Yesterday I wrote about the limitations of American power and pressure in Syria. The post was a response to a piece in Foreign Policy urging Obama to recall the American ambassador and to openly say that Assad had lost his legitimacy and my response focused on how such moves would not aid the opposition and would in fact harm American and opposition interests by blinding the United States from the true storyline inside Syria. For me, recalling the Robert Ford – the American ambassador – would be a terrible mistake as it would greatly limit American options (we still have an ambassador in Libya, by the way). Intensifying rhetoric to include the ‘word illegitimate’ does nothing to dishearten the Syrian government and, when it proves to be an empty gesture, will just force the ‘do anything camp’ to call for more extreme action.
The administration is right about the limits of Washington’s influence over events in Syria and correct to resist pressure to indulge in symbolic gestures such as withdrawing the Ambassador or calling on Asad to leave. Prudence is not weakness. It is the only rational response to the turbulence and uncertainty surrounding Syria today. That does not mean doing nothing. The Obama administration should continue to ratchet up its rhetorical condemnation of Syrian violence. It might use the threat of International Criminal Court referral and targeted sanctions to encourage regime defections. But increasing pressure is not enough. Instead, it should continue to focus on a regional and international approach, in cooperation with regional partners such as Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the Arab League, designed to create a real alternative to the seemingly unstoppable descent into brutality and rebellion.
Most arguments for more forceful U.S. action begin with the demand the withdrawal of Ambassador Robert Ford. This, they argue, will signal to Asad, to Syrians, and to the world that there will be no future relationship with the U.S. In fact, it would be a symbolic gesture which wouldn’t make much of a difference on the ground and would blind the U.S. inside of Syria at a critical time. The signal to Damascus would be a drop in the ocean, and would quickly fade by the next day’s news cycle. The cost would be losing the hard won presence of an able diplomat on the ground at a time of turmoil, which could prove extremely valuable should conditions continue to deteriorate. There is virtually no international media on the ground in Syria, which puts a premium on even the limited ability of the Embassy to collect information and to engage. At this point, this is still just a bad idea.
And then, there’s “Expellus Assadum”: the magic words by which Obama might declare that Asad must go and somehow make it so. While there’s every reason for the U.S. to ratchet up its rhetorical criticism of an increasingly violent and brutal regime, tougher rhetoric isn’t going to change the game. The entire course of the Arab upheavals this year demonstrates the limits of American influence and control over events or other regional actors. It most certainly proves that firm Presidential rhetoric is not enough to tip either the internal or the international diplomatic balance.
While I am not against the usage of the ICC, it is an option that needs to be thoroughly debated. Though President Assad already looks as though he has adopted the Samson option of fighting “to the last Levantine and Syrian,” an ICC arrest warrant would only harden his position. The role of the ICC in Syria is very similar to its role in Libya (though the similarities between the two countries pretty much stop there). The United States needs to push for a regional and viable plan for power transition that would likely see a continuation of Assad’s regime with guarantees of democratic reform or a deal that grants the President immunity in return for stepping down. Issuance of an ICC warrant eliminates both options and pushes Assad ‘s back against the proverbial wall.
In other words, having the ICC investigate Assad should be an option if and only if it is absolutely clear that the Syrian president will absolutely not accept any type of transition deal. Although Assad is currently playing a brutal game in Syria, there is still a chance that he would accept a deal if it becomes clear that the government will fall.
Photo from Foreign Policy