Syria: Why Washington Cares

Syria: Why Washington Cares

Frederic C. Hof, Special Coordinator for Regional Affairs at the Office of the Special Envoy for Middle East Peace at the U.S. State Department, paid a visit to UCLA on September 22, 2011. During his visit, he was able to share his thoughts on current events in Syria during a lecture hosted by CMED. The following is a written version of his address.

Address by Special Coordinator for Regional Affairs Frederic C. Hof
September 22, 2011
The UCLA Center for Middle East Development

In my remarks this afternoon I will try to share some of the background explaining why our policy toward Syria is what it is.  But my remarks are entitled "Syria: Why Washington Cares."  I think I can summarize, up front, why official Washington cares so deeply about the situation in Syria.  We care because 21 million Syrians - many of whom have relatives in the United States - have a real opportunity to replace a corrupt, incompetent and violent system of government with something that would actually solicit their voluntary consent and treat them with dignity under the rule of law.  And we care because the ways in which the regime of President Bashar Al-Asad tries to save itself threaten to destroy the country by plunging it into civil war, a conflict that could destabilize the region and send hundreds of thousands of refugees streaming in all directions.  Syria can become a place where citizenship really counts for something in terms of rights and responsibilities; where sect, ethnicity and gender neither trump citizenship nor fail to receive its protection.  Or Syria can implode, leaving a deadly vacuum in the middle of the Levant.  This, in sum, is why Washington cares, even to the extent of the President of the United States imploring his Syrian counterpart to step aside.     

Over the past six months the Arab Spring has covered Syria like a torrential tempest.  This storm threatens to tear the regime in Damascus from moorings President Asad thought to be secure and unassailable.  Indeed, if one re-reads the February 2011 interview granted by Mr. Asad to the Wall Street Journal one finds a chief of state comfortable to the point of complacency about the ability of Syria to avoid altogether the swirling political winds engulfing Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen and Bahrain.  The Syrian people, according to Mr. Asad, were far too appreciative of his steadfast stand against Zionism and imperialism to be distracted by notions of self-rule, government by consent of the governed and public service accountability. 

President Asad was not alone in being wrong about Syria's storm-proof status.  I was among those who thought it unlikely that Syria would be swept by winds of change.  My rationale had nothing to do with Mr. Asad's pretensions to being an icon of "resistance."  Rather it focused on what I suspect President Asad himself saw as the one key thing he had going for him: a security apparatus for which no crime, no indignity and no atrocity is too base to escape serious consideration, if not instant application.  Put simply it was the ability and the willingness of the regime to bring to bear the grimmest, most sadistic aspects of internal terror that made the prospect of "spring in Syria" so hard to imagine.  How wrong I was.  More to the point, how wrong Bashar Al-Asad was.

The Arab Spring came to Syria not courtesy of political winds originating elsewhere.  It came to Syria because ordinary Syrians had reached their limit in terms of the amount of indignity, disrespect and contempt heaped upon them by their own government.  The spark was lit in Dara'a, when police - acting under the instructions of a corrupt, incompetent relative of President Asad serving as security chief - rounded up and beat up a group of teenagers who had spray-painted anti-regime graffiti.  Dara'a was a place that had helped bring the Baath Party to power nearly 50 years earlier.  But those who inherited the Syrian state from Hafiz Al-Asad had permitted the city to become a depressed, futureless backwater, as they pursued lives of wealth, leisure and power in Damascus.  The graffiti incident provided the proverbial last straw.  Governmental incompetence and corruption were expected and perhaps even excusable.  But brutality and contempt no longer were.  What began in Dara'a spread rapidly.  Spring came to Syria, and the cold, dead hand of a regime long-since on automatic pilot for the sole benefit of its insiders began to weaken and rot.

