Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Our Way or the Lions' Way?

As the serious charges leveled against Michel Kilo indicate, and as the crackdown against democracy activists continues, culminating in the arrest of Anwar al-Bunni a few hours ago, one thing is becoming clear: the Assad regime is throwing the glove in the face of the international community and all its resolutions.

Yet, and while people continue to look for an explanation of this escalatory move by the Assads, with some reviving the old rivalry between the various security apparatuses theory, and others contending that the move denotes the existence of a centralized decision-making process, the important question before us is this: what can we do? What can the international community do in the face of the Assads’ defiance, bearing in mind that there is more involved here than the ongoing crackdown, there is as well the question of the various Security Council Resolutions with regard to Lebanon, which continue to be ridiculed by the Assads?

Well, these are my two heretical bits in this regard: the international community, or to be more specific, the US and the EU need to send a very strong and stern message to the Syrian regime, and to the Syrian people. For this, it is clear that one cannot rely on the UN, seeing that Russia and China will continue to be spoilers. Action outside the purview of the UN is, therefore, required. I suggest two measures with important symbolisms: issuing a strong high level condemnation by American and European officials, lowering down the level of diplomatic representation by recalling existing ambassadors, and canceling all previously scheduled visits by Syrian officials on all levels.

While these measures might seem too drastic to some, they will likely appear superfluous to others. But, frankly, unless an explicit message is sent to the Assads to the effect that such confrontational policies will only serve to increase their international isolation, the crackdown against activists will continue and could easily escalate to include all notable opposition figures in the country. On the other hand, and for those who think that the prescribed moves will prove too symbolic and ineffective, well, they might indeed be right, still, there exists a strong reason for not taking on the Assads at this stage. Now this might sound strange coming out of a regime change advocate, but please bear with me. Mine is not intended as a change in my announced "ideological" position vis-à-vis the Assads, but as a tactical move meant to help us select the "right" rules for the eventual well-nigh inevitable engagement-cum-showdown.

For there is a distinct possibility that the Assads might be trying to force such a showdown with the international community at this stage, that is, before the issuance of the next Brammertz report or reports, in an attempt to set the “right” geopolitical context that can allow them to continue to claim more vociferously and for the sake of internal consumption that the reports were politically motivated and that they are indeed fabricated.

As such, a premature showdown can do more good than harm to the Assads. What the US and the EU need to do, therefore, is wait for at least two things to materialize before they take more serious action against the Assads:

1) They need to wait for the final outcome of the UN investigation into the Hariri assassination, or at least for a strong report that clearly implicates specific high level personalities within the regime, which could then open the door for a justified intervention within Syria along the lines of the Assads on Probation scenario which I elaborated earlier.
2) They also need to wait for some in the Syrian external opposition at least to present themselves as a credible enough alternative worthy of international recognition and support, so that fears of state failure in the aftermath of regime change are alleviated.

The good news here is that both things might materialize by no longer than mid-June when Brammertz is scheduled to present his new report, and when the National Salvation Front will have finalized its overall constituency, structure and vision. Alternatively, and should Brammertz opt to issue another technical report at this state, and/or should the NSF require more time to present itself as the awaited viable alternative, then, we and the world might have to “wait” until yearend (wait yes, but not in the passive sense of doing nothing and watching what happens, as we need to use this time to prepare for the eventual showdown).

Whatever the case may be, one thing is clear now: the Assads have just written themselves off as viable players on the scene. True, they have just demonstrated that they can annihilate all internal opposition if they want to, but then, no one really had any doubts about their ability to do that, the Assads did not need to demonstrate that. What they desperately needed to demonstrate was that they are people with whom world leaders can speak and reach agreements, that they can be trusted and relied upon to fulfill their end of whatever bargains, and that they can understand that there indeed exist redlines for them as well, and not only for the opposition, that they need to respect in order to maintain cordial relations with the international community and continue to receive its stamp of approval, its investments and its aid. The Assads have clearly failed and continue to fail miserably in this regard.

Indeed, Syria is important for regional stability and security, and has always been, but it is rapidly becoming clear that the Assads themselves are not, and that they are, in fact, a threat to these needs. Which is why they eventually have to go.