Why has Bashar al-Assad been able to hang onto power in western Syria? According to Ambassador Robert Ford, there are three reasons, none of which relates to shortcomings in Western policy. Indeed, reasons one and three are assigned to the Syrian opposition. Reason two lands on the doorsteps of Tehran and Moscow. Is Syria’s opposition truly responsible for the Assad regime’s survival? Is Western policy blameless? This is the view of the Obama administration. Is it true?
The top reason for the regime’s persistence has, according to Ford, has been the failure of the opposition to reassure Alawites that they would not be threatened in the wake of Assad’s departure. Second—and only second—has been the enormity of Iranian and Russian political and military support to the regime. Third is the evident unity and coherence of the regime, “which is lacking on the opposition side.” This is a remarkable thesis: massive military support from Tehran and Moscow is a secondary factor in the regime’s survival, and the performance of the West figures not at all; the victim is primarily responsible for his own victimization.
In fairness to Robert Ford, he is not yet free to speak his mind. He is still on the government payroll and is therefore required to adhere to official policy and related talking points when speaking publicly. He is certainly not responsible for the administration’s Syria policy. Indeed, he knows the internal dysfunction of policy development and implementation better than most and will likely speak out when he is free to do so. By targeting the opposition for primary culpability in the survival of a murderous regime he is doing what his duty requires him to do: deflect away from Washington even partial responsibility for a policy catastrophe and humanitarian abomination.
Indeed, a key element in explaining and justifying the wide gap between official US rhetoric and inaction with regard to Syria is to blame the opposition for Assad’s survival: to say that the opposition “has been very unsuccessful at explaining an agenda that would not threaten the communities that are the pillars of support for the regime, first and foremost the Alawite community.” Again: this has been set forth as the primary reason for the regime’s survival. Can it be true? No: it is not.
Leave aside the fact that opposition leaders have spoken publicly and eloquently about their vision of a Syria where citizenship will trump all other forms of political identification, and where Syria’s ethnic and sectarian diversity will be protected and celebrated. These themes were articulated eloquently by Burhan Ghalioun in the very first Friends of the Syrian People conference in Tunis and fully reflected in key opposition policy documents produced in Cairo in the summer of 2012. Surely it was the adherence of the mainstream, nationalist opposition to the principles of civil society and rule of law that enabled the United States and others in December 2012 to recognize the Syrian National Coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people. The excellent performance of the opposition delegation at the recent Geneva II exercise did nothing to detract from a vision of Syria that is decent, liberal, and civilized.
One may, if one wishes, fault the opposition for never having mounted a comprehensively persistent public affairs campaign saturating all of Syria with a consistent message of tolerance and national reconciliation. One may even exempt from blame the Obama administration and its strategic communications mavens for not having offered “messaging” support. One may even avoid mentioning the regime’s determination to keep power at any cost and to use any means to that end. Yet, what if the opposition’s agenda had been propagated perfectly? Since the administration claims that an unarticulated opposition political agenda is the top reason for Assad’s survival, would a well-explained agenda have brought him down?
No: we are not dealing with a failure to communicate. Given what the Assad regime has done quite deliberately in an effort to incriminate the entire Alawite community—using Alawite-heavy military units, intelligence cadres, and criminal gangs to commit mass murder, terror, and torture against mainly Sunni Muslim opponents—would the Alawite community at large believe the assurances of those trying to speak for the victims? In the unlikely event they did, what would they be expected to do? Endorse with petitions President Obama’s “step aside” edict? Peacefully demonstrate in the face of machineguns? Produce the mythical, long-hoped for (in Washington) “Alawite General” who would rally the troops to perform a coup d’etat? Is it remotely possible that the United States government is unaware of the special attention the Assad regime has paid, since 1970, to suppressing dissent within the Alawite community? Is it not cognizant of the multi-layered, overlapping internal security system that blankets the intelligence community and military forces? Does the administration really believe that all of this would have been overcome—taking into account Iranian and Russian military support as well—by a successfully explained political agenda?
One may criticize the Obama administration’s policy toward Syria on many levels. Yet the intelligence and knowledge of key administration officials is beyond reproach. They know that a failure of strategic communication on the part of Syria’s opposition is far from the top reason for the Assad regime’s survival. Yet, saying it is so is an essential facet of the “someone else’s civil war” thesis; it is a useful excuse for standing aside, writing checks for humanitarian assistance, and otherwise merely bearing witness to the twenty-first century’s premier humanitarian abomination to date. Blaming the victim, positing the rough moral equivalence of the parties, claiming that intervention would only make things worse, clinging to an all-or-nothing thesis by citing mass murder elsewhere and using the Iraq catastrophe as a one-size-fits-all template—these are all excuses for translating “never again” to “well, maybe this once.”
Syria’s nationalist opposition—armed and not—has fallen short in many key respects—hardly a surprise when one considers Syria’s more than forty-year induced political coma. One should not expect frank talk from President Barack Obama or any of his lieutenants about the shortcomings of US policy on Syria, including the failures to support armed nationalists and promote and protect alternate governance within Syria. It would suffice at this point were the administration to drop the excuses, reassess the policy, set clear objectives, and devise a flexible strategy to achieve them. Working with others to terminate the Assad regime and replace it with something civilized is essential, both for Syria and the surrounding neighborhood. Yet making it happen will require far, far more than an opposition agenda offering assurances to Alawites. It would take the president to places he has not wanted to go. Blaming the opposition is indeed an alternative to making the journey. But it is not worthy of a great country.
Frederic C. Hof is a resident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.