want us to aid the rebels and their views must be taken into account. A very intelligent pastor in Virginia believes that the lives of Syrian Christians, who number 10% of the population, will be in jeopardy if the rebels win. He foresees, as so many others do, a Syrian government run by either the Muslim Brotherhood or a similar extremist organization.An op ed in the Washington Post recently argued that Syria was not really our business. We have been engaged in two long unproductive wars and we should stay out of this one. This last makes the common and not very thought out assumption that all decisive action leads to either abject surrender or war. That is not necessarily true. Massacres and resistance to massacres do not by themselves cause war. War comes when the heads of state feel there is no better alternative.
The UN has now estimated fatalities in the Syrian conflict to be over 60,000 with an accelerating rate for the coming year. Some of those unfortunate deaths are bound to have been of Christians, who being very much a minority are vulnerable to all extreme changes. It goes without saying that we should protect the Christians when we can, but the best way to do that is to back a government that insures civil liberties for all, believers and non-believers alike. To do that, we have to get out of the back seat.
The views expressed by the author are his own.