The Caravan

Syria: Policy Challenges and Policy Options

Thursday, February 23, 2012

The unfolding Syrian crisis presents the U.S with a manifold policy dilemma.  Several issues and challenges are at stake:

1) The current impasse is likely to continue for some time and with it the unacceptable massive killing of civilians.

2) The future of Syria is of crucial importance for the Middle East. The replacement of the Assad regime with a functioning secular democracy (or even a semi democratic regime) would have a hugely beneficial effect on the region. A successful suppression of the opposition (even temporarily) would constitute a victory for Iran and Russia and would have adverse effects on the region's politics.

3) The Syrian opposition is fragmented and devoid of a distinct identity. The alternative to the regime is not clear. This explains in part the ambivalence of the U.S. itself, its European allies, several Arab actors and the middle class of Damascus and Aleppo. Anxiety about the role of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and now also al Qaeda is part of this issue.

What are Washington's options?

1) First, the U.S. should send a very clear signal that beyond verbal criticism of the regime it is actually committed to toppling it.

2) Military or semi military action is not a current option. Syria is, indeed, not Libya and the ultimately successful limited intervention that was waged in Libya is not suitable for the Syrian context. This may change if the Free Syrian Army develops into a more effective force or if Turkey becomes ready to intervene and wants U.S. cooperation.

3) Given Russian and Chinese obstructionism in the United Nations Security Council on both the Syrian and Iranian issues, the U.S. needs to think seriously of finding ways of going around the Council. With regard to Syria such options as expelling the Syrian ambassador from Washington are available (recalling the U.S. ambassador from Damascus looked more like precautionary than punitive action).European countries can ban flights to and from Syria and increase the pressure on the middle class that still sits on the fence.

4) Coordination with Turkey is part of the current policy; it should be enhanced.

5) The U.S. should work more closely with the opposition and help it put together an attractive and coherent agenda and build up its public profile.

6) Work should be invested in encouraging such Arab actors as Saudi Arabia and Qatar to re-energize their Syrian policy. The Arab League’s initial action in November was impressive. It has since petered out and the mission of the Arab observers became a farce. This can and needs to be changed.

Itamar Rabinovich is a former Israeli Ambassador to Washington, D.C. and Chief Negotiator with Syria


This post is part of The Caravan, a periodic discussion on the contemporary dilemmas of the Greater Middle East. Other commentary in this symposium on Syria is provided by Charles Hill, Itamar Rabinovich, Habib Malik, Russell Berman, Nibras Kazimi, Abbas Milani, Joel Rayburn, Josh Teitelbaum, Reuel Gerecht, Asli Aydintasbas, Camille Pecastaing, and Fouad Ajami.