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Amb. Marc Ginsberg

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Syria: Better Late Than Never or Too Little Too Late

Posted: 08/15/11 06:29 PM ET

The ferocious battle for Syria, now in its fifth bloody month, appears to be reaching a decisive climax -- this according to knowledgeable Middle East observers with whom I just met in Europe over the past couple of weeks.

Fortunately, albeit far too belatedly, after agonizing weeks of crippling and damaging hesitation, the Obama Administration finally dragged itself out of its self-imposed policy coma into championing global sanctions of Syria's oil and gas industry exports -- the most important source of foreign hard currency for the Assad regime other than Iranian handouts. Yet it failed to take an all-important decisive step to punish international companies doing business with Syria's energy sector -- yet another error of commission by the Administration which Congress was quick to pick up upon. The Administration self-congratulatory Syria sanctions policy is deemed "measured." By smuggled social media accounts reflecting widespread Syrian opinion, its public prefers to call U.S. policy "bankrupt."

Although full throttled U.S. leadership against Assad's sources of revenue is welcomed, short of unlikely international direct military intervention against Assad, getting nations to stop purchasing Syrian crude is not going to be quick and easy nor guaranty a swift fall of the regime. Even British Prime Minister Cameron is not with the program. He refuses to join in sanctioning Syrian oil exports under the alibi that it could harm the Syrian people more than the regime.

Syria exports 148,000 barrels per day (at today's prices that means Syria earns about $15 million each day from its declining exports). It adds up to enough to keep the Assad's coffers sufficiently full to purchase arms from Russia -- which continues to ship arms to Assad.

Also on the plus side, the Obama Administration is finally exerting a modicum of global leadership against Assad by trying to take charge of a dispiriting international response to the revolt. Backed up by a relatively hollow "President's Statement" from the United Nations Security Council and angry accusations from Saudi Arabia, and other Arab nations against Assad, the United States has embraced this diplomatic cavalry charge to seek further international action against Assad -- action it could have taken long ago without them.

Better late than never!

Ironically, in an odd juxtaposition to her own painful-to-hear tongue twisting on Syria, Secretary of State Clinton urged nations doing business with Syria to cut off trade and arms sales to the regime and "get on the right side of history." Memo to Secretary Clinton: mostly because of an absence of clarity and paralyzed State Department leadership that convinced Assad he was "too big to fail" -- the U.S. has been consistently on the wrong side of history since the revolt began in Syria.

Even if Assad were to survive, or be forced to go, the U.S. has lost precious credibility in Syria -- particularly among the regime's potential opposition successors -- by permitting a questionable Libya policy to hijack an effective Syrian policy. Just because the White House fired before it aimed on Libya (and was bewitched politically as a result) was simply not good foreign policy to avoid leading on Syria -- a nation with far more strategic implications for the U.S. than Libya ever will have for the U.S.

Even with these new sanctions, and a more tangible demonstration of policy creativity, the U.S. still has yet to throw in the towel with the devil it knows in Damascus. For the U.S. to get on the right side of history for itself -- let alone with the Syrian people, it will have to do much more to help the disparate and divided Syrian opposition to unite and provide it desperately needed financial support -- something it will not do yet.

Notwithstanding nearly universal disappointment -- here at home and abroad with my colleagues in the administration -- over their consequential failure of leadership on Syria, the real question is what will the Syrian people do in the weeks ahead, since they -- not economic sanctions or any U.S. policy -- will decide Assad's fate?

That time may soon come.

In a quiet, but not so secret understanding with Ankara, Washington has hitchhiked itself onto yet another Assad lifeline by supporting Turkey's last ditch diplomatic push providing Assad 15 days to get his reform act together (and by extension to gain the upper hand against the revolt), or face a more muscular response from a Turkish government that is actually positioned to possibly tip the scales against Assad.

More time translates into more days for Assad to militarily mop up Syria's restive cities without any meaningful foreign action that could make that more difficult. And given news out of Syria, Assad's military is using every minute to escalate its crackdown before Turkey's ultimatum expires.

