Taking A Stand on Syria

by Robert E. Hunter

With the collapse of the latest round of negotiations over Syria’s future, the tragedy of its people — of all ethnic and religious backgrounds — continues into its third year. Military forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad are doing better than was expected a few months ago.  The opposition, a heterogeneous group directing their disparate energies to the common goal of ending Assad’s rule, is increasingly dominated by Islamist extremists. Meanwhile no outside country has been prepared to act to bring the conflict to a halt and take responsibility for what comes next.

The phrase “outside country” is assumed to mean the United States, ignoring the fact that Europe is far closer and, as hundreds of thousands of refugees flee Syria, many will find their way to that continent rather than America. But the European Union is in dis-union over economics, uncertain of its foreign policy future — though it has now succeeded in Ukraine where the US failed — and still expects Washington to look after shared Western interests in the Middle East.

For the US to take the lead and pursue effective diplomacy, it must decide what final outcome to Syrian fighting will best suit American interests and values — begging the question of whether the US or anyone else can determine results. Washington has still not made this decision. If and when it does, it must also convince its friends and allies in the region to follow suit and, in the case of some of them, to stop poisoning the well. As of now, that course is unlikely, as each regional country pursues its own interests, heedless of the best interests of the Syrian people as a whole.

Much of what has been happening in Syria stems from the political, cultural, economic, and — to a degree — religious earthquake that began in Tunisia in December 2010, and spread to Libya, Egypt, Yemen and Bahrain, sweeping up Syria in the process. But what is happening in Syria has proved to be more complicated and perhaps more consequential than what has been happening in the other “Arab Spring” countries.  Unlike Libya, Syria is not remote from the rest of the region; unlike Bahrain, its struggles are already spilling over onto other countries; and Syria’s turmoil is impacting other US foreign policy concerns, including negotiations with Iran and those between Israel and the Palestinians.

To begin with, the Syrian civil war has become part of the age-old struggle between the descendants of the Prophet — Sunni vs. Shia. The latest round began when the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq toppled a Sunni minority government that had for centuries dominated its Shia majority. For Sunni states, especially Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE, and to a degree Turkey, Syria is payback time. That means doing all they can, both directly and with whatever support they can muster from the US and Europe, to depose Assad and, with his departure, the political dominance of the minority Alawites (a Shia sect).

Syria has also become a surrogate struggle for preeminence in the region, pitting Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arabs against Iran and perhaps also Turkey. To top it off, rich Sunnis in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the UAE have been providing inspiration, cash, and thus access to arms to al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations to operate in Syria, just as they have been operating in Yemen, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, in the last-named country killing Americans and other troops in the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). The Saudi government has not been directly involved, but it has not stopped the heinous practice, while the US has turned a blind eye.

Further, at the behest of Saudi Arabia and Israel, the US has blocked Iran’s participation in the Geneva talks on Syria, a sine qua non for success that might give Iran some incentive to reduce its own destructive role in Syria as well as Lebanon, a role motivated in part to show that Iran cannot be excluded from planning over the region’s future.

Unfortunately, by proclaiming two years ago that “Assad must go,” President Barack Obama fell into a trap and made himself and the United States handmaidens to Sunni and Saudi-led political objectives.  The premise of diplomacy has thus been “transition” beyond the Assad regime, rather than just searching for an end to the conflict, even if Assad were left in place. But given that he is not likely to negotiate his own demise (figuratively and perhaps also literally); and given that the Alawites have little confidence about their own survival in the chaos that would likely follow Assad’s departure, it is no wonder that diplomacy has led nowhere.

Further, Obama and his team have not been willing to say “we got it wrong” in calling for Assad to step down, rather than viewing that as a possible, if desirable, result down the road. Few leaders have the courage to admit being wrong, and the President would be hammered in the media and on Capitol Hill if he did. Nor has the United States done more than make vague declarations of hope to show the Alawites that they would not risk life and limb if Assad did go — perhaps as the result of a coup d’état by disaffected Alawite military leaders. So, “negotiating the transition” remains the (untenable) premise of diplomacy.

