Monday, October 31, 2005

What's To Be Done with Syria?

With the release of the UN Report alleging that high members of the Syrian regime played a role in planning the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Hariri, Syria has come under even more intense international scrutiny. Today, the U.N. Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution demanding Syria's full cooperation with a U.N. investigation into the assassination of Lebanon's former prime minister and warning of possible further actions if it doesn't (AP article). The US, France and Britain pressed for the resolution but agreed to drop a direct threat of sanctions against Syria in order to get support from Russia and China, which opposed sanctions while the investigation is still under way. The chance of Assad cooperating fully enough to satiate the US, France and Britain are low, and sanctions are unlikely to force Syria's hand. As well, there is the very real possibility that destabilizing the regime too much could eventually topple it, leading to even bigger problems for the US.

A quick primer on the UN report may be helpful: While the report stopped short of directly blaming President Bashar Assad or members of his inner circle, it bluntly said that the investigation's leads pointed directly at involvement by Syrian security officials in the assassination and insisted that Syria clarify unresolved questions. The report implied that individuals at the top of the Syrian and Lebanese political systems were aware of the Hariri plot: "Given the infiltration of Lebanese institutions and society by the Syrian and Lebanese intelligence services working in tandem, it would be difficult to envisage a scenario whereby such a complex assassination plot could have been carried out without their knowledge." This is important since Assad's powerful brother-in-law, Assef Shawkat, heads Syria's military intelligence. One witness also pointed to the involvement of Assad's brother, Maher, who is commander of the Republican Guard. While Maher's name was removed in the official version of the report, in the initial Word document released to the media, the deletion was plainly visible after activating the "track changes" option; this has led to speculation that the investigator allowed the name to be conspicuous as a warning to the Syrians that the investigation could climb very high (see an article by Michael Young).

It seems that Syrian "cooperation" with the UN investigation will necessitate handing over those suspected of involvement in the assassination (e.g. Assad's brother-in-law Shawkat or perhaps Assad's brother, Maher); this may be extremely unrealistic (see an article by Andrew Tabler). Assad is a relatively weak autocrat, and autocrats need the support of an inner circle to stay in power. Turning over his brother-in-law and/or brother could seriously erode Assad's internal support and perhaps lead to a coup. As well, it could undermine his domestic support since many Syrians see the UN report as politcally motivated and less than reliable. Still, Assad has attempted to consolidate his power; he retired several high-ranking Ba'ath Party officials in June, and a possible rival to Assad, Interior Minister Ghazi Kanaan, recently died in a highly questionable "suicide."

What seems more likely is that Assad will simply "button up" and effectively ignore the UN and its threats of sanctions. As the Tabler article points out, the regime has plenty of experience surviving sieges: Syria has been under U.S. sanctions since 1979, and it has become skilled at sneaking around them. It also has approximately $18 billion in cash reserves, the equivalent of about three years of current imports. Additionally, Assad knows that if he avoids addressing Mehlis's demands, the Security Council will move into a debate over sanctions and retribution; how hard can the US, France and Britain push given Russian and Chinese reluctance and the current American commitments in Iraq?

Another very real concern is whether political forces inside Syria will sit by if the regime takes the country into a period of prolonged political and economic uncertainty. Syria is full of competing sects and ethnicities, and the Muslim Brotherhood is already an extremely popular organization among Sunnis within Syria. Syria's high population growth rate and low labor and capital productivity could increase the current unemployment rate of 11-20 percent, something that could fuel Islamic radicalism in Syria and the region. An unstable Syria, or a stable Syria with conservative Islamist tendencies, is surely not in the United States' interests.

Perhaps the US should engage Syria behind the scenes (ala Libya) and offer carrots (maybe open up the oil pipeline between Iraq and Syria) in exchange for resumed cooperation in closing down the rather porous Iraq-Syria border to insurgents/Islamists operating in Iraq and resuming intelligence-gathering activities on said Iraqi fighters.

I've tried to illuminate some of the constraints of the Syrian issue in order to spark discussion. There's plenty more to be said, but this is already long enough. For more info, there's a fairly good blog concerning Syria called So, what's to be done?

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