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How to promote change in Syria

Commentary: Isolate the Assad regime diplomatically, and cut air links to Damascus.
Syria crisis violence 2012 3 29Enlarge
This image grab of footage uploaded on YouTube on March 20, 2012 allegedly shows a burning vehicle and gas cylinders, mainly used for cooking, strewn across a street after a mortar shell struck a gas depot store in the central Syrian city of Homs. (-/AFP/Getty Images)

NEW YORK — With a death toll of more than 8,000 in the yearlong conflict in Syria at the hands of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, the world community is ostensibly paralyzed in deciding whether and how to respond.

Many commentators, journalists, diplomats, and academics agree the violence in Syria must stop, but almost no one on the outside agrees on how it should stop and who should take part.

One thing seems fairly certain, though: it has taken less than six months for numerous opposition factions to rise up against the Assad family that has governed Syria for most of the last 40 years. The one thing opposition members, academics, ambassadors and distinguished scholars I’ve encountered say they want is freedom.

To understand the situation in Syria and the steep rise and growth of opposition groups — including the Free Syria Army and Syrian National Council — is to understand what the situation in Syria is not.

First, Syria is not Libya. When the former Libyan dictator threatened massacre in Benghazi last year, it served as a tipping point for world action. The United Nations, North Atlantic Treaty Organization and even other Arab states could not stand by and let that happen. To prevent it, they mobilized military force under the credibility of a UN Security Council Resolution.

I’ve heard one expert describe the international response akin to an “alignment of the sun, moon, and stars,” so don’t expect another international response any time soon. The Security Council resolution worked in Libya but it is a mistake to think the same template applies in Syria. This reality was demonstrated, in part, by the failure of former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan to push his six-point plan to end the violence, bring in relief, and forge a political process to address grievances.

The situation in Syria also differs from other Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia, Yemen, Egypt, and even Bahrain. Many experts I have listened to describe Syria as more like an Arab Awakening, akin to those occurring in the late 1800s and 1950s. In Syria, there are more numerous and amorphous opposition groups in play. These groups are populated with elements from Hamas, Hezbollah, and Al Qaeda. This leads to monumental challenges when trying to decide who to support and whether to provide arms.

If the Assad regime were to fall, Iran would be weakened. Israel would gain from such a development, yet would have to contend with the possibility that Iran would become more unstable. By extension, Russia also stands to lose, introducing another layer of instability and unpredictability. Many Syrian opposition groups do not want Israel’s help in this matter, nor do they want America to whisper in Israel’s ear.

Second, despite the military success in Libya through NATO and coalition forces’ prosecution of Operation Odyssey Dawn, there is little, if any, appetite to expend precious and expensive military resources this year. Military victory in Libya has not led to any form of lasting democracy in the five months since the end of the operation.

Additionally, the global financial crisis, coupled with a U.S. strategic pivot away from Europe toward Asia, are occurring in the midst of a presidential election year for the U.S., France, and recently Germany. These realities conspire to prevent a coherent international response to the Syrian regime violence. Few substantive options remain to stop the violence and give the Syrian people the “decent public order and freedom” they so desperately want.

Other than sanctions, experts tell me there is still time to strengthen other options.

First, continue severing diplomatic relations with the regime. Last month the Arab League called on Arab nations to do so, but more nations need to join the fray.

Second, stop international airline service to the country. This will further isolate the regime from outside contact.

Third, ensure an in extremis government is ready to take the reins once the Assad regime falls.

Sources tell me it should be formed in Istanbul — not Washington or London. Focus should be on building state institutions in conjunction with the in extremis government to fill a huge vacuum that will be left when the regime falls. The longer the violence persists in Syria, the greater the atrophy of current state institutions providing services.

Chad Manske is a colonel in the U.S. Air Force and a visiting fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.  

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