Posted by Joshua on Tuesday, November 25th, 2008
A New U.S. Policy For Syria: Fostering Political Change in a Divided State
By Seth Kaplan (see his site)
Middle East Policy, Fall 2008, pp. 107-121
[The following are excerpts from Seth Kaplan's 14 page article in MEP] Mr. Kaplan is a business consultant to companies in developing countries as well as a foreign-policy analyst. He has a new book: Fixing Fragile States: A New Paradigm for Development (2008). He suggested I post some excerpts from his well crafted article in order to stimulate a discussion on Syria Comment. Here we are:
… How should [Syria] reform?
The changes with which Bashar has tinkered since he succeeded his father as president in 2000 are far too modest to address the multifarious problems confronting the country. Meanwhile, the Iraq experience has vividly shown that attempts to introduce sweeping political and economic reform can easily awaken savage identity conflicts, conflicts that haunt almost every Arab state.
Like Iraq (and many other Middle East states), Syria is a divided polity with weak formal institutions that have little history behind them and that are stable only to the degree that they are backed by a formidable security apparatus. If Syria does experience a hard landing, social unrest is a certainty and sectarian violence a high probability.
Is there, however, a middle path between Bashar’s piecemeal reforms and Bush’s preference for abrupt political transformations, a third way that can satisfy powerbrokers in both Washington and Damascus? This essay argues that there is. Moreover, it contends that a middle path may well be the only realistic option if Syria is to overcome its worsening economic and sociopolitical situation, maintain long-term stability, and move towards a more open and accountable system of governance.
Effecting a program of significant reform, however, will demand three things: the patience to introduce change gradually, incrementally and cautiously, so as to avoid instability; the flexibility to alter Western-style democracy and development to fit Syrian conditions; and the readiness to work with, not against, Bashar or some other leading figures within the regime.
A FRAGMENTED SOCIETY
Syria is a state both young and old, divided by conflicting interpretations of its past. The modern state — an artificial creation that dates only to the Anglo- French partition of the region following World War I — has inherited a unique blend of geographical, ethnic, religious and ideological heterogeneity that complicates all efforts to construct a cohesive whole from its disparate parts. A brief recital of the history of what “Syria” has been illustrates the diversity of the modern state’s inheritance.
Syria has been the home of historic pan-Arab nationalism, where the first short-lived modern Arab state was based; of Greater Syria, the ancient bilad al-sham (literally, “the land of the left hand”2) that encompassed the whole Levant for centuries;….
…. many Syrians have also repeatedly sought an identity in pan-Arab, Greater Syrian or Islamic causes, further impeding any attempt to construct a nation-state on Syrian territory….
…a complex mosaic of almost two dozen distinct religious and ethnic groups that were traditionally so highly autonomous and self-administering that the government of the Ottoman Empire was limited to simple tax collecting.
So rich and varied a history is not an unalloyed blessing. The state’s very diversity dominates its political dynamics, limiting policy options, inhibiting risk-taking, and making any government highly defensive. Decades of stability have only partly compensated for the sectarian handicaps that hinder its capacity to develop a lasting identity….
THE DANGERS OF A HARD LANDING
There is a deep division inside Washington over the best policy toward Damascus. For most of its time in office, the Bush administration has refrained from direct contact with Syria, imposing new sanctions in 2004, withdrawing the American ambassador in 2005, and seeking at various times to isolate, overthrow or simply bully a regime that has repeatedly opposed U.S. interests in the region. Although the administration has pursued a more ambiguous approach since 2007, it still has sought to isolate the country and to pressure it to change its behavior….
Barack Obama advocates “direct bilateral talks” with Syria so as to “directly present the Syrian regime with a clear choice: fundamentally alter its policies and enjoy the political and economic benefits of closer integration into the world community or face greater isolation and tougher sanctions.”….
Skeptics of engagement … point out that past dialogue with Syria failed to prompt policy changes in Damascus and see no reason that engagement would have a different outcome today. But, in fact, there are two good reasons to give some form of engagement another chance. In the first place, Damascus may be somewhat more receptive today. It recognizes that Syria’s social cohesion and economic stability are weakening and threatening the regime’s hold on power. Second, those same social and economic trends are increasing the dangers of a hard landing for Syria.
The United States and its allies could, in fact, find themselves with more leverage over the Syrian regime than in the past if they offered the right mix of carrots and sticks. France, for example, has recently been trying to use a combination of threats and incentives to change Syria’s behavior in Lebanon. At best, a hard landing would shake the fragile bonds that hold Syrian society together, producing the kind of political turbulence seen in the pre-Asad era.
At worst, a hard landing would ignite the sociopolitical tensions that lie beneath Syrian society, fueling a protracted civil war along Lebanese lines or propelling Syria into a rapid downward spiral toward sectarian bloodshed along the lines Iraq experienced in 2006-07, after the United States dismantled that country’s own Baath regime. These scenarios would be disastrous for the Syrian people, but they would be profoundly damaging, too, for American interests in the region.
Instability in Syria would endanger the progress made in recent months in Iraq and threaten to destabilize Lebanon and possibly even Jordan and southern Turkey, two of the most pro-Western countries in the region. It might also offer extremists another base to expand their operations and another pressure point on the already spiraling energy markets.
