Syria: False Election, True Critique

Yesterday, June 3, was make-believe election day in that part of Syria where Iran props up Bashar al-Assad as president-in-name of a broken Syrian Arab Republic. A shoe brush entrepreneur and a tamed communist dutifully played their assigned roles as ballot alternatives to Mr. Assad, albeit with open, deferential reverence toward the man who has subordinated himself utterly to Tehran in order to sustain his family business. That which transpired yesterday was not, in fact, an election. It was a self-congratulatory celebration by a regime that remains in place, if not in actual power. It was a tribute to Iran’s provisional success in obtaining, in that part of Syria important to Tehran, that which Western statesmen pretend to be impossible in Syria: a military victory.

The preordained results are not in as of this writing. Someone close to the regime told me two weeks ago that 70 percent for Bashar was deemed credible by regime insiders, so 70 percent it would be. Yet this strikes me as too modest an endorsement for people who routinely claim that their only opponents are foreigners, terrorists, and foreign terrorists. Thirty percent for a brush-man and a Marxist so that otherwise sentient people would believe that something genuine had transpired? It is difficult to imagine the regime settling for under 95 percent.

June 3 also marked the emergence of a newly liberated Robert Ford as a critic of the Obama administration’s Syria policy. Those who have been privileged to know Ambassador Ford and who appreciate his loyalty and diligence are not at all surprised by this development. His critique, unlike Assad’s fake election, has the merit of truth.

Ford devoted thirty-plus years of excellence to the Foreign Service of the United States. The last three of those years were extraordinarily painful for him. When he began his tenure as ambassador in Damascus optimism was in the air. A very quiet US mediation effort between Syria and Israel was gaining momentum, and Ford’s cordial, yet no-nonsense manner was building credibility within the regime and in Syria’s business community. Then Bashar al-Assad, facing peaceful protests against the mindlessly instinctive excesses of his regime protection forces, decided to throw it all away by doubling down on violent repression and waging war on those he truly detested: Syrians. For several months prior to evacuation, Robert Ford and his Western diplomatic colleagues in Damascus provided examples of courage and resourcefulness. Ford’s visit to Hama was a remarkable gesture.

In his CNN Christiane Amanpour interview, Ford alludes to an administration too slow to react effectively to Syria’s ground truth. He decries the fact that far too little has been done to arm, train, and equip members of the armed Syrian opposition actually willing to fight in two directions: against the regime and its Iranian-supplied foreign fighters; and against al-Qaeda affiliates, attracted to Syria by the regime’s sectarian survival strategy and sustained by private Gulf money and foreign volunteers. The result, as Ford points out, is a growing terrorist threat to Europe and the United States. Ford also notes that the United States knows whom to support inside Syria: relationships have been developed over quite some time. It is not as if everyone is a stranger, as some in the Pentagon like to suggest.

Robert Ford’s critique comes at a critical time. The Obama White House is considering a fundamental change of direction, one that might actually try to provide meaningful assistance to people fighting the two sets of terrorists cutting the heart out of Syria and undermining the security of Syria’s neighbors. Apologists for the Assad regime are suitably alarmed. Arms for nationalist rebels would, so it is said, only prolong the fighting. Well yes, it would. Arms for the French Resistance prolonged the fighting seventy years ago. Arms and training for American rebels elongated patriotic resistance some 240 years ago. The idea that a decent, peaceful conclusion to Syria’s heartbreaking ordeal can be arrived at by denying support to those willing to fight for Syria—as opposed to Iran or al-Qaeda’s emirate nonsense—is simply not right. The beneficiaries of such an approach would be a murderous regime backed to the hilt by Iran and Russia and a motley collection of jihadist savages.

The challenge for the Obama administration is to transcend the belief that doing something meaningful about Syria puts one on the slippery slope to an Iraq-like experience. The challenge for this administration is to graduate from the “everything in the end is Iraq” school and to abandon a Goldilocks approach that tries and fails to get aid to the nationalist opposition just right: enough to keep it breathing but not enough to advance; enough to persuade the regime to negotiate, but not enough to facilitate a rebel military victory. This kind of calibration is as futile as it is cruel. If all the administration has in mind are marginal, incremental upgrades to opposition military capabilities it might just as well take the counsel of those who urge it to crawl back to Damascus in the hope of striking an anti-al-Qaeda deal with those whose behavior conjured jihadism in Syria in the first place.

Syria’s sham election aims, in a cynically crude manner, to legitimize a new seven-year mandate for a man who survives thanks to the single-minded determination of Iran and (to a much lesser extent) Russia. It may well take that long for the United States and its partners to see positive results from a policy emphasizing strong support for secure, nationalist governance in non-regime parts of Syria. Armed forces defending a new government need to be built with victory in mind. If their lethal capabilities inspire in others a desire to negotiate, fine. Yet there does not exist on this or on any other planet someone capable of calibrating just enough support to inspire peace talks but not enough to win if talks fail or never happen. One thing about Syria is certain: he who believes in the possibility of military victory and works for it has a chance of success diplomatically; he who denies the relevance of the battlefield has no prospect at all for achieving political aims through negotiation. As John Kerry used to say, Assad’s calculation must change for peaceful political transition to have a chance. Syrians willing to make this fight are not seeking US boots on the ground—a good thing, given that the prospect of those boots materializing is zero.

Were it not for Robert Ford’s forthright words, June 3, 2014 would have become for Syrians yet another date living in infamy; one forever associated with a regime compelling its people to celebrate the successful subordination of western Syria to Iran. Ford saved the day. Syrians will be thanking him for many years to come.

Frederic C. Hof is a resident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

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Image: A woman marks her ballot paper in the presidential election at polling centre in Damascus June 3, 2014. Syrians voted on Tuesday in an election expected to deliver an overwhelming victory for al-Assad but which his opponents have dismissed as a charade in the midst of Syria's devastating civil war. (Photo: REUTERS/Khaled al-Hariri)