March 27, 2005

Regime Change, Syria Edition

Aha! So it looks like the Bush administration is trying to reach out to the political opposition in Syria, perhaps preparing for the possibility that Bashar Assad's regime might, ahem, topple one of these days. Or, also likely, if the hawkish Syria reports streaming out of neo-con think tanks like WINEP are any indication, perhaps the Bush administration is trying to figure out ways to promote a nifty little coup in Damascus. Oy. But okay, let's do this...

In an ideal world, there's little I'd like more than to see Bashar's regime fall. It's corrupt, it's ruthless, it sucks. Sadly, though, we don't live in an ideal world, and the collapse of the Alawite ruling party would, at least right now, very likely bring violence among various sectarian groups, infighting among the security services, revenge against the former regime, blood and guts on the streets, etc. etc. (In 1983, when former president Hafiz al-Assad fell gravely ill, militias took to the street ready to go to war over who would succeed him. Luckily Hafiz recovered and averted a crisis, but that's your foreshadowing...) Not only that, but the U.S. knows next nothing about the internal workings of Syria; its politics, social dynamics, ethnic rivalries, the popularity of Islamic groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, etc. To put things in perspective, recall how wonderfully little the U.S. knew about the inner structure of Iraq; and even there we at least had exile groups like the INC and INA, not to mention our Kurdish pals, giving us some information. In Syria, nothing.

Basically, a coup would be a disaster, and it's not at all clear that the Syria Reform Party, which is the group we're reaching out to, could rise from the ashes here and lead Syria into a bold new era of pro-American democratic nirvana. More likely, the Islamists in the Muslim Brotherhood—whose Syrian branch is far more radicalized than the Egyptian version (and, quite honestly, poorer and less well-educated)—would take power, though before that happens, the possibility of civil war or serious interconfessional violence seems like a safe bet. Unless we can get actual intelligence telling us otherwise, it's a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad idea. You know?

Right then. So how does one go about promoting reform in Damascus? Wish I knew. But a few thoughts...

It's worth noting, I think, that the Bush administration shouldn't treat Syria as at all analogous to Jordan or Egypt or Bahrain, etc. The latter countries, note, have all liberalized their economies to some extent, but more importantly, they've all provided at least some venues for a political opposition. True, the political opposition is managed, mostly impotent, and channeled off into harmless holding pens, but the opposition exists. It gets to bitch. And eventually, in theory, that opposition could come to power by fairly peaceful means. Syria, by contrast, is far more authoritarian, and the ruling 'Alawi sect hasn't shared power with any other ethnic or political group (except for parts of the minority Christian community, but even then, not really).

Suffice to say that the largely Sunni opposition in Syria is mighty pissed off. Effective political reform, then, won't simply be a matter of legalizing political parties and holding freer elections, as it more or less is in, say, Bahrain and Qatar. Nor will it be a more incremental matter of building civil society, legalizing political parties, and revamping the constitution, as is probably the case in Jordan and Egypt. No, Syria's even further back on the progress scale, and over the last four years Bashar has proven that he doesn't know how to open the door to reform without the Sunni opposition storming the streets and demanding that he open the flood-gates. He doesn't know how to gently co-opt the opposition as Egypt and Jordan have, to some extent, done. (Obviously the regimes Egypt and Jordan don't wear kid gloves here, and both have cracked down ruthlessly on their own Islamists and opponents; but there's a real difference here.)

So the alternatives to political reform are all-out bloody revolution, or, perhaps, China-style economic liberalization without political change. On the latter front, though, Bashar has had a difficult time carrying out the economic changes he promised in 2000 (and again last year), either because of inter-government power struggles, or because of corruption, or because Bashar is ineffective, or because the ruling Alawites genuinely fear giving other ethnic/sectarian groups a slice of the economic pie, or some or all of those things. Meanwhile, privatizing Syria's economy will lead to, quite understandably, a lot of domestic turmoil. It's very possible that right now, with Syrians of all stripes rallying around Bashar and against the United States, the Syrian president might have more leeway to undertake reforms, but I wonder.

If you ask me, it seems that economic liberalization could happen if Syria and the U.S. worked together—just as the U.S. and China have worked together over the past twenty years to moderately good effect. Maybe that's the way to go. There's no real reason why Syria and the U.S. should be foes. But getting friendly with Bashar is not going to happen, of course. Not with this White House. So instead it seems we'll get more U.S. saber-rattling, which may do nothing but push Bashar to tighten his grip even further on Syria. Josh Landis, a Syria expert who's doing some grand reporting from Damascus, seems to think that Bashar is quite strong and going about the grand game of consolidating his power very nicely, thank you. So the muddled "regime change" strategy the White House is no doubt tossing on the grill right now could end up being the same failed sort of thing we've tried before—see e.g. North Korea, Iran, Libya. (Yes, yes, so we disarmed Libya. Political reforms, though? Nope.) There's not a clear answer here, though, not in the slightest.

UPDATE: Sources? Do I have any? Do I use any? Do I just talk out of my ass? Well, yes. But for a bunch of good scholarly references on Syria, see this page. A bit of a slog, most of it, but quality stuff.

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-- Brad Plumer 4:10 AM || ||