We are now six months into springtime in Syria.  The regime is trying to shoot its way to stability while calling for reform; it proclaims a national dialogue while arresting, imprisoning and torturing opponents; and it tells anyone who will listen that the only real alternative to it is chaos and civil war.  This strategy will not, in the long run, succeed.  It will not work because the regime and its key people are motivated by nothing that remotely approaches principle, conviction, selflessness or sacrifice.  Syria today is ruled by children of privilege; by men and women for whom patriotism is a slogan and public service a vehicle for private wealth.  Whatever material advantages they possess today, in terms of weapons and terror against an opposition that remains essentially unarmed and unafraid, they will not prevail.  They believe in nothing and are inspired by nothing that will equip them or predispose them for a long, difficult march through unknown terrain.

Until the 18th of August the United States was open, at least in principle, to the hypothetical possibility that President Asad might change course.  Had he wished to do so he could have stopped obstructing Syria's transition from dictatorship to a new Syria, one with government by consent of the governed; a civil society with rule of law based on the rights and obligations of citizenship; with no favoritism or political status derived from ethnicity, sect or gender.  On May 19th of this year President Obama said the following: "The Syrian people have shown their courage in demanding a transition to democracy.  President Asad now has a choice: he can lead that transition, or get out of the way."  Three months later, after extended and rigorous consultations with allies, the President had a new formulation: "The future of Syria must be determined by its people, but President Bashar Al-Asad is standing in their way.  His calls for dialogue and reform have rung hollow while he is imprisoning, torturing, and slaughtering his own people.  We have consistently said that President Asad must lead a democratic transition or get out of the way.  He has not led.  For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Asad to step aside."
The decision by President Obama to call on his Syrian counterpart to step aside was not taken lightly.  From the beginning of his administration the President had elected to engage Syria's leader diplomatically, by posting an ambassador to Damascus and by authorizing Special Envoy George Mitchell to speak directly with Asad about the prospects for Middle East peace. 

"Engagement," of course, is not a policy.  It is a methodology.  President Kennedy engaged with a reckless and nervous Soviet counterpart during the Cuban Missile Crisis.  President Reagan directed that the loathsome apartheid regime in South Africa be engaged.  The purpose of engagement in this context is neither to reward nor bless.  It is to persuade and to influence.  When President Asad chose to counter peaceful protest with violence he signaled to Washington that he had nothing further to say.  When he persisted with a policy of empty promises of reform coupled with shootings, arrests, imprisonment and torture it became clear to us, our allies, and many others around the world - including within the Arab World - that there was nothing of substance on which to engage Mr. Asad.

Even before the arrival of the Arab Spring US-Syrian relations were poor, engagement or not.  Breaking with the policy of his predecessor, President Bashar al-Asad had subordinated Syria to Iran and established a relationship of equality with an Iranian-supported militia leader in Lebanon: Hassan Nasrallah, the Secretary-General of Hizballah.  While proclaiming its readiness to engage in peace negotiations with Israel, Syria passed strategic weaponry to Hizballah so that Iran's allies in Lebanon could menace Israel.  Syria supported the efforts of Hamas to subvert the Palestinian-Israeli peace track and opened and facilitated passage for Al Qaeda terrorists into Iraq.  On top of all this Syria was working hard to reestablish its domination of Lebanon.  This was, in short, a troubled bilateral relationship long before springtime in Syria and President Asad's war on his own people.
Still, without illusion, and with expectations well under control, the US made every effort to persuade Asad to take to a different course, until he opted, in effect, to risk civil war in Syria to retain his position.  Once he did so he made it clear to us, to his neighbors and to potential negotiating partners that he had a real legitimacy problem; that his right to speak for Syria as the President of the Syrian Arab Republic was very much open to question by virtue of the fact that he felt obliged to kill and otherwise repress peaceful protesters.  Over time the legitimacy question answered itself as the killing continued and President Asad remained deaf to the pleas of the international community that it cease immediately.  By the time President Obama made his statement of August 18th the United States had long since concluded that President Asad could not speak for Syria on any matter of political substance, because his legitimacy - his right to rule - had all but evaporated.  Indeed, at the very outset of regime violence and lawlessness in Syria President Obama decided that the United States would be in no position to facilitate peace talks between Israel and a regime at war with its own people.

