In light of the ongoing crisis in Syria, three experts discussed the events on the ground there, U.S. policy options for the country, the role of Iran in the crisis, and what actions should be taken by the U.S. and international community. On May 9, the Middle East Program hosted a meeting on “What to Do About Syria?” with Ammar Abdulhamid, Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies; Steven Heydemann, Senior Advisor for Middle East Initiatives at the U.S. Institute of Peace; and Barbara Slavin, Washington Correspondent for Al-Monitor and Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council. Haleh Esfandiari, Director of the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center, moderated the event.
Abdulhamid stated that although the Syrian conflict is asymmetric in nature, Bashar Al-Assad is not winning and people on the ground are not giving up despite the violence. He said Syria is currently fragmented; fraught with violence, lawlessness, and sectarian divides. The international community shows sympathy but no real support and the UN peace plan is ineffective. Lacking a clear international plan and cooperation with the opposition, the situation on the ground has become more radicalized, with unwanted actors emerging. Unlike what the opposition believes, transition after Assad will likely be slow and piecemeal. Abdulhamid claimed intervention with U.S. leadership is necessary to salvage the country and region, or the consequences of letting the process continue will have to be endured.
Heydemann explained the U.S. has a defined set of policy objectives in the country, including the overthrow of the regime, its replacement with a transitional authority, and a transition to democracy. However, current policies are fundamentally unable to achieve these objectives, and the U.S. is unwilling to make changes. The key approach of the U.S. thus far is to break the regime from within by promoting fractures within the regime, raising the cost of loyalty, and applying economic sanctions. Heydemann argued the only approach likely to succeed is to establish a credible threat to the regime’s capacity for violence and insurance of its own survival by upgrading the capacity of the armed opposition, disrupting the mobility of regime forces, and increasing the space the opposition can operate within. As long as the U.S. fails to make adjustments in strategy that would bring it in line with goals, its policies will contribute directly to situations on the ground it is trying to avoid.
Slavin highlighted that Iran is not sitting on the sidelines of the conflict, especially since Syria has become the weakest link in Iran’s region of influence which includes Lebanon and Iraq. Iran has provided the Syrian government with money, expertise on how to repress popular movements, and tips on how to catch opposition actors by filtering the internet. To Iran, a chaotic Syria that lacks control over all Syrian territory and is not hostile to Iran is fine. Slavin projected in the long run, sanctions to both Iran and Syria will undermine Assad’s staying power and Iran’s ability to support Syria. Iran will lean more on Iraq and Lebanon to support the Assad regime. The U.S. needs to minimize the role of Iran in playing the spoiler to transition and peace in the country.
The panelists then addressed the outlook for Syria’s future. Abdulhamid stressed that all Syrians adhere to a strong Syrian identity despite sectarianism, and having a vision for how the country will be run is important for gaining support amongst these groups now. Heydemann emphasized that there is a growing conviction the UN peace plan has failed, and it is imperative for every government to come up with an alternative plan to give Syrians the political space for Syrians to define the terms of a settlement. Failing to act in Syria could cause the very problems the U.S. is trying to avoid. Slavin underlined that efforts by the international community need to be raised, and a safe haven must be established.
By Joanna Abdallah, Middle East Program