TEL AVIV – The failure of the Obama administration, its Western allies and several Middle East regional powers to take bolder action to stop the carnage in Syria is often explained by their fear of anarchy.
Given the Syrian opposition’s manifest ineffectiveness and disunity, so the argument goes, President Bashar Assad’s fall, when it finally comes, will incite civil war, massacres and chaos that may spill over Syria’s borders, further destabilizing weak neighbors like Iraq and Lebanon, and leading perhaps to a regional crisis.
What is actually happening in Syria refutes this argument. In fact, the lingering crisis is corroding the fabric of Syrian society and government. Anarchy is setting in now: It is preceding — and precipitating — the regime’s eventual fall.
The United States and others are substituting high rhetoric and symbolic punitive action for real action on Syria. Sanctions on those involved in electronic warfare against the opposition’s social media are not the answer to the shelling of civilian neighborhoods in Homs and Deraa.
For several months, Russian and Chinese obstruction in the United Nations Security Council was both a real obstacle to more effective sanctions and a convenient veil for inaction. More recently, former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan’s mission on behalf of the U.N. and the Arab League has come to play a similar role.
Annan prepared a six-point plan for ending the violence and launching political negotiations. He dispatched a group of monitors to Syria in order to supervise the plan’s implementation, and the U.N. is about to beef up that mission. But, predictably, the Annan plan is not working, as Annan himself, in a report to a closed-door session of the Security Council on April 25, came close to admitting.
Annan did not proclaim failure, but he did describe the situation in Syria as “bleak.” Clearly, the Annan mission gave the regime some breathing space and created a temporary illusion of political and diplomatic progress. But according to reports too numerous and too credible to discount, Assad’s regime (and to some extent his opponents) has not complied with the plan after signing on to it: Troops were withdrawn from urban areas prior to inspection and returned when the monitors left. Whole neighborhoods and individuals were brutally punished for complaining to or cooperating with the monitors.
The breathing space provided to the regime does not offer it salvation. At first sight, the regime appears to be almost intact. The army and the security apparatus remain loyal, the Cabinet has suffered few defections, and the key population centers of Damascus and Aleppo have not joined the rebellion.
But in the country as a whole, government is collapsing. Whole areas are now beyond its control, public services are unavailable, and the economy is in free fall.
Assad’s fall does not yet seem imminent, but it has become inevitable. The regime has lost all legitimacy, and its effectiveness is weakening. When it finally crumbles, the powerful state built by Bashar’s father, Hafez Assad, will hardly exist.
A cliche has been heard throughout the Syrian crisis: “Syria is not Libya.” But another analogy may be more suitable. Syria may well become a second Iraq, not by design but as an unintended consequence of current policy.
The American occupiers of Iraq, through their policy of “de-Baathification,” left Iraq without an army or a government, which proved to be fertile ground for Sunni insurgents, al-Qaida and violent Shiite groups. In Syria, the ground is being prepared for a similar outcome, with a growing number of radical Islamists crossing into Syria and joining the opposition.
In this context, it is important to appreciate the difference between the “political” opposition and the local opposition groups waging the fight against the regime on the ground. Groups like the Syrian National Council are loose associations of individuals and groups, many of them outside Syria.
These are the groups criticized by the Obama administration and others for their failure to present a united front, formulate a credible agenda, or be seen as a viable alternative to the current regime. But these groups have limited influence over the local opposition groups inside Syria, which are equally diverse and divided.
It is among these groups that radical Islamists have gained a foothold. Fear of another Islamist takeover is a second main argument against toppling Assad, but the longer he stays in power, the greater the gains made by Islamists on the ground.
The Obama administration, focused on the November presidential election, is not interested in having to deal with a major crisis in Syria in the coming months, and is preoccupied with the risk of being drawn into another military entanglement. Other actors, too, seem to prefer the apparently limited current crisis to the unknown alternatives.
The compelling moral case for a humanitarian intervention is increasingly being reinforced by sound raisons d’etat. And military or semi-military intervention is not the only option on the table. As the sanctions imposed on Iran outside the Security Council clearly show, effective action can be taken to tilt the balance and end the deadly stalemate in Syria.
The current preference for inaction, while perhaps understandable, threatens to lead to precisely the outcomes that its advocates want to avoid.
Itamar Rabinovich, a former ambassador of Israel to the United States (1993-1996), is currently based at Tel Aviv University, New York University, and the Brookings Institution. © 2012 Project Syndicate