'Iran, not peace process, should drive US policy on Syria'

Former Mideast director at US National Security Council: Washington must realize Assad has no interest in peace with Israel.

August 16, 2011 20:48
4 minute read.
Former NSC official Michael Doran

Michael Doran 311. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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Washington should formulate its Syria policy in relation to the region’s foremost threat to US interests – Iran – rather than in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, according to a former Middle East director at the US National Security Council.

Michael Doran, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy, said the Obama administration “believed it was possible to woo or wean Syria from Iran, and also that the Arab-Israeli peace process, and the Syrian-Israeli track in particular, was the primary mechanism for weaning Syria from Iran.”

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Speaking Tuesday by phone from Washington, Doran said White House policy toward the Bashar Assad regime should aim to weaken the Iranian axis stretching from Tehran through Damascus to Hezbollah and Hamas, and not on Syria’s effect on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

“The primary driver of Syrian foreign policy is not the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The Arab-Israeli conflict is the arena, in my view, in which the Syrians influence the Americans and the one they used to get legitimacy in international politics,” he said.

“So they’re very interested in the Syrian- Israeli process, but not at all in its outcome.”

Doran said the administration hoped to pursue the Syrian-Israeli track in concert with Turkey. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s “no problems with neighbors” policy and the White House’s “desire to reach out to Iran and Syria and reduce the American profile, particularly the military one, in the region – as well as solve the Arab-Israeli conflict – dovetailed perfectly with Erdogan.”

“Syria was right at the heart of that, and I think that was a strategic miscalculation from day one.”

“I think the Obama administration was already going in the wrong direction.

Then the Arab Spring hit, and you’d have thought the administration would have seen very quickly that Assad wasn’t good for anything. I think it’s obvious to everyone now that he’s not going to make peace with Israel. So that argument was off the table,” said Doran, the George W. Bush administration’s senior NSC director for the Near East and Africa from 2005 to 2007.

“The other argument was ‘better the devil you know than the one you don’t.’ But I think that argument is also off the table, because clearly he’s the primary agent of instability in the region. But this connection between Obama and Erdogan carries on.

“The result is that we have fallen short of calling for Assad’s ouster, and that’s a policy that’s incomprehensible to me. It seems all the strategic rationale, and all the moral rationale, point in the same direction, and that’s for him to step down,” he said.

“It used to be that in debates about Syria, it was the ‘crazy neocons’ against the realists. And the realists would make the ‘devil you know’ argument.

But now it seems the realist position is ‘This guy is going down.’ There are those who say he could still pull through, but I don’t see how that would happen.

“This regime is going down. Like in Libya, it won’t go down quickly... It’s going to be ugly, it’s going to be brutal.

If that’s correct and he’s sooner or later going to fall, then the question for the US isn’t whether to support his ouster but how to shape the environment as quickly as possible and in a way that serves US strategic interests,” Doran said.

“It’s going to evolve toward civil war.

The regime has enough of a coercive apparatus and enough of a social base to hang on. But it doesn’t have enough power to really discipline an entire society the way it used to.”

The Syrian president “selectively markets Syria’s role in a near-utopian fantasy that retains a headlock on certain Western officials – a final and comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace – even as he does whatever is required to keep that prospect as far away from realization as possible,” Doran wrote last month in a policy paper co-written by the Brookings Doha Center’s director Salman Shaikh.

“The regime exploited the tactic of spreading unrest [and bludgeoning any slim prospects for peace at the same time] on its borders in late spring and early summer, exporting the instability within to its neighbors in Turkey, Lebanon and, most egregiously, Israel [with the Nakba and Naksa day protests in the Golan].

“The question for Washington, then, is this: How can the United States compress the timeline of collapse so as to minimize human suffering and ensure the speediest rise of a new order hospitable to the United States?” they wrote.

“To do so, Washington must first jettison the completely unsupportable pretense of a regime-led transition toward democratic reform. This policy only encourages Assad to think that he can ride out the protests. Instead, the United States should be working assiduously to convince Assad to go, and to go soon.”

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