The Options in Syria

Bashar al-Assad said he'd stop shooting on April 10. He lied. So what now?

The April 10 deadline for Syrian forces to withdraw from major cities set by Kofi Annan, the United Nations and Arab League special envoy for Syria, appears to have come and gone with little change on the ground. Thursday's deadline for a complete ceasefire looks set to pass as well. For now, Annan rightly insists the plan is still on the table. But Syria's last best chance for a diplomatic solution is dying.

If Annan's plan is likely dead, the coroner won't pronounce it for a few more days. Deadlines like these are sometimes rescued in diplomatic overtime. Russian prestige is now on the line, and we may see a last-ditch effort from Moscow to get Assad to comply. The upcoming G8 foreign ministers' meeting in Washington on April 12, where Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will confront an irate Hillary Clinton, might provide an opportunity to break the deadlock between the United States and Russia.

There's precedent for this: When the U.N. Security Council was stalemated in 1999 over Kosovo, it was a G8 meeting that provided the diplomatic breakthrough between the United States and Russia. There will be ferocious diplomacy to that end in the next few days, as well as diplomacy aimed at seeing whether Beijing can be persuaded to play ball -- or at least not block Security Council action -- leaving Moscow more isolated. We could still see the Security Council agreeing to a new resolution, calling on President Bashar al-Assad to implement Annan's plan and agreeing to deploy a monitoring force. Still, those hoping for a diplomatic solution to this mess shouldn't fool themselves -- the odds are low.

But the odds were always low. Several days ago, commentators were busily rehearsing the line that Annan was naive to be "shocked" that Assad broke his promises. Casablanca-style "shocked, shocked" is more like it: Annan is nobody's fool. He has long experience with Assad, and knew full well the odds lay against his following through on any diplomatic solution. The former U.N. secretary-general was not counting on Assad's good will, but on producing a plan that could unify the Security Council, shifting Assad's international calculus. It still might. It probably won't.

Annan and current U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon were right to try. Diplomacy sometimes succeeds in unlikely circumstances, and could have forestalled the inevitable deterioration that will now follow. And if diplomacy irrevocably fails in the next few days, then no one can credibly argue that all other options were not exhausted before more forceful measures are used.

What might those measures be?

There will be new calls for the use of force to achieve regime change. The strong moral pros and substantial operational cons of that option have been fully debated in this magazine and elsewhere. At this stage, there is no sign that the United States, NATO, Turkey, or anyone else is contemplating a full-blown intervention. Indeed, the White House has reportedly signaled to the Syrian opposition recently that it is not prepared to escalate its conflict with the Assad regime.  

A more likely scenario was spelled out by Foreign Policy's own James Traub. His argument is that the least bad option may be one of arming the rebels, supporting them politically if they accept certain basic standards of conduct, and engaging in a slow, drawn-out process of bleeding the regime -- what he calls a "neo-mujahideen" strategy. That phrase deliberately invokes the risks as well as potential gains of such an approach, and there should be no doubting that it carries the danger of major escalation and sectarian clashes.

There is a further option that has not been exhaustively examined: that of a multi-national stabilization force. A stabilization force is neither an intervention nor a peacekeeping tool: It has the military capacity of the former, but the intentions of the latter. It does not aim for regime change, but to stop a particular bout of killing and to prevent more. The deployment of such a force helped stop widespread slaughter by the Indonesian army in East Timor in 1999.

It's neither an easy option nor a silver bullet. Memories of the disastrous U.S.-led multinational force in Beirut in 1982, which ended ignominiously after bombings of the U.S. and French barracks killed 241 American servicemen and 58 French soldiers, still linger. The multinational force deployed to eastern Congo in 1996 to bring an end to massive violence and displacement illustrates the strengths and limitations of this approach. That force achieved its goal: The mere pre-deployment of the force in Entebbe, Uganda, got Rwanda to withdraw its forces back across its border -- but not before Rwanda's rulers killed tens of thousands of former rebels. Still, in both eastern Congo and East Timor, multinational forces probably forestalled a far-worse slaughter.

A stabilization force of this kind can't fight its way into Damascus. The Syrian regime, or at least the army, doesn't have to formally acquiesce to its deployment, but it does have to signal that it won't fight it on the way in. This was the case during the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war, when France, India, Italy, and others sent troops into southern Lebanon as part of a cease-fire arrangement. Hezbollah never agreed to the presence of the force, but quietly sent signals to Paris that it wouldn't contest its deployment.

Why might Syria's forces hold back? First, it's a lot better than opening the door to aggressive attempts at regime change, if those measures start becoming more credible. Second, as in eastern Congo, the pre-deployment of such a force can change the army's calculation. As my Brookings Institution colleague Martin Indyk has pointed out, the Syrian army has no appetite for a confrontation with Turkish forces, and even preparation of a force could shift its psychology and its assessment of the choices it faces. Western powers can also help by increasing the economic costs on Assad's business-community supporters, by working with international financial institutions to stipulate that debt accrued under this regime should be considered "odious" -- a step that would mean debt incurred under this regime need not be paid back, setting out a deeply uncertain economic future for Assad's business-community supporters.

