Suckered into Authoritarian Tactics: How Obama and Sarkozy Got Syria Wrong

Commentary by Tamer Mallat – 8 May, 2011

The year 2008 marked a shift in US and French foreign policy strategies with Syria. From a policy of complete isolation, to cautious inclusion, the US and France hoped to lure the Syrian regime out of the Iranian sphere of influence in the region. They believed that unlike his father, the Western educated Bashar al-Assad had the potential to become a credible and reliable partner in the Middle East. When the Arab uprisings first began to spread from country to country, Bashar, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, boasted that Syria would not house the scene of a revolution. On March 15, protests began in the southern border-town of Deraa spreading soon after from city to city. The repressive machine was unleashed, but despite massive killings and arrests, the French and American governments remain attached to ‘behavioral change’ over ‘regime change.’

Since 2008, France and the US have engaged with Bashar al-Assad. This broke with former policies of isolation where both Jacques Chirac and George W. Bush refused any dealings with the Syrian government. Following the assassination of Rafik Hariri, the Bush and Chirac administrations sought to isolate Syria from the international community. US and French support for the Cedar Revolution in 2005 culminated in the evacuation and liberation of Lebanese territory from 29 years of Syrian occupation. Moreover, the sponsoring of an investigation and the creation of a Special Tribunal aimed to hold those accountable for the murder further highlighted France and America’s animosity towards Syria.

With Sarkozy and Obama, the Syrian strategy evolved to become twofold: support for Lebanese sovereignty and the STL was complemented with a policy of rapprochement to the Syrian regime. This new opening became manifest on two important occasions: when Sarkozy received al-Assad at the July 2008 Union for the Mediterranean summit in Paris, and with the appointment of Robert Ford as the first American ambassador to Syria since 2005 in January 2011. France and the US hoped that cajoling Bashar under the Western umbrella of political influence would distance him from Iran, subsequently cutting Hezbollah off from its Syrian umbilical chord. Also, by courting Syria, the US and France hoped to push Syria to agree to a comprehensive peace agreement with Israel.

In reality, France and America’s judgment and shift in strategy constituted a paralogism. By gambling on the idea that the Syrian regime was prone to Western economic and political opening, Obama and Sarkozy fell right into Bashar’s trap. The image created within Syria that acclaims al-Assad for being different than his father because of his Western and modern upbringing, in addition to the economic relaxation that resulted in the mere increase of regime cronies, created the illusion of a viable partner. An authoritarian strategy focusing on marketing the regime image in a positive way, rather than on repression or terror – did not prevent the modus operandi of regime survival to come back with a vengeance when the revolution started.

Hillary Clinton’s comments this month reiterating confidence in Bashar’s ability to undergo with reforms and the US’s hesitation to call for regime change, are revealing of how the Obama administration continues to lack a coherent vision and clear-cut objectives in their Syria policy. In France, while rhetoric has come to outweigh that of the US with French Foreign Minister calling for sanctions and an end to the crackdown, Juppe was careful to stop short of suggesting regime change. By hoping that al-Assad will still opt for sincere reform, the West merely reproduces official regime discourses and ideology that may only serve to buttress the Syrian dictatorship. Without a lucid and powerful policy goals and leadership, the US consequently leaves its less able Western allies caught in a limbo.

Today, the failure to stay the course taken by Bush and Chirac to isolate Syria from the international political theatre has facilitated the regime’s swift crackdown on protestors. By convincing both administrations to change their dealings with his government over the past few years, al-Assad cut America and France off from their human rights rhetorical foundations. This has left both Western nations caught up in a conundrum. By wagering that Bashar might still revert to sincere reform, Obama and Sarkozy hope to save what’s left of their foreign policy engagement with him, while their policy appears increasingly out of sync with events on the ground.

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Filed under Arab Spring, English, Foreign Policy & IR, Lebanon & Syria

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