Naturally we hope that President Asad's successors in Damascus will be more inclined than he was to establish a relationship of warmth, trust and mutual respect with the United States, as already exists between our citizens: a relationship to be rooted in Syria's independence and in governance that protects the rights and embodies the hopes of the Syrian people; a relationship that will lead to cooperation between Syria and the United States in the region and beyond.  But President Obama's call for Mr. Asad to step aside does not derive from the profound differences we have had with him on foreign policy and national security matters.  Indeed, we fully expect that his successors will pursue independent, Syria-first policies within the region that will sometimes differ with American priorities and preferences.  A Syrian government based on the consent of the governed will inescapably do things and say things with which we will disagree; this is in the nature of things.  It is a fact of life that even finds itself reflected in relations between longtime allies.

That which prompted the President's extraordinary statement of August 18th was the extraordinary spectacle of a sustained violent onslaught by a heavily armed regime, using military, intelligence, police and criminal gangs against persistent, peaceful protesters.  While the timing of the statement was governed in part by a diplomatic campaign that gathered significant international support in terms of parallel statements and supplemental economic sanctions aimed at the regime's cash flow, the attention of the President, the Secretary of State and other senior officers of the US Government had long-since been focused on the courage of people willing to stand up to a government absolutely without scruple, absolutely devoid of a moral compass.  It was their courage combined with the regime's criminality that compelled the President to say the words he said.
Those words are important.  They will guide American policy toward Syria so long as the Asad regime clings to power in Damascus.  And they are accompanied by appropriate action.  We will continue to find ways to pressure the regime to step aside, mainly by working with others to crimp its cash flow and to designate pertinent individuals for asset freezes and travel limitations.  We and our international partners will target these actions in ways that do not collapse the Syrian economy or penalize 21 million Syrians.  Indeed, by reacting to peaceful protests with what the Gulf Cooperation Council has labeled "a killing machine," it is the regime itself that is driving the Syrian economy off a cliff, telling investors around the globe that Syria is one of the most unsafe places on earth to deploy capital.  In terms of diplomacy and, notwithstanding President Obama's commitment to comprehensive Middle East peace, it is unthinkable that the United States would have anything at all to do with a Syria-Israel peace track so long as this regime holds Syria hostage at gunpoint. 

As President Obama also noted on August 18, "The United States cannot and will not impose this transition upon Syria.  It is up to the Syrian people to choose their own leaders, and we have heard their strong desire that there not be foreign intervention in their movement."  We have made it clear to all concerned that we do not seek a military confrontation with the regime.  In particular we have made it clear to all that the draft UN Security Council Resolution we support condemning the lawlessness of the regime against its own people, demanding that human rights violations cease forthwith and (among other things) imposing an arms embargo on the regime "killing machine" is neither a pretext for nor a prelude to military operations.  We have clarified this point to enable all Security Council members to stand with the people of Syria, as they did when a Security Council Presidential Statement on the inadmissibility of the regime's outrages was issued on August 3rd.  By the same token, however, if a regime in its death throes elects to threaten the peace and stability of the region in a desperate attempt to save itself it should know that such a dangerous tactic will not go unchallenged.

As Americans it is inevitable that we would care very deeply about a people struggling for self-rule against a government bound by nothing in the way of civilized standards.  For over a century-and-a-half we have welcomed to our shores and to our national family hundreds of thousands of Syrian immigrants.  They have graced our land with their enterprise, their generosity and their patriotism.  Other democracies - Canada, France and Australia come immediately to mind - have the very same experience and the very same sentiments.  We look forward to the day when there will be for all Syrians a country other than America, Australia, Canada or France where real citizenship, real rule of law, real opportunity and real freedom will be open to them.  The country we have in mind is Syria.  God willing the journey from the dream to the reality will be concluded quickly and with a minimum of additional suffering and heartbreak.  The cost has already been unconscionably high, and those who have exacted it will not escape accountability for what they have done.

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Michelle Chaldu

Published: Wednesday, September 14, 2011