x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

US inconsistencies give the Assads room to manoeuvre

Ever since 1949, Americans have owed the Syrian people something for disrupting a nascent democracy. Now the US will not, it appears, be paying its debt.

On Friday, senior US intelligence officials reportedly said that the embattled Syrian president, Bashar Al Assad, could survive the one-year-old revolt against his dictatorial rule. Mr Al Assad, according to this anonymous account leaked to McClatchy Newspapers, "commands a formidable army that is unlikely to turn on him, an inner circle that has stayed loyal and an elite class that still supports his rule".

These statements, made only a few days after the defection of high-ranking officials and officers, call into question US policy towards the continuing bloodshed.

It is undeniable that Mr Al Assad bears full responsibility for the continuing massacres, and that Russia is his accomplice because it supplies the regime with weapons while at the same time opposing the arming of military defectors. But the US reluctance and inconsistency have only emboldened Mr Al Assad.

The US has a responsibility, as a self-proclaimed defender of human rights and democracy, to do what it can to stop the barbaric clampdown in Syria. In the context of the Arab uprisings, people across the region have had the courage to face brutal regimes to demand change. But they have done so partly because they know the world is watching and that regimes cannot act with impunity anymore. And by the "world", fairly or unfairly, people typically mean the United States.

In Syria, the Baathist regime will continue to wreak havoc as long as it knows it can get away with it - plain and simple. The US has a responsibility to send an unequivocal warning to Mr Al Assad. But, so far, it has failed to do so.

Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center, has rightly pointed out that diplomacy cannot work without a threat of military force: "A credible threat does not mean it must be acted upon," Mr Hamid wrote on The Economist website, "but it does mean the international community must be ready to follow through on its threat, if necessary and if a particular set of conditions are met".

At this stage, such a threat may be pointless as long as Mr Al Assad knows it will not be acted upon. Syrian's foreign minister, Walid Al Moallem, has said: "I assure you from my experience that there will be no foreign military intervention."

When the US ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, visited Hama in July, protesters filled the streets. The belief was that the US would not allow another massacre like those that happened several decades ago, the best known of which was the Hama massacre in 1982, when tens of thousands of civilians were killed and neighbourhoods shelled.

When the regime escalated the violence in October, Mr Ford left Syria, apparently in another sign of support for the protest movement. But his return shortly thereafter gave breathing space to Mr Al Assad. Then last month, the US closed its embassy in Damascus. And such "one step forward, one step back" diplomacy has been mimicked by European countries.

The US has consistently followed every condemnation with a reassurance that military intervention has been ruled out. The anonymous US officials' statements came one week after two other officials "leaked" information that the US administration was moving towards support of the Syrian opposition.

The more recent comments about Mr Al Assad's staying power were possibly meant to pressure the opposition to make reassurances about a post-Assad Syria.

But the statements disregarded the nature of the Syrian regime, which makes it difficult for members of the inner circle to defect. The loyalty of top officials might be based on fear for themselves and their families. The regime has increasingly tightened its control over the inner circle since 2004.

Damascus seems to have learnt from the case of the former interior minister, Ghazi Kanaan, who allegedly planned to defect after the 2005 assassination of Rafiq Hariri. Kanaan was killed in his office on the same day that he gave an interview to a Lebanese radio station about the assassination.

Top officials are unlikely to defect - unless there is a real threat of intervention and an end in sight for the regime. Until then, Mr Al Assad's lackeys will continue to use tanks and artillery against civilians.

Why should the US care? In 1949, the CIA engineered a coup that deposed Syria's first elected president, Shukri Al Quwatli. According to former US agents, the coup was carried out after Syria's parliament refused to ratify the Tapline (trans-Arabian) pipeline that would secure the right of way for Saudi oil through Syria.

The respected Al Quwatli was replaced by General Husni Az-Zaeem, who suppressed the media, the political opposition and the vibrant civil society. While it would be overly simplistic to blame the United States entirely for Syria's subsequent decline, that military coup, the first in a series of 12 over the next 20 years, set the scene for unelected governments and their extrajudicial abuses.

Syrians believe that the US bears some responsibility for their stifled political life. Yet, as so many people across the region have done, Syrians have shown time and again that they trust the US to support their aspirations and protect them from their regime. Even if that regime is, in part, a product of US meddling.

 

hhassan@thenational.ae

On Twitter: @hhassan140