Who could lead such a force? Turkey has understandably equivocated about the option of using its army to help protect civilians or stabilize Syria. The risks Turkey faces are enormous -- but it might be more willing to see its army deployed as part of a multinational force with international authorization, spreading both the operational costs and the political risk. Gulf states such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which have strongly signaled their desire to support the Syrian opposition, would be more than happy to supply the financing.

Such a force would first have to try to win Security Council authorization. Turkey would have to be willing to make the first move, as the willingness of one country to take a leadership role is usually a precondition of authorization. That's already a tough step -- but winning support from China and Russia, veto-wielding members of the Security Council who have already rejected two resolutions targeting Assad, will be even harder. Is it doable?

The odds aren't as slim as one might think. Tactically, the right approach here would be for Turkey to make this proposal, not the United States. The Turks could seek support from its emerging-power friends both inside the Security Council (India, South Africa) and outside it (Brazil, Indonesia). The emerging powers collectively make a great deal of noise about using the Security Council as a tool to avoid force aimed at regime change. So let them lead an effort to do so.

Russia and China would be much harder pressed to oppose an initiative from these emerging powers than from the usual clutch of Western states in the Security Council. The Gulf can put some pressure on China here -- Beijing is distracted by its own problems right now, and how much longer it will provide cover to Moscow's errant allies in Syria remains to be seen.

And if the Security Council won't authorize an international force, NATO or the Arab League could. NATO has been desperate to avoid getting dragged into Syria, but providing diplomatic cover for a multinational force is a different story.

Of course, some of U.S. President Barack Obama's critics would no doubt charge that letting Turkey and others drive a proposal forward amounts to another example of "leading from behind" -- but that criticism would be infantile, and the Obama administration has earned more than enough foreign-policy credibility to turn the other cheek. Once authorized, a force would certainly need U.S. intelligence and tactical support, but not American boots on the ground.

All of this, it bears repeating, is unlikely. There's no overnight deus ex machina here. First, several more days will pass in diplomatic overtime trying to rescue Annan's plan -- infuriatingly so for Syrian civilians, but realistically the right call. Those frustrated by the slow pace of diplomacy must remember that military options will take weeks, if not months, to organize.

Still, faced with a range of other dreadful choices, this one might balance the pros and cons less badly than some. Right now, the so-called international community faces all bad choices, and Assad has the choice of continued slaughter -- in slow motion or high gear. If and when diplomacy does finally fail, the decision to form a multinational force to protect civilians could turn the tables and confront Assad's supporters with bad choices of their own.



Bush Was Right

The former president's Freedom Agenda correctly identified the Middle East's dictatorships as the incubators of extremism.

When mass demonstrations began spreading across the Arab world early last year, conservative commentators lost no time in singing the praises of George W. Bush, the first U.S. president to aggressively push for democratization in the region.

Today, with Islamists dominating politics wherever tyrants have stumbled or fallen, many of those who waxed eloquent about Bush's Freedom Agenda have either fallen silent or taken to arguing that Islamist ascendancy will prove to be a temporary setback on the road to liberal democracy. Those who were critical of it all along are having a field day.

In fact, even if the Arab Spring constitutes "an unshackling of Islam, not an outbreak of fervor for freedom in the Western sense," it is proof positive that the Bush administration correctly diagnosed the causes of Arab political dysfunction and made extraordinarily sound -- if short-lived -- policy changes to combat it.

In the wake of 9/11, the White House openly repudiated the longstanding conventional wisdom that U.S.-backed autocratic regimes in the Middle East served as bulwarks against the regional and international security threat posed by radical Islamism. Al Qaeda was then a largely Saudi and Egyptian network, its leadership drawn primarily from disgruntled subjects of the Arab world's two most powerful pro-American governments. The Bush administration quickly recognized that authoritarianism had swelled the ranks of radical Islamist movements by traumatizing Arab citizens and eradicating alternate channels of political expression, while Washington's longstanding support for this state of affairs infused them with hatred of America.

To make matters worse, Arab regimes typically sought to co-opt Islamists by introducing illiberal religious dogma into education, civil law, and media, allowing them to advance their long-term goal of Islamizing society in exchange for short-term political quietism. Those who persisted in subversive activity were typically imprisoned and tortured, then released into exile to seek other paths to martyrdom.

The Bush administration was not the first to recognize that the political survival strategies of friendly Arab regimes were fueling the growing threat of transnational Islamist terrorism, but it was the first to take bold action to address the problem. President Bill Clinton's administration understood the malignant spillover effects of autocracy in the region, but believed that democratization in the Middle East was a pipe dream in the absence of a comprehensive settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Pushing for political reform before a resolution was in hand, the reasoning went, would only alienate Arab governments whose cooperation was needed to achieve a diplomatic breakthrough.

By the time Bush took office, however, prospects for a peace settlement were at a nadir. Given the multitude of septuagenarian and octogenarian heads of state in the Arab world and the growing impact of communications technology in weakening authoritarian controls, the assumption that political reform could wait for peace was dismissed as untenable.

