Is the Regime Capable of Reform?
Here is my response to Rime Allaf's rebuttle to yesterday's post.
I don't see where we differ very much. I propose that the West support the very small group of liberal opposition members in Syria, as you do. Our main difference is that I don't believe they have much authority. This necessitates also backing the reformers in the regime, i.e. Dardari, et. al., which means the regime cannot be toppled, because to support regime reformers means, at the end of the day, supporting the regime. You do not advocate this (or do you?) because you believe Asad will never let them really reform and just has them there for show.
I don't believe this. I believe there is a real struggle going on within the regime and Syrian society about how to develop. With a smart Western policy toward Syria, I believe the reformers can be given more leverage to win the struggle. I also believe that if the US were able to take a back seat on the issue, they would probably also win out, because reform is the only option for Syria - it is on a train that cannot be stopped – unless, of course, sanctions kill economic growth and lead to eventual collapse and failed nationhood. That is also an option. Because the West, and particularly the US, has a high stake in the region, it is not going to take a back seat, so one must advocate something. Not proposing a way forward for western policy is just abandoning the field. You are paid by the Royal Institute to come up with viable options. Why not try your hand?
It sounds, that in the name of purity, you want to only support the 20 or so civil society leaders in Syria, who admit they have no real purchase on the Syrian youth, no following on the street, and no impact on Syrian policy. Yes, the West should help empower them so they will have greater authority in the future and be part of the solution here. Hopefully, they will be able to point the way out of Syria’s national crisis and not the extremists.
Anwar al-Bunni, the civil rights lawyer here and one of your civil society 20, argued to me not long ago that the best way forward for the opposition was to make common cause with the reformers in the Syrian government. He believed that for the liberals to try to gain power by allying with the extremist Islamic currents such as the Muslim Brothers is a worse option and could lead to an Iranian type let down at the end of the day. He does believe that there are elements of the Islamic current that can be relied on for a better solution to Syria, but didn’t say which. (Perhaps he is thinking of the liberal imams such as Habbash, Hasouni, etc. who the regime is also trying to enlist?)
My understanding of the situation comes from conversations with people like Bunni, who still believe it is wisest to make common cause with regime reformers. I know this is messy, slow and requires moral compromise. But I believe people like Bunni understand the situation on the ground and the real options better than most. You and Asad accuse me of speaking from on high. I think I am trying to be faithful to what I hear from wise people here who have thought about this problem.
As for your objection to my speaking about sectarianism and claiming that Asad must clamp down on Sunni extremists. I don't see a way around it.
Iraq is exporting its sectarian war. In the crudest terms, America has lost its battle to create a constitutional Iraq, built on sectarian and ethnic deal-making and political agreement. What is going on now is that the US is empowering and arming ethnic militias - Kurds and Shiites - to overpower the Sunni population. That is what the battle at Tel Afar was all about. America is going to force Asad to hold down Sunnis in Syria, while America and its Iraqi allies rape Iraq's Sunnis across the border. This is going to upset Sunnis in Syria - and not just the extremist Sunnis. Others will get upset as well because they will see that Asad is supporting America and joining in its effort to hurt Sunni Arabs. They will be right.
Asad wants to keep out of this game, but he cannot. He will be forced to chose whose side he is on. He will choose to crack down on the tribes of eastern Syria who are smuggling and aiding the foreign fighters and Iraqi-Sunni resistance. He will have to restrict the free flow of Arabs into Syria and tighten the screws on anyone who helps them make their way to the border. He will be forced to hand over Iraqi Baathists, resident in Syria, who have friends here among Syrian Baathists. These are primarily Sunni Syrians. By cracking down, the regime will excite greater sectarian opposition and look more sectarian itself. This is just common sense. I am not trying to insult Sunnis and advocate sectarianism. But this is going to happen. The invasion of Iraq ignited a sectarian war there. It is being exported to the rest of the Middle East. That is why Sunni leaders are worrying about the "evil Shiite crescent." Bashar is being forced to enter into this war. His being an Alawite will make his actions seem sectarian when they are really about staying in power and giving in to Western superior power.
He does not want to do this. His domestic policy toward Sunnis has been to try to heal the wounds of Hama and mobilize Sunni help for his regime by pushing Sunni non-Baathists like Dardari up the ladder. All the same, he is going to be forced to take sides in what is turning out to be a very nasty sectarian battle in Iraq. He cannot stay out of it as you propose.