Consequently, all eyes are on whether Assad will break the back of the popular revolt militarily within 15 days and then promise and promote Potemkin-like reforms -- this time at a the point of the gun barrel aimed at a dispirited Syrian opposition which faces the cruel realty that Assad's forces are not about to turn against him. Having gained a potentially decisive victory throughout Syria's second-tier cities under revolt, Assad may have the luxury of some breathing space to buy more time to crush his opponents on his terms, rather than be crushed by the tightening noose of international sanctions, Turkish recriminations, and a resilient opposition more certain of Assad's demise.

So where does the popular revolt appear to be heading in the coming weeks?

There are two levels of cities in Syria: the two largest cities of Damascus and Aleppo. Most of the regime's violent repression has been directed at Syria's second-tier cities of Homs, Hama and now, a naval assault on the port city of Latakia on the Mediterranean.

So far, the assaults on Homs and Hama appear to have destroyed much of these cities and enabled the Syrian military to gain the upper hand in controlling their populations -- for the time being at least. Demonstrations and killings are continuing, but on a smaller scale as a result of the exercise of this state-sponsored brute force -- even during Ramadan.

Despite the terrible loss of life and repression, fissures in the regime foretelling an imminent implosion have not reached anything that resembles mortal danger to Assad.

Syrian security troops loyal to Assad (with the help of Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Hezbollah troops) have been able to keep Damascus and Aleppo mostly under lock and key -- aided by a Syrian business elite that is trying to have it both ways -- keeping its options open by supporting both the regime and reaching out to the opposition.

Moreover, despite early anecdotal information trickling out of Syria of dissension and revolt in several divisions, there has been little in the way of open mutiny by the military against the regime. In fact, the military's siege of Homs and Hama, and now Latakia and small towns across the nation have evidenced more cohesion and rank unity than many observers had initially predicted and which many had hoped would evaporate after the early tales of inflicted civilian atrocities trickled throughout their majority Sunni ranks.

Assad's more ruthless brother, Maher -- who commands Syria's military and its security forces -- has purged the military of anyone deemed a threat (purged = shot). And forces deemed absolutely loyal to the regime have been deployed to the field.

And as long as the Syrian opposition remains painfully divided -- as it was in Iran -- the business elites of Aleppo and Damascus will try to have their cake and eat it, too. Reaching out to the opposition while maintaining allegiance to Assad's cronies. And as long as the ever-crucial mercantile community refuses to resolutely break with the regime, Damascus and Aleppo will remain more or less under Assad's control since they have much sway over each city's populations.

Consequently, by the end of August -- through the long, hot mosque-instigated revolt -- either Assad, with Iranian help, will have (at least temporarily) succeeded in breaking the back of the revolt, thus enabling Assad to humor Turkey and by extension, Washington by donning that ol reformer's mask he so effectively wore with visiting westerners more or less on terms that do not constitute a surrender to his opponents, or Turkey will finally pull the plug and begin tangibly fostering more and more support for the opposition.

What seems to be emerging from this struggle given the tide of battle is likely a Syrian version of Iran's post presidential-style repression. An opposition more or less beaten into submission and a seething Syrian population waiting for the next spark to turn on Assad after burying its dead. A stalemate without NATO intervention that will enable Assad to hang on, consolidate and regroup, and as is the Assad's family signature ploy, pick off his enemies one by one.

Unlike the rebels in Libya, Syria's civilians are mostly unarmed. Unlike their compatriots in Egypt, without mass outpourings in Aleppo and Damascus, the Syrian military seems to be slowly, street by street, replicating the tyranny of Assad's father against any city that rose up against the regime.

This is not a scenario the Syrian people deserve, but it may be their short-term fate given the divisions inside and outside Syria and Turkey's and Iran's respective roles in deciding Assad's fate.

I hope I am wrong, and that the people of Damascus and Aleppo, energized by the courage of their compatriots in Hama and Homs and their chagrin over Assad's terror against their fellow citizens, finally take to the streets in defiant solidarity against the regime before Assad is able to buy the time he needs to consolidate his army's field campaign. I hope the Syrians deny Assad the time he needs to turn the tide before Turkey's ultimatum expires. Only then, will the dominoes begin to fall and the army breaks ranks.

Admittedly, it is a terrible prescription for Syrians to achieve their much deserved, liberty, freedom, and dignity.