U.S Policy Options in Syria / Gary C.Gambill

February 27, 2012
Gary Gambill holds a B.S. in mathematics from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, an M.A. in Arab studies from Georgetown University, and is A.B.D. from N.Y.U. He is a former editor of the Middle East Intelligence Bulletin and the Middle East Monitor, a former employee of the Middle East Forum, and is now an independent editor. Gambill has been a country editor on Syria and Lebanon for Freedom House and has written extensively on Syria and Lebanon. On February 27, 2012, he briefed the Middle East Forum via conference call about US policy options in Syria.

Bashar Assad "can't win," Gambill argued, because he now lacks the power to pacify his opposition—something he had in abundance until last year. His position is made ever more tenuous by his Alawite origin, viewed as heretical by Syria's majority Sunni population.

Gambill attributed the Assad regime's ability to seize and hold power for forty-one years to several primary strengths. First, it has established a brutal police state that slaughtered dissidents by the thousands, notably in Hama in 1982 by Bashar's father, Hafez, and Homs today. Second, it has been highly effective at penetrating all walks of Syrian society. Third, its embrace of a virulently anti-Zionist and anti-American foreign policy succeeded in both splitting the opposition and lending it an aura of legitimacy. Fourth, both the West and the predominantly Sunni Arab world have appeased Assad's regime and ignored the abuses of his rule. Lastly, Assad's ability to retain the support not just of Alawites but also of other non-Sunni minorities, mainly the Christians, has proved crucial. Most of these factors no longer apply, not least since the "barrier of fear" has been crossed.

Should the U.S. seek to stop the bloodletting and accelerate Assad's fall through direct military intervention? Gambill's answer is a resounding no.

The status quo is untenable because the other Arab countries, including those that have urged Washington to confront Iran, and even Turkey, will not allow continued instability and bloodshed on their borders. Any confrontation between Tehran and the Arab states should be allowed to run its course. If Assad is fated for defeat, and his fall would remove Iran from "Syria's orbit," there is no rationale for U.S. intervention.

Nor should Israel be unduly alarmed by Assad's demise, though the likely Islamist domination of the successor regime. Bashar's diversionary anti-Zionist foreign policy and rhetoric was just that—a diversion from his Alawite origin—and an unnecessarily radical stance for any Sunni-dominated government to assume.

Assad's willingness to murder his own people is an albatross for both his regime and his Iranian allies. If America can do nothing to decisively improve the situation, it is in our best interests to stand by and watch Iran struggle with the very same dilemma.

Summary account by Alex Berman.

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