Bush administration officials feared a repeat of Iran's 1979 revolution, when the collapse of an oppressive, U.S.-backed government led to a power vacuum that violently anti-American Islamists were best positioned to exploit. Iraq aside, the Freedom Agenda was intended less to bring about full-blown transitions to democracy than to treat the pathologies of existing regimes, maximize the capacity of secular opposition groups to compete with Islamists, and dispel the widespread belief among Arabs that the United States, as Al-Quds al-Arabi editor Abdelbari Atwan once put it, "wants us to have dictators and monarchical presidents."

Of course, this policy shift did not gain consensus in Washington purely on the basis of such pragmatic considerations. Bush's soaring rhetoric about democracy gratified conservative perceptions of American exceptionalism, provided ideological cover for the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq, and dovetailed neatly with efforts by Israel's supporters to discredit the claim that Arabs hate the United States primarily because of its support for the Jewish state.

Whatever the motivations of its fair-weather advocates, however, the Bush administration's commitment to effecting political liberalization in the region was genuine. It was uneven in practice, to be sure -- countries heavily dependent on U.S. aid were pressured far more than the oil-rich monarchies, for example, where the United States had little leverage.

The administration's flagship democracy promotion effort targeted Egypt -- recipient of more than $1.5 billion in annual military and economic aid -- and it was no joke. The Bush administration pressured Cairo to hold its freest parliamentary elections in decades, vastly increased U.S. aid to Egyptian NGOs working for political reform, and directed the U.S. Embassy to devote a large portion of its resources to civil society outreach. While his predecessor never dreamed of publicly pressuring a friendly Arab leader to release a political prisoner, Bush launched high-profile campaigns of diplomatic and economic pressure to win the release of liberal Egyptian dissidents Saad Eddin Ibrahim and Ayman Nour.

In the wake of Islamist electoral advances in Egypt and Gaza, deteriorating security conditions in Iraq, and the resurgence of Iranian regional influence, the Freedom Agenda encountered growing objections from in Washington. As a result, American pressure for reform in Egypt began to taper off in 2006 -- but it was hardly abandoned. American aid to reformist NGOs continued apace, while the U.S. Embassy in Cairo remained active behind the scenes encouraging and defending pro-democracy activists, as revealed in State Department cables released by WikiLeaks.

The Bush administration succeeded in cultivating the perception among educated Arabs that America is sympathetic to -- if not always willing to do much about -- their political grievances. Even the deputy head of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, Muhammad Habib, grudgingly admitted in 2005 that Mubarak's introduction of reforms "could have been the result of pressure from the United States."

President Barack Obama came into office with grand, if unimaginative, ambitions of reviving the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, which placed a high premium on the cooperation of Arab governments. To accomplish this goal, he quickly strove to patch up American relations with Middle Eastern autocrats whose cooperation he needed to impose a top-down solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict -- or at least a Rose Garden signing likely to endure through the 2012 U.S. election cycle. The Freedom Agenda had to go.

In Egypt, the new administration broadcast clear signals that dissidents should not expect American help in resisting a hereditary succession. During her March 2009 trip to Cairo, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton dismissed a reporter's inquiry about the Mubarak regime's poor human rights record by saying "we all have room for improvement" and calling the Egyptian president and his wife "friends of my family." The Washington Post presciently accused her of obliviously offending "millions of Egyptians who loathe Mr. Mubarak's oppressive government and blame the United States for propping it up." When an equally oblivious Obama paused in expectation of applause after proclaiming that democracy should not be "imposed" by outsiders in his landmark June 2009 speech in Cairo, he was greeted with silence.

Meanwhile, the White House cut aid to Egyptian reform NGOs by half and redirected the remainder away from NGOs not approved by the government. In 2009, Mubarak made his first visit to Washington in five years, while his son and heir apparent, Gamal, visited twice. This caused an uproar among democracy activists, and contributed to a decline in the percentage of Egyptians holding favorable views of the United States from 30 percent in 2006 to 17 percent in 2010.

The Obama administration did not go full circle in its toleration of Egyptian tyranny, but only because American democracy promotion efforts had become too institutionalized to completely jettison without drawing negative publicity. But there is no doubt that it gravely underestimated popular anger at the Mubarak regime and scaled back U.S. support for pro-democracy initiatives at precisely the moment when secular liberal opposition forces needed it most.

In the end, Washington's support for Mubarak was sufficient to encourage his pursuit of a hereditary succession, but insufficient to actually enable it. It left secular liberal political forces powerful enough to crack the authoritarian edifice, but woefully unequipped to assert themselves when the levee broke. And what a flood it has been: Islamists won more than 70 percent of the seats in Egypt's November 2011 parliamentary elections, and Muslim Brotherhood candidate Khairat el-Shater is the apparent front-runner in next month's presidential election.

This trend is not confined to Egypt.  In Tunisia and Morocco, Islamists won a plurality of seats in recent elections.  Whether it proves to be a fleeting aberration or blankets the region with a new generation of theocratic tyrannies, however, the Islamist surge  underscores that the Bush administration's reading of the political dynamics at work in Egypt and the broader Arab world was essentially correct, with one minor exception -- the day of reckoning came sooner than anyone expected.

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