It’s a Long Road to Damascus

By Rahul Ravi

A lot of criticism has recently been lobbied at international forces for their unwillingness to take concrete action against the Syrian regime.  The Republican Party in Washington wants the administration to pull its ambassador because several other Arab and European states have done so.  Academia has criticized the US and Turkey for the lack of gumption to call for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down.  And while these intentions are noble, unless the US or the UN or NATO is willing to take military action in Syria to protect the protestors, there is really nothing the international community can readily do.

The United States, as my colleague in his post below has pointed out, has no leverage with Syria left. It has already tried to sanction Syria into the ground and recently focused its economic ire on the leadership.  However, given that Syria does almost no business with the United States, this leverage can only go so far.  A country that Syria does do business with, Turkey, while quickly shifting to condemnation of the regime, is loath to do anything to interrupt those ties.  Neither is it quick to the trigger because of the triggers Reed mentions below.  However, there is another reason that both nations have been slow to deal with the situation in Syria: future power projection.

The US and Turkey are heading in opposite directions when it comes to soft power projection in the Middle East.  But they are stuck facing the same conundrum.  Do Washington and Ankara quickly seize the momentum of the Arab Spring and call for regime change at the outset, thereby endearing themselves to the people and risk alienating those in power? Or do they wait for the dust to settle and reset relations given the new landscape?  For Turkey, the reaction has been a case by case evaluation depending on the situation at hand focusing mainly on preserving Ankara’s reputation at home and abroad.  Quick in Egypt (out with the dictator! power to the people!) but slow in Libya (it will hurt Turkish business! no Western forces in a Muslim country!).  For the United States, it has been the latter reaction all along.  With the exception of Libya, which garnered international condemnation and a UN resolution, the US gave the benefit of the doubt to both Ben Ali and Mubarak until it was popularly untenable, then quickly seized the opportunity and sided with the people.

Syria challenges the United States and Turkey because the outcome of the situation is more ambiguous than either Tunisia, Egypt, or Libya.  If Washington calls for Assad to step down and he decides to fight to the very end, then the US implicitly realizes that its lack of efficacy on the ground.  In effect, the emperor will have no clothes, if he had any to begin with.  In the same situation, Ankara risks losing Syria completely to Iran along with its lucrative business deals and any ambition to stake Turkish influence in the “heart of the Arab world.”

For both Washington and Ankara, a falling and rising regional power, the risks are the same.  So why take them? Both play the waiting game because, frankly, its the only card they have.  The Obama Administration, while reportedly on the way to call for Assad’s ouster, has yet to do so even though Bashar has given them all the reason to.  Ankara condemned the violence at the start of Ramadan as “unacceptable”, but has yet to take concrete action.  It is because both countries have come to a grim realization: Damascus is on the slow path to self destruction.

For every Syrian that Assad kills, support for his regime is falling left and right.  Arab nations concertedly withdrew their ambassadors.  Russia, usually friendly towards its Cold War protege, has turned chilly.  Even Hezbollah has been reluctant to show Assad support.  The only friend Syria has in the region now is an equally isolated Iran – an Iran without the political or economic might to keep Assad afloat for very long. So there is no reason to rush to action.

While pressure may be the “right” thing to do in terms of human rights and moral considerations, this is the Syrian people’s fight.  They have acknowledged that much themselves.  So why would Washington remove Ambassador Ford, its biggest soft power tool (as seen in Hama recently), right now when they could just wait for Assad to give him the old persona non grata boot?  It would continue the narrative that Syria is isolating itself with its actions instead of being isolated.  Same with Turkey.  Ankara should condemn the actions of the regime and give them a way out all the while.  Therefore, they could say “hey we tried with this guy but he just wouldn’t listen.”  By doing this and playing the waiting game, both nations are shifting the blame and culpability further onto Assad.  It is preventing the narrative of foreign intervention from gaining a foothold in Syria.  And while this game might be immoral and bereft of humanitarian concerns, it is, sadly, the only one left in Damascus.

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3 Comments

Filed under Rahul Ravi, Syria

3 responses to “It’s a Long Road to Damascus

  1. Pingback: Turkey’sSyri « بنسبة لنا

  2. Nice analysis. This makes me wonder why exactly Saudi Arabia did not take a similar approach. While there has been some ‘counter-revolutionary’ characteristics in recent Saudi moves vis-a-vis the region, the decision to strongly criticize Assad and recall its ambassador is clearly a move drenched in realpolitik. Riyadh must have determined that the instability created by the fall of Assad was worth the benefit derived from a black-eye for Tehran and thus backed the protesters. Certainly, though, Saudi could have accomplished this by taking the Turkish approach of offering alternatives and dialogue while simultaneously denouncing Iranian interference.

    Of course, Saudi does not have as much to lose as Turkey, but a more strategic stance could have achieved the same goals and given Saudi a leg-up in post-revolution Syria, regardless of the outcome.

  3. Rahul Ravi

    Thanks for the comment and the mention on your site!

    I think the Saudi strategy here is, like you said, steeped in realpolitik. Their main goal in Syria is to curb Iranian influence and at the same time grow theirs. However, I think they believe that any negotiated settlement might keep the Alawite military in control, which won’t do them any good. Chaos in Syria however, followed by sectarian conflict, is more likely to eventually put Sunnis in power (just like Iraq’s civil war put Shias in power). This would go a long way to reestablishing Saudi Arabia’s power there. I think that Riyadh in confident that if Assad falls and civil war breaks out, they can effectively bankroll the Sunni contingent in a proxy war against Tehran. When the dust settles, they would welcome Damascus into the Sunni fold.

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