The cruel violence that the Assad regime is directing against the Syrian population has elicited words of condemnation across the world. Fleeing the wrath of the Syrian military, refugees have poured over the borders into Jordan, Lebanon and, especially, Turkey. Meanwhile in embattled cities like Homs and Aleppo, the Syrian government shows its true face by ordering the army to keep hospitals under surveillance, prohibiting doctors from treating wounded civilians.
Blame for these atrocities belongs squarely with President Bashar al-Assad, and his protectors in Tehran and Moscow. Blame does not belong in Washington (although some of the tenacity with which Assad clings to power can be attributed to Nancy Pelosi’s embarrassing 2007 junket to Damascus, when she toadied up to the dictator). Nor should one imagine the U.S. single-handedly intervening to end the bloodshed. Yet the longer the fighting goes on, the clearer the inability of the American administration to exercise any influence at all. The Syrian crisis is therefore both a crucial moment in the battle between democracy and dictatorship in the Arab world and an important “stress test” on the viability of American power.
America has national interests, both material and ideal, that preclude the option of merely standing by passively. A defeat of the democratic protestors would be an American defeat. Neither however is it imaginable for the U.S. to take sole responsibility to effect regime change. Washington cannot solve the crisis on its own, nor can it stand by and do nothing—or to do so would amount to a clear display of American powerlessness.
Fortunately there is a lot of policy space between all or nothing. Unfortunately, the policies of the Obama administration have preemptively foreclosed several routes of action.
A centerpiece of current US foreign policy was to have been a “reset” of relations with Russia. The results? America has conceded on missile defense and arms control, while Moscow extends its power throughout the former Soviet territories and pummels its own domestic opposition. Russian support for Assad is cut from the same cloth, an aggressive rerun of a Cold War agenda, thanks to weakness in Washington. The road to a democratic Damascus does not go through Moscow.
Obama policy has also focused on the United Nations, presumably to rebuild American credibility after the Bush era. Yet the Bush administration could in fact win UN votes in support of its Iraq policy, while the current US ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, has failed to achieve any comparable success. Given the Russian and Chinese vetoes, the UN is another dead-end for US policy on Syria.
Instead the US might turn toward the traditional allies in Western Europe to support a Syrian initiative. Yet American influence in Europe is at a nadir. Washington input on the Euro crisis and Greece has been negligible. Timothy Geithner’s nagging was never a match for Angela Merkel’s seriousness of purpose. Moreover, the US decision to beat a retreat from Afghanistan has encouraged our European friends to do so as well. Without American leadership, Europe will refuse to play a role in most international crises, including Syria.
There is one remaining card to play. As much as the Syrian crisis represents a chapter in the history of the Arab spring, it is also a power struggle between two non-Arab adversaries, Turkey and Iran, competing for regional hegemony. Of these two, there is little question as to which is an enemy of the US and which has a history as an ally. The flow of refugees into Turkey is all the more reason for Ankara to undertake robust action, such as a joint campaign with the US to establish a no-fly zone in Syria to protect civilians and to accelerate the demise of the Assad regime.
Such a strategy could resemble Clinton administration policy in the Balkans—outside the UN and in the face of European foot-dragging. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu himself drew the analogy: “We wanted Bashar Assad to be Gorbachev, but he preferred to be the Milosevic of Syria, not Gorbachev.” There is no doubt that Assad has disappointed those who naively imagined him to be a reformer: he is no Gorbachev. The violence he has ordered against civilian populations shows how much he has in common with Milosevic. We need a policy appropriate to those crimes.
Russell Berman is the Walter A. Haas Professor in the Humanities, Professor of Compariative Literature and German Studies at Stanford University, and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution
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.