Huffpost WorldPost
Nicholas Noe Headshot

A Third Way on Syria Is Still Possible

Posted: Updated:

Beirut -- In yet another incredibly dangerous turn in the Middle East, "liberal interventionists" are once again joining forces with "hawkish" neoconservative voices to advocate for the collapse of the Syrian regime -- sooner rather than later.

Unlike in the run-up to the disastrous Iraq War, however, this Neo-LiberalCon consensus is gaining the advantage with seemingly few, if any, credible alternatives posed, save for a weak attempt by the Obama administration to offer a "grand bargain" for the Syrian regime that really boils down to four not-so-grand words: "reform or die fighting."

Of course, as most of Obama's advisors know, this is simply not a credible international roadmap for an embattled regime where its outside enemies hold such a clear preponderance of power (not to mention occupied Syrian territory).

Moreover, the Obama "plan" actually offers nothing positive -- no carrots -- to the regime or elites that might either entice them into a real stabilization and transition process or produce enough divisions within the regime, in the event of a rejection, to boost the position of soft-liners towards a tipping point (thereby mitigating the prospect of future violence in any implosion).

As a result of this idea vacuum, the Neo-LiberalCon tsunami grows by the day, publicly eschewing armed, Libyan-style intervention (although, given past statements, it is likely the neo-con wing privately hopes for this), and instead posits a policy by powerful external actors that would accelerate Syria's internal contradictions and pressures to the breaking point.

One essential problem with this formulation is that the result, especially for the people of Syria, will likely be even worse than the kind of civil war that obtains to this day in Libya. As one Syrian activist who crossed into Lebanon casually told a Western reporter earlier this month, he could contemplate the need for sacrificing the lives of 2-3 million Syrians for freedom.

And this is without the increasing prospect of regional war (and other unintended consequences) that would likely be engendered by such an "accelerated collapse" approach!

One potentially fruitful avenue has, however, been available at least since the start of the protests -- but its promise has been moving towards the oft-touted "point of no return" each time the regime ratchets up the violence and external actors invest more capital (rhetorical, financial and otherwise) in a policy of accelerated collapse.

In short, rather than only posing the formula of transitioning out of power or facing extreme isolation, growing unrest and a possible explosion, the Obama administration, Europe, other Arab states and Turkey could have -- and still can -- join together to offer a real roadmap for immediate stabilization and a medium-term transition towards democratic benchmarks.

This transition would have to take place, however, within the context of an aggressive US role to finally return the entire occupied Golan Heights to the Syrian people (a "'67 borders" proposal originally promised by Israeli Prime Minister Yitzah Rabin which, unlike the one proposed recently by Obama, is arguably digestible for the Israeli body politic, especially given the stated support of key security officials and military hawks).

Specifically, this would mean:

1) Immediately convening an international conference to support Syria's economy;

2) The development of a Marshall Plan, alongside a relaxation of economic sanctions, to rescue Syria's currency and smooth the way for economic reforms that, on their own, would likely hurt far too many Syrians in the short and medium terms;

3) Publicly committing the Syrian regime to a timetable for those political reform proposals already tendered by Syrians actually living in Syria (broad prisoner releases and a pullback by the army first, the setting of near-term dates for free and fair parliamentary elections, legal reforms to make the media sector more open and security sector reforms);

4) And a public commitment by the US president and allies to aggressively expedite the "Syria Track" of negotiations according to the Rabin terms. Although it is now de rigeur to overlook the history of recent negotiations (the DNA of the regime makes peace impossible, the Neo-LiberalCons reliably argue), Bashar al-Assad's father almost signed such a deal in 2000, but Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak got "cold feet" at the last minute about giving back several hundred meters of shoreline around Lake Tiberius in the Golan. Not to be outdone, in 2008, the son also came close to a deal before Israel launched its War in Gaza, greatly angering their Turkish intermediaries.

Of course, when it comes to the political reforms, things look perhaps more cloudy, especially to many in the US and Europe.

