US Supports Dialogue by Calling for Regime Change? (And Other Syrian Happenings)

Ford's visit to Hama may lead the US to take a definitive stance in Syria

I have been away the last few days doing some camping and hiking in the White Mountains of New Hampshire and have consequently missed a lot that I want to catch up on (the hiking was certainly worth it though). In Syria, there still (unsurprisingly) seems to be nothing but confusion and disagreement between the opposition and the government as well as between members of the opposition itself. I mentioned the fractures in the opposition earlier as many protesters are calling for the fall of the Assad regime while others are pushing for reform through dialogue as well as the tacit American support for dialogue with Assad. Well, the confusing American policy in Syria continues. In addition to calling for dialogue, apparently the US ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, attended the Friday protests in the city of Hama where the mayor was recently fired, where protest numbers have reached half a million and where Syrian tanks have been encircling.

The presence of the ambassador was celebrated by the protesters and condemned by the Syrian authorities who said it proved that the US and other foreign agents were behind the uprising. The US embassy maintains that it had informed the Syrian government of its intention to send a diplomatic mission to Hama, though it did not mention the ambassador by name. The State Department released a statement concerning the ambassador’s visit, saying: “The fundamental intention was to make absolutely clear with his physical presence that we stand with those Syrians who are expressing their right to speak for change.” So far, this is as close as the US has come to calling for the fall of the Assad regime and fairly directly opposes the recent support for the road map for reform that has been discussed recently.

Personally, I agree with Andrew Exum, who tweeted “What did he have to lose?” Supporting the people of Hama will certainly score some points with the Syrian populace and it seems unlikely that the foreign saboteurs meme that the regime has pushed will be any more effective after Ford’s appearance. Yet by spending Friday with 500,000 Syrians who are calling for the end of the Assad regime, though, Ford has certainly complicated the American stance towards the regime. However, considering the complete lack of a concrete stance towards Syria, making a definite statement might be a good thing. (I link to Rubin knowing that I disagree with everything she says particularly about removing our ambassador. Yet, it is true that the US has a poorly defined Syrian stance – but that has more to do with the inability of the US to influence anything and its desire to land on the winning side.)

On some other Syrian news:

1) Gary Gambill, of the Middle East Forum, argues that the national dialogue option – aka the road map and the potential reforms discussed in it – is impossible under the Assad regime:

Unfortunately, Assad is a hard-liner. Under the present circumstances, he can count on solid Alawite backing, strong support from other religious minorities, and the acquiescence of many Sunnis who are prosperous, staunchly secular, or militantly anti-Zionist. These allegiances, however, would quickly evaporate in a democratic Syria. Absent the looming threat of catastrophic domestic upheaval, a regime-less Assad family may not even command majority support among Alawites…

The president’s extraordinarily thin base of popular support and uncertain relations with soft-liners militate against a pacted transition. Whatever formal guarantees of immunity and institutional prerogatives Assad might eke out of the process, his acute political vulnerability will make it very risky for him to linger very long in a free Syria.

Gambill makes some very good points throughout his article, namely that the current opposition is not organized enough to offer a credible immunity deal. Gambill, however, assumes that the fall of the regime is inevitable. Of course, he may be correct in his assumption, but it is – in my opinion – far too soon to believe that the end of the Assad era is guaranteed. There are a million reasons to believe that Assad is incapable of true reform (specifically his repeated unfulfilled promises of reform over the last decade), but it is too early to suggest that no immunity type deal could be made or that, under the right circumstances, reform under Assad would be impossible.

2) Yazan Badran relates his personal (Alawite) history and the views of his family towards the uprising while attempting to view the conflict through the lens of class struggle:

Apart from individual sympathizers, both families stand firmly against the uprising. And while my mother’s family moves slowly towards a coherent defense of their best interests, siding with a political discourse, my father’s family, bizarrely, slides to an extreme and sometimes violent posture against the protesters and all their demands.

This is the sectarian narrative in its utmost success. A family struggling with economic realities of alienation and dehumanization defends its status-quo with all means possible. This is where the uprising fails. This is true not only for Alawis, mind you, but for many other sects within this struggle. The specific dynamics of how this works for Alawis were discussed in an excellent piece on this very blog a few weeks ago…

Nevertheless, the problems afflicting the working class, which were at the core of this uprising, will not be solved, and with the economy being the worst hit, they will most probably deteriorate further. Thus, there is a greater need today to reorganize these classes for the betterment of their conditions and to avoid the dangers of sectarian intra­struggles that have threatened and will threaten to tear them and the nation apart.

Badran’s piece is important for two reasons. First, it highlights the support of many Alawites for the Assad regime. Whether it is out of fear of future reprisals or simply due to the benefits they receive under Alawite leadership, the minority Alawites are sticking close to the regime.  Moreover, if one were to look at the military and government, the Alawite connection and loyalty to Assad makes defections unlikely as those in power are the ones who would likely suffer the most should Assad fall.

Secondly, Badran tries to frame the uprising as a Marxist, class struggle. In many ways, the economic woes of the lower classes in Syria were a main driver for the uprising. To say that the economy and the class differences had nothing to do with the uprising is foolish, but it is just as foolish to ignore the real grievances expressed by the protesters that have nothing to do with the economy. In other words, economic woes may have once been a main driver of the revolution, but it has evolved to include real political issues that Badran ignores. It is certainly important to give attention to the economic drivers of unrest, but one cannot simply ignore the political demands of the protesters. In any event, Badran is able to offer a personal story of the Syrian uprising that is worth your time.

Photo from the Bellingham Herald

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