My friend Josh Landis has written an op-ed for the New York Times on Syria that, rather unfortunately, seems to downplay the very dire (and self-imposed) situation in which Syria finds itself today, and offers more reasons to dismiss his argument than to support it.
Landis wants the Bush administration to give Syria and its president, Bashar Assad, a chance. He opens by noting that the United States sees Syria as a 'low-hanging fruit' in the Middle East, and wishes to send it down the path to 'creative instability,' resulting in more democracy in the region and greater stability in Iraq. Landis sees this is a dangerous fantasy that will end up hurting American goals. He writes:
Mr. Assad's regime is certainly no paragon of democracy, but even its most hard-bitten enemies here do not want to see it collapse. Why? Because authoritarian culture extends into the deepest corners of Syrian life, into families, classrooms and mosques. Damascus's small liberal opposition groups readily confess that they are not prepared to govern. Though they welcome American pressure, like most Syrians, they fear the deep religious animosities and ethnic hatreds that could so easily tear the country apart if the government falls.
What does he propose? Essentially that the U.S. and Syria talk, because they "have much to talk about: both are trying to solve their Iraq problems. They share a common interest in subduing jihadism and helping Iraq build stability." More importantly, the U.S. has no interest in seeing Assad's regime collapse, because the chances are that ethnic turmoil would result and "would bring to power militant Sunnis who would actively aid the jihadists in Iraq. Mr. Assad is a member of the Alawite minority, a Shiite offshoot that fought a bloody battle against Sunni extremists in the 1980's… It would be suicide for him to provoke Sunnis and extremists while Washington seeks his downfall."
I'm at a loss as to where to begin nitpicking at what Landis says. First off, if it's suicide for Assad to provoke Sunni extremists, then why should the U.S. expect him to help them in Iraq? Indeed, how does this square with Landis' own statement that Assad has an interest in subduing jihadism? Maybe he does; but Landis admits he simply cannot. My own view is that he doesn't want to, because Iraq is the last card he holds in facing the U.S. The situation today clearly shows that, though both sides may be trying to solve their Iraq problems, both define those problems in very different ways.
Secondly, Landis has the instability thing on backwards: Because Assad is from the Alawite minority, dominating a Sunni majority, there is an ingrained instability in the Syrian system that can potentially heighten religious tensions; the problem is not American pressure. Domestic Syrian relations will get worse, if indeed the situation is as bad as Landis describes it, thanks to the fact that an Alawite clique (and indeed now one largely confined to the Assad family and cousins and in-laws) has come to dominate all power in Syria.
Worse, Assad has offered the Kurdish community–the Achilles Heel of any Syrian regime today, because of the pull of Iraq's virtually independent Kurds–nothing but words in recent years, after promising to regularize the status of some 100,000-200,000 stateless Kurds who have virtually no legal or cultural rights.
Third, Landis makes the error of many "Syrianists" by downplaying the role of Lebanon, specifically the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. He writes:
Next week, United Nations investigators will begin interviewing top officials in Damascus about the bombing death of the anti-Syrian politician Rafik Hariri in Lebanon, a matter that many expect the United States will bring before the Security Council. Politicians and businessmen alike here are convinced that Washington wants to bring down the regime, not merely change its behavior.
This is deeply deceptive; the Hariri investigation is not an American-Syrian issue; it's an issue between the international community, represented by the United Nations, and Syria. The U.S. is certainly not going to write the report of the German investigator, Detlev Mehlis, which will reportedly implicate very senior members of the Syrian regime, perhaps even the president himself; indeed the report may well already be written–by Syria, which has left a trail of blood and cordite from Hariri's murder scene to the door of the Assad family.
And fourth, Landis' remarks on the authoritarianism in Syrian culture are not only astonishingly simplistic (and insulting to those tens of thousands of Syrians who have spent long spells in Syrian prisons because of their opposition to authoritarianism), but his statement that the Syrian opposition readily confesses it is not prepared to govern is misleading. Yes, they Syrian opposition, grounded down by four decades of dictatorship, is fearful for its country's future, but for heavens sake they're not asking for the regime to remain. They want a peaceful transition away from despotism, not for more legitimacy to be directed Assad's way so that he can perpetuate his power indefinitely, as Landis' proposals would inevitable lead to.
Fear of instability should not be an excuse to stick with the stalemated thuggery we know. Syria's collapse may indeed be very dangerous, but there is a middle ground between dealing positively with a discredited kleptocracy that is also very likely responsible for the murder, in Lebanon, of Hariri, journalist Samir Kassir, former Communist Party leader George Hawi, and several others in recent Beirut bomb blasts; that has not done nothing of any consequence for domestic Syrian reform and democratization; that has looked the other way on foreign "insurgents" entering Iraq (and I'm surprised Landis believes a mound of dirt on the Iraqi border is somehow proof of good Syrian intentions); that has consolidated the power of the Syrian Baath Party, a main barrier to change, on the spurious premise that this can somehow accelerate amelioration; there is a middle ground between dealing with such a regime and pushing for a transition to a more stable leadership without the Assads.
Landis' problem is that he cannot admit that Assad's hold today is inherently unstable, and that the political elite in Syria, despite what he says, is extremely anxious about Assad's dramatic errors. The regime is not a barrier against disintegration; it is proving to be its catalyst. In politics, relevance is everything. Assad has not become irrelevant because the U.S. and France have made him so; he's become irrelevant because he's made mistake after mistake, marginalizing Syria, losing its hold on Lebanon, playing with fire in Iraq, presiding over continued domestic economic stagnation, and destroying the tenuous domestic balance his father ceded him. And this is the man with whom the international community should be cutting a deal? C'mon.