No one has yet done the hard work of fashioning a process whereby all the different sects in Syria would have a reasonable chance of security, equality and fair political representation. “Holding free elections” is a nice slogan; it is not a policy or on its own a serious process for getting from here to there.  And if anyone doubts the difficulty, he or she should take a look next door at Lebanon — to an extent Syria in microcosm — which for decades has tried and failed to find a workable recipe for governance.

This throws outsiders back on second best, which is to try providing humanitarian relief in Syria, as well as relief to the millions of refugees who have fled Syria. It means the US, Europeans, and Russia need finally to devise a diplomacy that has a chance to work for all Syrians, including the Alawites, whatever the outcome for Assad. It also ratchets up the need for the US and other Western states to lean heavily on Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arabs to stop using Syria for their own sectarian and geopolitical ends. This includes bringing Iran into the Syria negotiations and then impressing on Tehran that its future in the outside world requires it to limit its regional ambitions.

The Saudi government recently announced that any Saudi citizen fighting in Syria will go to jail when he gets back home. But this is a “day late and a riyal short” and is no doubt linked to Obama’s scheduled visit to Riyadh next month, ostensibly to reassure the Saudis and other friendly regional states that the US will not compromise their interests in diplomacy regarding Syria or with Iran. Between now and then, however, the Saudis should be required to demonstrate their bona fides. The US president must not go to a country that is just throwing gasoline on the fire.

The point should be made in even broader terms: why is the United States rushing to reassure regional countries that it will not sell out their interests either in Syria or with Iran? For decades, the US has moved heaven and earth in an attempt to make the Middle East safe for all our friends and allies, with little or no thanks for doing so and often uncooperative behavior. But with the radical reduction of US dependence on the region’s oil, the balance of advantage has swung radically: friendly local states across the Middle East now depend a lot more on the US than we do on them.

President Obama should use his trip to Saudi Arabia to make that point clearly, while US diplomats fan out to underscore that our patience has run out with rivalries among countries ostensibly on our side, that we will not tolerate efforts to sabotage the talks with Iran, and that if we are expected to help stop the Syrian conflict, we will do so to advance the cause of humanity in Syria and US interests in a region with a chance for peace — not to be a cat’s paw to others’ ambitions.

The US also needs to finally start seeing everything that happens in the Middle East as related to everything else and design policies based on that fact. That involves filling the senior levels of the administration, the State Department, and the National Security Council Staff with people who truly understand the region and can think strategically. If he does this, President Obama can actually start putting the US on the right track to a viable way out of the Syrian tragedy and to fashioning a coherent approach to the Middle East as a whole.

Robert E. Hunter

Robert E. Hunter served as US ambassador to NATO (1993-98) and on the National Security Council staff throughout the Carter administration, first as Director of West European Affairs and then as Director of Middle East Affairs. In the last-named role, he was the White House representative at the Autonomy Talks for the West Bank and Gaza and developer of the Carter Doctrine for the Persian Gulf. He was Senior Advisor to the RAND Corporation from 1998 to 2011, and Director of the Center for Transatlantic Security Studies at the National Defense University, 2011-2012. He served on the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board and is a member of the American Academy of Diplomacy.



  1. In all of the words you have written above I do not see the word Israel mentioned once, which is strange when you consider the actual use of the term cat’s paw above.
    There have been numerous reports of Israeli Army medical facilities being used to patch up Al Nusra Front fighters to send them back into the conflict.
    As for the Saudi regime being upset by US actions to topple Saddam Hussein – I don’t think so.
    Do not forget that Saudi planes and tanks were also involved in military action against Iraqi forces and that Saud-controlled cities came under missile attack from Iraq.
    Where you are right – as I have been consistently pointing out to friends over the last year or more – is when you point to Obama’s obvious desire to make the US energy-independent. This has now been largely achieved and the US in future will be free to focus on other areas of interest to itself.
    The US can stop supporting Israel now – which might mean that they will come to terms with the Palestinians at long last. One less problem is a militarised Israel not throwing its weight around.