But forcing an immediate, radical leap to full democracy would likely be too much for either the regime or many Syrians to reasonably swallow without collapsing the whole process (at which point one must again consider the moral and strategic dangers of the "accelerated collapse" policy).

What's more, if the West wants to demand, say, a date for presidential, as opposed to merely parliamentary, elections -- thus directly challenging the Assad rule now rather than helping to guide an indigenous democratic process to eventually deal with the issue -- one needs to look around the region and think very hard whether we are going to be consistent and demand exactly the same thing, now, in Bahrain for example (where there is a nominally elected parliament but the monarchy rules) much less in Saudi Arabia, Jordan etc.

Either way, at this point -- even given the increasingly wanton brutality of the regime -- it still seems reasonable to assert that a critical mass of Syrians themselves, within the country, would prefer a concrete plan and commitment -- backed by patient but strong set of external actors -- for a gradual transition towards a range of meaningful democratic reforms (especially in concert with the other supporting measures), rather than the alternative track we are likely going down: tens of thousands, perhaps more, dead and many more lives ruined for a prolonged period of time as in Iraq.

For the Neo-LiberalCons, such an alternative approach may at first seem anathema. However, I would urge them not only to look closer at the moral and strategic implications of their current trajectory, but also at the effect that such an alternative would likely have on the regime collapse scenario they in fact advocate.

Simply put, a credible roadmap for a way out of the current mess, in public, would actually help soften the violent effect of any implosion, should the Assads decide to publicly reject such a proposal made by a concert of nations.

As we now know from unnamed US officials in the Arab media, the Obama administration is currently looking at ways to lure key officials, constituencies and army leaders away from the iron-fist policy pursued by the Assads in the hope that an Egypt-type scenario may obtain in the near future.

Without putting positive incentives out there, however, such an effort is emaciated from the start and unlikely to succeed in the Syrian context (where the army appears to have greater loyalty to the Assad rule), or to have much of an effect on the regime's calculations.

With a concrete set of "carrots," the wedges we know exist within the regime and within Syria's elites would be greatly exacerbated in the event of a rejection, empowering soft-liners against hardliners and likely strengthening the former's ability to gain the upper hand in mitigating the effects of any eventual collapse, should it come to pass.

Make the Assads and any of their allies that are left within the country and outside (including key actors like Hezbollah and Hamas) seem obviously unreasonable and you will have gone a long way towards saving lives and, hopefully, making the path towards freedom for all Syrians an achievable and liveable reality.

One final point needs mentioning.

The debate over what to do in regards to Syria marks a critical turning point for Western pundits and policymakers as well for the discipline of international relations in general.

This ideological battle gained particular momentum during the protests following the disputed presidential election in Iran in 2009 and has roughly boiled down to a debate over using limited resources to address underlying grievances (like occupied territory, strategic threats, etc.) or pursuing a less expensive (and politically more comfortable) policy of encouraging various "Green Revolutions" -- indigenous wedges -- in states that oppose the US.

The great "Green" hope is that the regimes in question would implode a la Communism with a manageable level of pain and suffering

It remains the preferred route for the Neo-LiberalCons when things get hot -- especially after the Iraq war soured many on the idea of direct, armed regime change against relatively weak states.

If the Obama administration continues on the path towards an "accelerated collapse" policy, I would submit that we will shortly be facing a definitive, real world test for this battle of approaches.

Should the Syrian regime collapse under growing external pressures with relatively little violence and usher into power a democratically elected government -- or even an authoritarian one but whose "behavior" in the region, especially vis-à-vis Israel, is ostensibly "better" -- the Neo-LiberalCon approach will become vastly more attractive in western capitals and among various publics.

I obviously don't think this is likely -- which is why democracy advocates, I believe, need to jumpstart a conversation about alternative approaches immediately.

One thing, of course, is absolutely certain, and it is important to consider very carefully: once again, it is the people of the region who will bear the overwhelming balance of yet another Great Power gamble.