Behind the curve on Syria

The Obama administration remains badly behind the curve on Syria. Despite news reports of a “shift” on Syria, the administration’s latest decision to impose targeted sanctions on Bashar al-Assad’s inner circle actually highlights that, even at this point in the game, the White House’s operating principle with the Assad regime remains “behavior change.” With conflicting messages and no articulated strategy, Washington is doubling down on failed ideas, continuing to hold out delusional hope that Assad will miraculously “reform.”
During a press briefing on Monday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney publicly expressed this position. Asked about the meaning and impact of targeted sanctions, Carney replied, “Sanctions can put pressure on governments and regimes to change their behavior.” He added, “We continue to encourage President Assad ... to honor the promises that [he] has made … to institute reform.”
The hoax of the “reformist Assad” simply won’t go away, even as Assad butchers people in the streets on a daily basis. If it wasn’t clear before, it certainly is now, that this is a zero-sum game for the Syrian president. It is impossible for him to reform, for doing so means losing his hold on power.
Moreover, what reforms, exactly, does the US administration think Assad should, and would, implement when the protesters in the streets have long moved to calling for the downfall of the regime that he heads?  Besides, hadn’t the White House stated that Assad’s declared “reforms” were “not serious?” Assad made no other “promises.” He only made threats of more violence – the only promise he’s ever kept.
To say the least, this is a position that’s been overtaken by events. Does the administration really believe that Assad, who’s fighting for his very survival, will take measures that would facilitate his ouster, regardless of sanctions?
But here’s where Washington’s incoherence is further highlighted. To date, the administration has made a point of adamantly and repeatedly refusing to come out and say that Assad has lost his legitimacy to lead, even when it was far quicker in adopting such a position with a US ally, former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who was also nowhere near as brutal as Assad.
To add to the puzzlement, the US sanctions won’t target Assad personally. Rather, as reported by An-Nahar on Wednesday, they are likely to go after his brother Maher and other high-ranking officials. What this approach achieves is to further indulge another fantasy – that Assad is somehow separate from his own regime; a lone, closet reformer held back by hardliners in his entourage.
The most absurd articulation of this belief came from a “senior official,” who let the New York Times in on the administration’s bizarre thinking on Assad: “He sees himself as a Westernized leader, and we think he’ll react if he believes he is being lumped in with brutal dictators.”
The confusion is further compounded by the proliferation of paradoxical statements. As that senior official was making those comments to the Times, another official was explaining to Foreign Policy that the reason why the general assessment in the administration had been that the Syrian crisis would “never grow this serious,” was that Assad was “not afraid to be brutal.”
That is hardly the only example of conflicting messages. For instance, while the administration’s public position was to call on Assad to reform, and that sanctions were designed to achieve such behavior change (even as officials lamented the supposed lack of leverage), the Wall Street Journal reported that officials involved in the sanctions deliberations did not believe that Assad can “embrace meaningful reforms.” In fact, the paper added, doubts are also growing in the administration that Assad will survive the uprising.
If this is the case, then the administration ought to be thinking much farther ahead, well beyond discussing sanctions. If there is conviction that Assad’s days are numbered, then serious preparation must be done for post-Assad Syria. As such, the US ought to be conferring with key stakeholders (such as Turkey, which increasingly seems to share this assessment of Assad’s chances) about managing the transition in Syria to a more pluralistic political order.
Such an approach would put the Obama administration ahead of the curve, and beyond mere reaction to criticism of its regional policy. However, that would require assertive leadership – not “from behind.” It would also mean revamping the entire thinking on Syria, and shelving the bad ideas that have framed the failed Syria policy (“wooing Assad away from Iran” or restarting the Syrian-Israeli peace track).
Most importantly, it requires strategic clarity. In the absence of a coherent strategy statement, Obama’s decision to sanction top figures in the Syrian regime remains merely a fig leaf.
Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. This article was first published on NOW Lebanon.