Today’s conventional wisdom in Washington is that Bashar al-Assad’s departure is “inevitable.” Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs Jeffrey Feltman used that phrase when testifying last week before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. To be sure, the Arab League’s vote to suspend Syria clearly isolates Damascus regionally, and that should not be discounted. But it is not going to lead Bashar al-Assad to step down immediately. To the contrary, expect even greater regime brutality in the period ahead.
Still, there are a number of steps the United States and the international community can take to raise the probability of Assad’s departure from Syria. On the diplomatic front, a contact or “friends of Syria” group should be established to help bring together the now anti-Assad Arab League with other concerned countries, including Turkey, Europe, and the United States.
Moreover, the international community should not be deterred by Russia and China’s October 4 veto of a Security Council resolution that would have lambasted Syria for its human rights record. China has since demonstrated greater receptiveness to criticizing Syria, though Russia remains solidly behind Damascus. But would Moscow veto an arms embargo on Syria? Such a move would be an embarrassment for Russia in the international community.
And then there is the International Criminal Court. Indicting top members of the regime, with threats of more indictments to come, could help to “incentivize” other members of the security services to break from Assad, lest they too fall prey to international jurisdiction.
The international community should do more to encourage the Syrian National Council (SNC) which is, unfortunately, divided and disorganized. That is not surprising, given its relative youth—it only recently formed—and Syrian government efforts to divide them. But left to its own devices, the SNC will not be able to reach out to the significant minority groups that remain fearful that a post-Assad Syria will offer no protections for them. As much as many within the Christian, Alawite, Druze, and Armenian communities may dislike Bashar, many of them remain fearful of the day after. The SNC must do more to assure those communities that there is a future for them in Syria after Bashar.
On the economic front, broad-based sanctions are clearly having an effect on the Syrian economy. It is not clear who they are hurting the most, however. Do broad sanctions increase the dependency of ordinary citizens on the regime, as was the case in Saddam’s Iraq? Or will they lead—eventually—to so much malaise that people will take to the streets? A more effective tool seems to be the designation of individuals who are most critical to supporting the regime economically. Already some seventeen individuals and eighteen entities have had sanctions levied against them. There should be more, so as to encourage fence-sitting supporters to break from the regime.
Finally, Western officials should not proclaim that all NATO considerations of Syria are off the table. NATO chief Anders Rasmussen told reporters recently that NATO “has no intention (to intervene) whatsoever. I can completely rule that out.” U.S. ambassador to NATO, Ivo Daalder, reiterated this before the Atlantic Council last week, saying that NATO has had “no planning, no discussion, and no thought” of action in Syria. This all may be true. But broadcasting it only provides unnecessary comfort to Bashar al-Assad. Ambiguity is a key tool in international politics. Instead of bold proclamations against the use of military force, hinting at possible sanctuaries and no fly zones could be helpful, especially should the Arab League call for it. And if no military action is indeed possible, then best to say nothing.
Removing Bashar al-Assad from power will not be easy. He still commands a strong and loyal army, and enjoys support from the business elite in Syria’s two largest cities, Damascus and Aleppo. So far, these cities have remained largely outside the unrest and killings sweeping large swathes of Syria. Finally, he retains the support of many in Syria, especially among its heterogeneous minorities who fear the day after his departure. Prying away these various pillars of his support will not be easy. But the Arab League’s move toward suspending Syria just provided a large regional boost toward Bashar’s hoped-for downfall.