POMED Notes: Confronting Damascus: U.S. Policy Toward the Evolving Situation in Syria, Part II
On Wednesday, the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs conducted a hearing on examining U.S. response to the evolving crisis in Syria. The witness were Marc Lynch, a professor at George Washington University, Andrew Tabler, a next generation fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and Mara Karlin, instructor in strategic studies at Johns Hopkins University. Steve Chabot (R-OH) presided over the committee.
For full event notes, continue reading below or click here for the PDF
Steve Chabot characterized the human rights abuses in Syria as “horrifying” and the regime as “morally depraved.” Chabot criticized the current steps in Syria as not enough, and the only solution is the “removal of Assad from power.” While Chabot believes in allowing diplomacy time to succeed, President Bashar al-Assad has indicated he is not sincere about adhering to the Kofi Annan’s Six Point Peace Plan. Stressing for action to be taken in Syria, Chabot said, “No decision is a decision in and of itself.”
Gary Ackerman (D-NY) believes it is in the U.S.’ best interest morally and nationally to have Assad leave power, but not if the ensuing power vacuum creates a chaotic non-pluralistic Syrian society.
While Andrew Tabler believes Assad is a “dead man walking,” there are multiple resources at his disposal that can extend his stay in power. The U.S. should work to accelerate Assad’s departure. Pressure should be directed from the ground up, while augmenting current support to the opposition, such as, sharing intelligence about Assad’s forces with the opposition. Tabler feels Assad cannot abide by Annan’s peace plan, since removing the heavy weapons and tanks will allow citizens on the street to protest – the real threat to the regime.
Mara Karlin stated, “The U.S. knows what it does not want in Syria, but getting to what it wants will be messy.” While the U.S. does not want Assad in power, a civil war, Syria being manipulated as a rogue state, or the U.S. being involved in a long-term nation-building effort, are all possible problems in a post-Assad power vacuum. The U.S. should work to end the Assad regime, while “coalescing alternative, viable and inclusive leadership,” and leverage its comparative advantage to become a critical actor in Syria’s future.
Marc Lynch cautioned against rushing military intervention, and with taking any action in “half-measures.” While disagreeing that Annan’s plan helps Assad, Lynch reinforced the peace plan “creates space without involving the U.S. in an insurgency.” Even though the current strategy may seem frustrating, the opposition cannot win by force alone. So far, Assad has been successful in using fear to keep the different minority groups from deserting from the regime. The cease-fire alleviates the Assad imposed fear and gives Syrians time to realize they are better without Assad.
Responding to Chabot’s inquiry about Annan’s peace plan in Syria, Tabler contends the problem is not with Annan’s plan, but Assad’s failure to adhere to it. It is the peaceful protests that have “kept Assad on his heels,” and Assad cannot implement point 2 (removing tanks and artillery) because he will not tolerate point 6 (allowing peaceful protest). Karlin added, it is not in Assad’s interest to adhere to the plan and therefore he does not. Chabot asked if the conflict in Syria could spread. Tabler looked to Iraq and Lebanon as examples of the domino theory not spreading; Lynch feels Iraq is vulnerable and a conflict could spill over, or Syria could become a proxy war for external actors; Karlin feels that if Turkey invokes Article 5 with the U.N. against Syria, the conflict will spread. Tabler told Chabot creating “safe zones” are half-measures and problematic due to imperfections.
While Ackerman recognizes the positive effects of the Peace Plan, he believes that arming the opposition will create a shift in the power balance that will only increase the violence levels and cause the minority groups to gravitate back to Assad. Tabler contended the U.S. should not blankly support the opposition, but specific groups should be provided arms. As this type of support is already being funneled into Syria, should the U.S. “allow other countries not in our shared interests to influence the situation?” Ackerman wanted a gauge as to how other countries were viewing the U.S. response to Syria. Lynch said that Saudi Arabia and Qatar want the U.S. to take a firmer line, while the Peace Plan has so far kept Russia on board. Karlin believes Turkey is looking to the U.S. to provide stronger signals on what action it will take in Syria, while China has been exerting little support in alleviating the situation because it “becomes uncomfortable when other States begin to look domestically.”
Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE) wanted to know what a post-Assad Syria would look like. Tabler responded it was difficult to determine since the exiled Syrian National Council (SNC) is divided. There have been sign the opposition within Syria has come together, and since the SNC is not under fire there is little pressure for them to coalesce. Karlin believes a future Syria will be violent, since “Syria has been ruled through violence the violence will continue.” Karlin responded that leveraging military assets to create “safe zones” would be a turning point and cause Assad to lose control. Lynch argued that “safe zones” would not work due to the effort exerted in maintaining and enforcing, and are a “band-aid” to the overall situation. The next steps in Syria need to be U.N. mandated, according to Lynch.
Gerald Connolly (D-VA) questioned the witnesses on Turkey’s involvement with the ongoing crisis in Syria. Karlin stated the Turks have maintained a very close relationship with Assad, but that relationship soured when Turkey perceived Assad as not living up to previous agreements at the onset of the conflict. Turkey is the country most directly affected by events in Syria and therefore has a greater concern for the outcome.