Recent events have underlined the Syrian government’s ability to significantly shape the regional climate, for both good and ill. The revelation that Syria may have been pursuing a nuclear-weapons program, together with its longstanding ties to Iran and its leading role as a conduit for weapons to Hezbollah and for terrorists to Iraq, show the dangers of completely isolating Syria from the West. On the other side of the coin, the news that Syria is participating (albeit half-heartedly) in Turkish-mediated indirect peace talks with Israel highlights Syria’s potential to contribute positively toward Middle East peace, while underscoring the likelihood that a Syria beset by sectarian divisions would be either unwilling to participate in peace talks or unable to deliver on any agreements it might make. Both sides of the coin are shown in Syria’s recent role in Lebanon, where it first blocked and then facilitated the election of a new Lebanese president. If the United States has powerful reasons to help Syria avoid the dangers of a hard landing, how should it do so while also encouraging significant political change within the country?
One alternative, overthrowing the existing government by military force, can presumably be discounted in light of Bush’s Iraqi adventure. Another possible strategy, engineering Asad’s overthrow by Syrian opposition forces, is unrealistic, given the multifaceted weaknesses of the opposition.
This leaves just one option: some sort of tactical engagement that seeks to change the existing regime’s behavior. American policy makers need to face up to the fact that their hopes of seeing Syria enact reform (and avoid a hard landing) are likely to be realized only if the West can convince the existing regime, or a substantial part of it, to undertake that reform itself. This is not all bad news. After all, if the security forces and a significant proportion of the elite were to support rather than oppose the changes, then the stabilizing elements of the Baath regime, such as its social-welfare programs and strong security apparatuses, could be used as a basis of a new, transition-minded government.
How such a transformation takes place will matter almost as much as what kind of transformation it is. The best scenario would see a gradual process whereby the existing, interlocking relationships between the elites of Syria’s identity groups evolve through negotiations that generate a broad consensus on how the country can introduce a more pluralistic and accountable system of government.
The Asad regime, partly out of weakness, actually has encouraged an environment in which such cooperation and compromise have taken place for many years. If Bashar or a successor regime were to formalize these relationships by bringing them within the framework of an SNSC while avoiding actions likely to promote friction between elites (such as favoring one group over another), many of the troubles experienced by transitioning regimes elsewhere in the region might be avoided.
In contrast, the hasty introduction in Syria of a completely open democratic system in which elites jockey through the media for position and compete for a handful of top government jobs — the system that is practiced in Lebanon and, since the U.S. invasion, in Iraq — would only undermine existing relationships and inflame animosities among both the elites and the groups they represent.
What, though, are the chances that the current regime will support reform rather than doggedly oppose it? Bashar has repeatedly promised to introduce substantial change, but he seems to favor an Egyptian model of instituting only limited reforms that leave the political system dominated by the ruling party and the president’s cronies, with a toothless opposition in parliament acting as window dressing. Therefore, while the United States and its European allies should offer Bashar substantial incentives to launch a serious campaign of reform, including access to foreign markets, large dollops of aid and all sorts of technical assistance, it should also proclaim its willingness to offer the same deal to any regime that comes to power in Damascus, irrespective of the new group’s previous level of involvement with the Asad government.
Indeed, the West might well find potential allies among those who were previously powerful figures within the regime but whose personal authority has diminished in recent years as Bashar has narrowed his father’s power base, alienating many of the non- Alawite elite. Considering Syria’s lack of natural resources, weak economy and history of dependence on external benefactors, the marginalized members of the elite may prove particularly receptive to Western financial incentives.
Furthermore, the concept of a SNSC should help the West persuade at least some members of Syria’s elite to support a program of reform. The SNSC format offers representatives of the elite a special role during the extended process of transition, thereby reassuring them that they will continue to enjoy at least some measure of power and influence for the foreseeable future. Washington has tended to focus only on political tools with which to push and prod Syria. However, if Washington were to work with the European Union, it would also have some useful economic, financial and technical means at its disposal to convince whatever government rules in Damascus to embrace political and economic reform.
For example, Washington in cooperation with the EU could offer Syria technical assistance in introducing institutional reforms and access to foreign markets and aid in return for Syria’s adherence to a strict timetable for progress. Even Bashar recognized that Syria needs Western carrots to buy off domestic resistance to change, and he sought to use “international economic agreements, particularly an association agreement with the EU, as a lever for impelling greater transparency and spurring policy reform.”
The United States should encourage the European Union to reopen discussion on this agreement (which was put to one side when relations worsened over the issue of Lebanon) as part of a larger effort to effect change. The agreement offered free trade and help in “defining and starting the implementation of an economic modernization strategy” and “formulating and implementing an institutional modernization strategy and action plan” in return for a specific set of reforms.
Such a program would fit nicely into a comprehensive package from the West that would include asking Damascus to introduce the SNSC and a timeline for some preliminary moves toward a more open political and more effective judicial system, so as to lay a firmer base for the gradual transformation of the state. As certain milestones were reached, the West could also include membership in the World Trade Organization (Syria applied for membership in 2001) as part of a broader package of incentives in return for more reform…..