  2. Thank you Mr Hunter for your views, which are enlightening, to say the least, as far as the so called experts on the subject go. Your last paragraph perhaps sums it up best, replace all the present hacks, left over from the 20th century, including the neocons, think tank denizens, ex-Bushies, AIPAC-ers, get new blood into office. Of course, that will not be done with “O”, maybe not even with his successor either. I say this, because what you’re advocating here, has been said many times before, but was never allowed to happen. Until the office of P.O.T.U.S. and the Congress get their collective heads away from trying to grandstand each other, or put another way, sycophantic tendencies, then nothing will change, The fact that this has been allowed to happen, should have been evident from the very beginning, but as long as the money flows, the killing is thousands of miles away, then this country wont do anything to change.

  3. A fine article with excellent advice for the Administration. This is just the type of thing our experienced former diplomats should be telling our elected leaders again and again, and what our leaders must heed.

    Regarding Geneva I, or at least the US interpretation of it, maybe it is really a flawed document reflecting flawed policy in that it sought to delegitimize the Assad government and force his resignation through the verbal legerdemain in the Accords, i.e., endorsing a transitional government, and limiting the participation in it of only those selected by the consensus of all parties- whether or not those sitting at the table represent anyone- rather than looking to Syrian people. Assad’s position was, and is, that only the Syrians have the right to choose their government and leaders, and that as the elected President of Syria- and overwhelmingly endorsed as recently as in the national referendum held in February, 2012- it is his constitutional duty to defend the country against its enemies- and that means he cannot resign. It is a clear. logical and legally based statement; and as a practical matter, even as cities held by the rebels are getting bombed, the great majority of Syrians who have not left their country, are, by most estimates, relying on him to protect them, and the U.S. knows it.

    As for the Sunni-Shia divide, apart from the role played by the Muslim Brotherhood, and later the jihadists funded by the Saudis, Qataris and Turks (and god knows who else), it has been magnified. The disaffection initially expressed by the Sunnis in the South is said to have been more for economic and political, than for religious, reasons- e.g., the effects of the drought, the global economic recession, deregulation of sectors that still needed subsidies, etc., and the political reforms that were being initiated (though ignored by the mainstream media) that made it easier for Western NGOs and the special ops of the Western coalition to plan for and foment violence, and provoke a heavy-handed government response in the wake of the Arab Spring. In fact, the Assad government had to some extent been able to manage Sunni-Shia differences by including Sunnis in his leadership group, and the success of this strategy showed in the support he received from the Sunni business community in Damascus and the referendum results in 2012. Also, Syria as a non-sectarian state consisting of a mosaic of different ethnic and religious groups living side by side in peace, and without institutionalized discrimination, was an important hallmark of Assad’s regime, and it is something that the U.S. has conveniently ignored, and has enraged the Saudis, and maybe even the Turks who still can’t get it right with its own minorities.

    Good that you have pointed out that the U.S. has much leverage over its allies and should not be afraid to use it to end the violence, but as the commentator above has pointed out, Israel is the unreported elephant in this room, so if we want to get results, we must lean on it, whether or not Netanyahu fulminates, or tries to use AIPAC, including those of its leaders who have been some of Obama’s most powerful handlers, to sabotage a peace. Also, the Israelis need to be reminded that Iran with over ten times the population of Israel is here to stay and ready to do business, and that its ties with Syria and its other allies, as well as with the West and the rest of the world will create competition (e.g., with Israel’s own nascent natural gas industry) which it will have to live with, but could also benefit it as well, especially if it can come to an accommodation with the Palestinians and its neighbors. Right now Israel is moving in the wrong direction, and has gotten away with it because of AIPAC and its alliance with the major multinationals, and their control of Congress. If companies like GE continue to show signs that they want to do business with Iran, there could develop enough of a political schism to force a change in U.S. foreign policy, and that would be good for everyone, including Syria and Israel.

