There's a certain familiarity to the scenario: A Baathist regime is clinging to power in a key Arab country that has a history of making trouble for its neighbors. The ruler of this country comes from a religious minority that imposes its will through control of the military and the intelligence service. The people in the country want change, but they fear instability.
So what does the United States do about it? Three years ago with Iraq, the answer was to prepare a military invasion. As we can see from the daily newspaper headlines, that approach hasn't worked out too well.
The Bush administration is now trying a different approach in Syria. But it's hard to sort out from public statements just what that policy is. So, over the past several weeks, I have been asking senior administration officials privately to explain their game plan. It's fair to say that it's a "work in progress" but one that offers some promise -- especially for Syrians who would like to see a peaceful process of democratic change.
Administration officials say their goal is to change Syrian behavior rather than the regime itself. They argue that President Bashar Assad has been supporting violent extremists in Lebanon, in the Palestinian territories and most of all in Iraq. That's "unacceptable," says a senior administration official, and Assad must show he's serious about change. "We are not trying to destabilize Syria, but we are trying to change the conduct of the regime," he says.
A second senior administration official notes: "Assad needs to make a strategic choice for change. That's the only way he saves himself. Otherwise he's isolated." The officials say they're unimpressed by arguments that a post-Assad Syria could be as bloody and chaotic as post-Saddam Hussein Iraq has become. As for Assad's claims that he's fostering internal reform, administration officials are underwhelmed. They say the regime's pressure on dissidents has actually increased in recent weeks.
The administration's true goal is "regime change on the cheap," according to former CIA analyst Flynt Leverett, now at the Brookings Institution. That may be right; certainly there are some officials who would be happy if a coup toppled Assad.
The problem with U.S. policy is actually that it's too blase about the future of Syria. Here's an arena where the administration could be more aggressive -- not in the sense of threatening military action or a coup but in the sense of engaging reform elements in Syria and encouraging change more openly and directly. Syrians are sophisticated and secular people, and they're tired of being poor. They see the world changing, and they want to be part of that process. As for Assad, the reality is that internal reform may be the only way for him to save his ruling Alawite Muslim minority from an eventual bloodbath.
The right goal in Syria is, in fact, a peaceful process of regime change -- led by Assad if he has the political will, or by someone else if he doesn't. The Syrian leader consolidated power last month at a congress of the ruling Baath Party. In the following days, he purged most of the Old Guard that was seen as blocking reform. That means Assad now has nobody to blame but himself.
America's best approach is the one that has worked in Serbia, Georgia, Ukraine and Lebanon. That is to foster strong civil society groups that can gradually open a process of internal debate. As in post-communist societies, the challenge is to provide resources to democratic activists -- scholarships, fellowships, conferences, grants. The web of change should be spun from all directions -- Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, Iraq, Israel, Europe, America.
Another reason to be ambitious about change in Syria is that the effort has an international mandate. U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559, which forced the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon, provides a legal framework for monitoring Syria. The administration also has a powerful partnership with France, which wants to maintain the pressure on Damascus. When French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy visited Washington last week, he mentioned the possibility that the Lebanese army might move to the Syrian border in a show of force to stop Syria from infiltrating intelligence agents into Lebanon and smuggling weapons to Hezbollah. That's a good idea.
History doesn't often present second opportunities to get it right. But the United States and its allies now have a chance to prod a Baathist regime into a peaceful transition toward democratic reforms, under the mandate of a U.N. resolution. America needs some successes in the Arab world, amid the Iraq fiasco. Working to replicate Lebanon's reform intifada in neighboring Syria makes good sense.