Elliott Abrams

Pressure Points

Abrams gives his take on U.S. foreign policy, with special focus on the Middle East and democracy and human rights issues.

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What To Do About Syria

by Elliott Abrams
March 26, 2013


The continuing, and worsening, crisis in Syria leaves some analysts confused and their writing not very useful. The best guide to what is happening, and what the United States should do, is the writing of Fred Hof of the Atlantic Council. Hof was until last year a key figure in the making of American policy toward Syria, though we can see from his analyses that all too often his excellent advice was rejected by the Obama Administration.

On March 18, Hof wrote a thoughtful article entitled “Syria: A Slippery Slope?” Here he addressed the view within the Obama administration that any further involvement is simply too risky.

Here is Hof’s warning:

Does the crisis in Syria present a slippery slope? It does indeed. Obama is no fool when he conjures up the image of an involuntary slalom down a precipitous slope with hungry gators waiting below. What he may not fully appreciate is that the headlong descent is already underway. Even if he had not put the credibility of his office and the United States on the line in August 2011 by calling on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step aside, he would still be obliged, eventually, to confront the reality that the nature of the struggle for Syria puts him on the slope whether he wants to be there or not. For all of his power and skill as commander-in-chief, Obama is already on the slope and careening downward….What is happening in Syria would be bad enough were it a big island in the Indian Ocean. Yet it is not….The implications of Syria’s state failure for a neighborhood containing allies and close friends of the United States are the reasons why the United States is already losing its footing on a steep hillside. Will the administration really be able to cite a prior engagement in East Asia as Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Israel howl for help?

Hof’s conclusion is stark:

If it is possible that a regime now unable to defeat a disjointed, poorly armed, and inadequately equipped rebellion would be spurred to decisive victory by the loss of its air assets, its Scud missiles, and its ability to coordinate military operations, then perhaps there is reason to give credence to the most extreme and objectively incredible of the slippery slope arguments. What cannot be denied, however, is that the United States is on the slope and headed down. Holding the Syrian crisis at arm’s length is not an option; it will not break the fall. If hand rails are to work, they must be of American design and construction. We will not dictate or micromanage Syria’s end state. There is no guarantee of success in terms of rescuing Syria and building a decent relationship with it, one based on equality and mutual respect. But we will neither avoid the slope nor break our fall just because we would like to be somewhere else.

In a more recent article entitled “The United States, Europe, and the Case of Syria,” Hof notes how weak we have been in Syria–while Iran and Russia have been strong:

There is nothing dishonorable or naive on the part of Europe and the United States in wishing to see a peaceful, negotiated transfer of power in Syria.  The problem is that two key parties—the Syrian regime and the Russian Federation—see no value in it.  Russia and the Assad regime are likely weighing the clear, on the ground determination of Iran and Hezbollah to produce a favorable military outcome against what they perceive to be uncertainty in the West.  Assad believes Iran will save him.  Russia thinks it can be on the winning side.  Both sense they can deal a real blow to the United States and its allies. The collective response of the United States and Europe to this reality is, at best, discordant and confused.

Hof calls upon us to recognize a new government on Syria territory, and he does not sugar-coat what this means:

[A] decision to support the formation and functioning of a new government on liberated Syrian territory would not be a rhetorical, empty gesture or checking a box to produce a symbolic deliverable for a ministerial-level meeting.  It would involve real work and real commitment.   A government must be able to govern.  It will need resources and on-the-ground technical assistance and advisory services.  It may well need help defending populations under its jurisdiction.  It should be recognized by Europe, the United States, and the Friends of the Syrian People as the legal government of Syria and credentialed as such at the United Nations.  All of these things will require of the United States and Europe a strategic paradigm shift.  This is not about strategic communications and messaging.  It is about facing reality in Syria and changing the calculation of the Assad regime.

Both articles are worth reading in full, for Hof is doing what the Obama administration is still refusing to do: face reality. Today all the choices facing us bring considerable risk, due to two years of passivity that allowed the situation to become steadily worse. But allowing more time to pass will mean more jihadis gathering in Syria, more civilian deaths, more refugees, more regional instability, and more difficulties in ending the violence in post-Assad Syria. Waiting is not a strategy, nor is hoping that someone will assassinate Assad.

The incremental steps the administration has taken, always many months too late, do little more than illuminate the errors of its previous refusal to act–to take the very same steps when they would have done more good. It is baffling to read that Secretary Kerry is eager and anxious to jump into the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process,” and to hear the President say that “Secretary of State John Kerry intends to spend significant time, effort, and energy” on it, while Syria burns next door. To put it gently, if those are really the Secretary’s priorities they are incomprehensible.

Post a Comment 4 Comments

  • Posted by Jaques

    Great article.

    We are incredibly late with Syria, but that doesn’t mean too late.

  • Posted by Charles Dreyfus

    With all respect to the author, this piece is nonsense. We are not on any “slippery slope and heading down.” Where is the evidence for such an assertion? The U.S. has absolutely nothing at stake in Syria and everything to gain from protracted sectarian strife there. Tying Iran, Hisballah and the Sunni jihadis down can only work to the benefit of Israel which can easily contain the conflict on its border. Syria is not near term governable in the absence of massive international boots on the ground, and that’s not going to happen. The West only benefited from the Iran-Iraq war which lasted 10 years and kept those appalling regimes preoccupied with one another. Let the Sunnis, Shias and Alawites continue to settle their scores, and stay out.

  • Posted by Neville Craig

    ‘Best guide to what happens’ you say – or simply the one most aligned to your ever-hawkish, Israel-protecting stance?

    Hilary’s social networking ‘Arab Spring’ was the naive product of people who have spent too long in leafy campuses. In dealing with Syria first-hand, I was impressed that it sort of worked esp economically, and the idiots were ‘under control’.

    US efforts to appoint an ‘opposition’ are about as credible as they were with fraudster Chalabi in Iraq 2003. Now the only credible ‘leader’ has resigned because he can see the reality?

    Your should have a quiet word with ex-amb Richard Murphy.

  • Posted by Dean Smallwood

    Hof was being kind in referring to Obama as a “skilled commander in chief ” . He’s certainly skilled on the muddy battlefield of politics but bereft of a cohesive foreign policy , and the courage to deftly use military assets at his disposal .

    The death toll will exceed 100,000 or more before Obama ever acts decisively .

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