Posted by Joshua on Wednesday, July 25th, 2007
Regime evolution can only serve Syria's national interests
Anthony H. Cordesman
(c) 2007 THE DAILY STAR, BEIRUT, LEBANON.
Beirut — First person by Anthony H. Cordesman
Editor's Note: The following is the second of a three-part First Person on Cordesman's recent
visit to Syria with colleagues at the Center for Strategic and International Studies [CSIS].
The US cannot take any practical steps toward regime change in Syria, and Syria will make no concessions in this area. There are, however, areas where Syria can send important signals to the US and show that regime evolution is taking place and the government is taking important steps to help its people.
Syria has every possible reason to keep pursuing economic reform and modernization. Economic security and growth aid the regime, as does sending signals about reducing corruption. As China and other Asian states have shown, it is far easier to wait for political evolution when the people benefit from economic reforms, and when the government shows it can make major progress in this area. There also is no better way of checking the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamist extremist activity than raising living standards, employment, and offering opportunity rather than stasis.
Moreover, the more economically modern and secure Syria is, the more Israel will have reason to feel it may be able to deal with a stable state, the easier Syria will find it to deal with withdrawing from Lebanon, and the more incentive it will offer Iraq in terms of trade, pipelines, and joint ventures. The stronger and more liberal the Syrian economy becomes, the greater the future incentive for outside investment from the EU, US, and other states, and the better the tourist infrastructure and income.
As for alternative investment in arms and military forces, it does not take much time or calculation to see that Syria simply cannot compete in a new arms race. Syria does need to modernize some aspects of its forces, but Israel can outspend it by at least 4:1, has access to far more advanced military technology, and begins with far better forces and a more advanced technological base. Triggering an arms race you cannot win is a miserable substitute for economic progress where you cannot lose.
The US and Syria are not going to agree on the definition of a terrorist in the near term, particularly in regard to the actions of Hamas and Hizbullah. Several Syrians made it clear, however, that they saw Sunni Islamist extremists as a major threat to Syria, whether in Syria, Iraq or Lebanon. Several mentioned the Muslim Brotherhood, and elements within the Iraqi refugee population as serious problems.
Aggressive Syrian action against such extremists is in Syria's interest, and directly parallels the interests of the United States. Limited intelligence exchanges and cooperation may be possible, even if broader cooperation is not. Strong unilateral action by Syria in its own interests would lay the groundwork for easing US and Syrian relations.
Syrian efforts to fight terrorism do not need to be linked to broader security constraints and repression. One problem throughout the Arab world that goes directly against the interests of both regimes and their peoples is to enforce excessive and pointless security measures against figures and NGOs that speak out for reform, peaceful change, economic progress, and against nepotism and corruption. No nation in the region currently has struck the right balance between even the narrow interests of its rulers and over-enforcing security in ways that suppress the kind of evolutionary progress that is ultimately vital to maintaining support for the regime and stability.
Syria is no exception. It does face very real threats from Islamist extremists, from the Muslim Brotherhood, and possibly from elements in its growing population of Iraqi refugees. What it does not face is a meaningful threat from its more secular and moderate Muslim voices for change, from added concern for human rights and the rule of law, and for criticism of the government that calls for change without threatening the regime. Syria needs strong moderate voices, even when they are critical. It cannot afford to silence or arrest a single such voice when the main impact of these moderates is to move the country forward and act as a counterbalance to the Islamist extremists that are the only real-world internal threat to both the regime and the nation.
No one can credibly expect an instant shift to US and European practices and values, but the time for excessive internal security measures and constraints is over. Both Syria's regime and Syria's people will benefit from easing the current level of constraint and from a more liberal climate for all but extremist elements. The signal to the United States and the world will also be one that could greatly improve future relations.
There did seem to be a growing understanding in Syria that playing a spoiler role in Iraq, and encouraging or tolerating insurgent operations in Syria, and transit to Iraq, threatened Syria with added support for Islamist extremism in Syria, an unstable Iraq on its border, further floods of refugees and being a potential front line in a Sunni vs. Shiite struggle for control of Iraq. Officials like Syria's foreign minister stressed Syria's interest in Iraqi unity, a strong central government, and effective military and police forces, although they also emphasized formal identification of Iraq as an Arab and Islamic state.
It is unclear how much Syria is prepared to act on these words, but it again has a clear interest in doing so. Syria cannot afford to become tied to the Shiite cause and does not have the same interests as Iran. It does not need instability and civil conflict on another border.
Stronger Syrian initiatives to support Iraq in political conciliation, crack down on insurgent operations inside Syria and crossing its border, and securing the Syrian border with Iraq are all directly in Syria's interest. The creation of a stronger Iraq border security force and forts also gives Syria something far more tangible to cooperate with, and such Syrian action would lay the groundwork for an improvement in US and Syrian relations.
Syrians downplayed the risks of Iran's nuclear efforts, but did recognize that
Syrian and Iranian interests do differ
significantly and that Iranian dominance of much of Iraq, adventures in Lebanon, or adventures with Hizbullah would not be in Syria's interest.
Syrian restraint in dealing with Iran again serves Syrian interests, and exercising that restraint would again lay the groundwork for improved relations.
Syria also has a clear national interest in a phased US withdrawal from a more secure and stable Iraq. A US departure, or phasedown to obviously defensive levels, removes any lingering specter of US military intervention in Syria, while helping to create a more stable and unified Iraq.
Like Americans, and most of the world, Syrians expressed deep concern over the split within the Palestinians. One point several Syrians made was that some voices within Hamas had used the creation of a Palestinian state within the 1967 boundaries as a way of indirectly signaling that they could coexist with Israel.
Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at CSIS.