Reform starts with a Lebanon withdrawal

Special to The Daily Star

The Syrian regime did not have to find itself in the precarious position it is in today, maligned by all for its behavior. It did not have to find itself facing sanctions imposed by the United States. It did not have to face United Nations Security Council Resolution 1559, calling for a Syrian pullout from Lebanon. And it did not have to face the outrage expressed after the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

There have long been warning signs along the way that the Syrian regime chose to ignore. That’s why it has painted itself into a corner today. The hard-liners in the regime have built up an impressive record of miscalculations during the last few years, paving the way for Syria’s current predicament. Moreover, they seem ever capable of imposing their will in times of crises – the very crises they helped create in the first place. Indeed, for all the talk of reform in Syria, it is hard-liners who seem to have shaped the country’s internal and external policies ever since President Bashar Assad came to power.

Therefore, one cannot but wonder at the nature of the decision-making process in Syria. How exactly does it work? Who are the parties responsible for offering advice to the country’s top leaders? What are the accountability mechanisms involved when the advice turns disastrous? What is the nature of the interaction between hard-liners and reformers? And where do Syria’s leaders stand with respect to all of this?

There is no clarity or transparency in the taking of decisions. They take place behind closed doors and the Syrian people are expected to accept them without ever understanding the rationale behind them. But after all these years, one thing is clear: In times of crises, or when it comes to decisions of major significance, Syria’s top leaders, for whatever reason, tend to side with the hard-liners. Thus, they bear the greatest share of responsibility for Syria’s present condition, and the choice to launch a process meant to renormalize Syria’s relations with the world rests primarily in their hands.

For regardless of the circumstances of their rise to power, Syria’s top leaders do enjoy the full support of Syria’s 17 million people – Arabs and Kurds, Muslims and Christians alike. And despite the lack of real progress with regard to the reform process launched more than four year ago, these leaders remain the main source of hope for change in the country. Now is the time to begin capitalizing on this. Now is the time for the reform process in Syria to develop some teeth.

The first reform step that needs to be taken at this stage is to implement an immediate Syrian military withdrawal from Lebanon, regardless of the economic fallout involved. For the political price of staying there is potentially much dearer and will have even greater economic repercussions.

Although the United States and France may not move swiftly to impose drastic measures, Syrian failure to comply with Resolution 1559 will be used, in time, to build a strong case for economic sanctions, and perhaps even military strikes. When the time comes, countries like Russia and China, who seem to oppose such actions now, could be persuaded to fall into line. And then there is always the possibility that action could be taken outside the UN mandate. Indeed, the U.S. could easily make sanctions against Syria hurt simply by extending them to any international company doing business with both Syria and the U.S. There are already people calling for that measure in the halls of Congress.

Syria has reacted to the new situation by taking ineffective steps that could easily provoke an angry response from America and its allies. The Syrian prime minister, Naji al-Otari, affirmed last week that Syria and Iran were collaborating to face the present “challenges.” Damascus has also just concluded a new missile deal with Russia. Yet highlighting a rapport with what Washington considers a member of the “axis of evil,” and a missile deal that appears to throw down the gauntlet to both the U.S. and Israel, may convince many of the necessity of further isolating and weakening the Syrian regime.

For this reason, Damascus is now in desperate need of adopting both flexibility and pragmatism. Tough posturing might be good for the ego, but it is definitely bad for the country. The example of Iraq is pregnant with meaning in that regard, but let us also remember that Syria managed in the mid-1990s to evade a potentially serious conflict with Turkey by having the wisdom and courage to back down in its support for the Kurdish Workers Party. This helped pave the way for the current improvement in Syrian-Turkish relations.

 Withdrawing from Lebanon in compliance with a UN resolution and in fulfilment of the Taif Accord is a smart thing to do at this stage. Rather than weakening Syria politically, it would help it regain its lost credibility on the international stage. By coupling this with a move to open up Syria’s political system and undertake serious political and economic reforms, the regime could still turn the situation around in the country’s favor. Now more than ever then, the ability to be proactive is the key. The way out of the present dilemma lies in turning attention inward and focusing on meeting Syria’s developmental, political and economic challenges. The time for grandstanding is over.

Ammar Abdulhamid, a Syrian novelist and social analyst based in Damascus, is coordinator of the Tharwa Project, a program that seeks to bring greater awareness of the living conditions of minority groups in the Arab world. He is currently under travel restrictions imposed by Syria’s political security directorate. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.