    The Administration may not want to admit it was wrong- it probably fears it would be punished at the polls for being incompetent- but there was a lot of egg yolk to go around when the fabrications behind the Ghouta ‘gas attack’ were exposed, so an admission and change of policy would indicate it had learned something and was finally gaining a measure of competence. So, maybe it could fudge a little and say that with changed circumstances it now needs to change its policies. That might back off Samantha Power, and also Hillary Clinton who is lurking in the shadows waiting to be anointed. Either way, make the change, force our allies to get out of Syria and stop facilitating the ‘chaos business’, so that the violence will end, and then let the Syrians vote for whomever they want. Ge it done, boom, boom, boom. You can just bet that if Assad wins, as everyone expects, and there is peace, the country will get down to the business of rebuilding, and that will mean assistance big time from Iran, Russia and China, with the U.S. on the sidelines contemplating what it shouldn’t have done to the Syrians, and mourning the loss of opportunities it didn’t have to squander.

    Ultimately, it is not only the policy but the paradigm that must change. War is good business but only for the few, even if it affects everyone. Peace is where it’s at- that is peace without exploitation- and with all of the creative potential of people that can be unleashed, and the business they can do together, and cultural and economic wealth they can share. There is no reason why the Middle East cannot bloom again, even if we’ve done are best to make it a desert.

  4. Excellent piece — thoughtful and incisive, as one might expect. “We” (a euphemism for President Obama) created, as Hunter said, a trap for ourselves: there might have been (and might still be) no good options, but in such a circumstance, the worst thing one can do is make threats one is not prepared to back up, such as drawing lines in the sand, saying the use of CBW is a “red line”, &c — without being prepared to take action when one’s lines are challenged or dismissed.

    The issue (apart from the humanitarian calamity), it now seems to me, is the survival of a unitary (whether federal or under some other formula) Syrian state, able to play a responsible role in that region. I frankly neither care whether Iraq survives as a unitary state, nor think its chances of doing so are very good (and yes, I realize there are consequences — negative ones — to a breakup of Iraq). Syria, on the other hand, may be too important to see come unglued. If Syria disintegrates, the last remaining traces holding Lebanon together may disappear (I fully realize that many believe Lebanon effectively disintegrated some years ago, but there is still a Lebanese state, a Lebanese government, and a “country” on the northern border of Israel that the Israelis have managed to deal with through the years, albeit not without mis-steps). If Syria comes apart and the last remaining traces holding Lebanon together dissolve, what’s the likely fate of Jordan? I am not at all sure Abdullah II can hold the Hashemite Kingdom together — there have been plenty of mis-steps there already. Add to that the upheaval taking place in Egypt, whose end is not at all clear — and Libya, and other countries in both the Mahgreb (including possibly Morocco) and the Arabian peninsula — what’s already the case in Yemen and the unrest threatening Bahrain — and you have a dark and darkening picture altogether more threatening than disintegration in Iraq or Afghanistan (but not including Pakistan, which I view as much more dangerous than virtually all the others previously mentioned). Ambassador Hunter did a superb job of describing what’s taking place in Syria: we need, however, to look beyond Syria to fully appreciate the stark implications of what’s happening there and in that region. What if Bashir al-Assad were, in fact, the only person who might be able to hold Syria together? (Might the Russians be more appreciative of the catastrophe of disintegration in that region that the US is?) If Assad were the only person who might be able to hold that country together — certainly there is no evidence to suggest that any of the other contenders, whether in the Free Syrian Army or other actors, some of whom are genuinely menacing, are likely to be able to do so — should that lead the US to reconsider its “Assad must go” stance? David Passage

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