Thursday, December 16, 2010

The canard of regime change in Syria

Recently, the Druze leader, Walid Jumblatt, offered up an interpretation that he has frequently repeated since moving closer to Syria and taking his distance from the United States.

Jumblatt was responding to my column last week on a WikiLeaks cable mentioning that in 2006, Serge Brammertz, the second UN commissioner investigating the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, had basically admitted to the US ambassador in Beirut, Jeffrey Feltman, that he was focusing on Syrian participation in the crime. For the Druze leader, that mention was a return to the “tone of Condoleezza Rice and others and the neoconservatives [favoring] regime change,” by which he meant regime change in Syria. “The Syrian people and Syria decide what they want,” Jumblatt added.

That’s no doubt true, however it is equally true, with the benefit of hindsight, that the Bush administration never sought regime change in Damascus. Some in Beirut did, but Washington never seriously pursued such a foolhardy project, nor did it indicate the contrary.

How would the US have changed the regime of President Bashar Assad anyway? Presumably, it would have had to send into Syria the American armed forces, namely those stationed in neighboring Iraq. But as we now know from countless sources, including Bob Woodward’s 2006 book “State of Denial,” the thinking at the Pentagon went in precisely the opposite direction. From the start, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld saw Iraq as a short-term venture for the armed forces – a matter of a few months, no more. That is why the secretary resisted for so long an expansion in the number of troops that might have stabilized the Iraqi situation much sooner.

The military hierarchy knew that President George W. Bush’s declaration of an end to combat operations in Iraq was a farce. Therefore, it also grasped that there was a hard slog ahead. Not only was there no appetite in Washington to expand the war to Syria, there was no intention from the military in Baghdad to permit such a slide. In fact even when it came to controlling the open Iraqi-Syrian border, through which suicide bombers were passing, the Americans were surprisingly unobtrusive. Aside from a few high-profile operations, the military didn’t have the manpower to exert sustained local pressure on Syria, let alone conceive of something more ambitious.

Proponents of the regime-change theory might respond that even if the Bush administration was not plotting to overthrow Assad through force, it was looking to set up the conditions for a domestic upheaval, perhaps a coup. Possibly. The US would not have saved the Assad regime had it fallen from the weight of its own ills. But that doesn’t qualify as regime change. Nor does it take into account the strangely resilient conviction in Washington that, for all its shortcomings, Assad’s rule is better than a Sunni-led Islamist alternative. Assad, quite effectively, has played on this line, and although nothing makes an Islamist regime in Damascus inevitable, American officials have bought into that fear, because it is what they witnessed in Iraq.

According to those who argue that the US supported regime change indirectly, by weakening Syria elsewhere, events in Lebanon between 2004 and 2005 take on central importance. Passage of Security Council Resolution 1559, which called for a Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon, is Exhibit A in this contention. However, it only tells us half the story. While the US and France did seek to get the ball rolling on a Syrian pullout from Lebanon in 2004, and while Assad read this as a potential threat to his leadership at home, and responded in kind by extending Emile Lahoud’s mandate in Beirut, one key item is missing.

As Feltman once explained in an interview, “[T]hose of us working most closely on the Lebanon file focused on not letting the perfect become the enemy of the good.” If the US could not force the Syrians out of Lebanon in one stage, it would not hinder this effort by avoiding doing so in several stages, the primary aim being to allow relatively free and fair elections in 2005 without the Syrians present. “And this desire for better parliamentary elections led to what was the real focus in late 2004 and early 2005: persuading the Syrians to pull back their occupying troops deep into the Bekaa Valley, so that elections in most of Lebanon could have been relatively free and fair.”

This was a return to what had been agreed at Taif on the future of the Syrian military presence, though with deeper Syrian redeployments. One of the advocates of a step-by-step Syrian movement away from Lebanon’s populated areas was Jumblatt. The Syrians were well aware of American thinking – of the Bush administration’s willingness to allow a continuation of their presence in Lebanon, albeit on the country’s periphery. That helps explain their calculations when deciding what to do about Hariri. But one thing it also did was reassure Assad that he could maneuver. Rather than assuming that his regime was under threat, he grasped by early 2005 that the US and France were willing to cut him some slack in Beirut.

Which leads us to the investigation of Hariri’s murder and the subsequent establishment of a tribunal to judge the guilty. It is odd that those who believe the US hoped to bring about regime change in Damascus through the investigative process would, for example, point to the Brammertz-Feltman meeting to bolster their argument. The reality is that Brammertz did not substantially move ahead in the Hariri investigation, as numerous sources now confirm. Whether he did this on purpose is an open question, but the US never twisted the commissioner’s arm to speed up his work. If anything, Washington was painfully respectful of Brammertz’s independence, even though there was growing evidence that he was getting nowhere.

Jumblatt has described the diplomatic information released by WikiLeaks as proof of the failed US policies in the Middle East. In retrospect, we now know that the Americans had more pressing goals in the region than replacing Syria’s leadership. Jumblatt, who says he is relieved to be with Syria again, should thank them for their failure.

No comments: