In recent weeks I have twice written in this space of the Obama Administration’s efforts to cover up its politically motivated spinelessness over Syria with efforts to make it seem like it’s doing something constructive. Using the New York Times as its very willing channel, it first tried to crow over its closer cooperation with the Syrian opposition, and then more recently about the alleged linkage between the Eager Lion exercise in Jordan and concern over the disposition of Syria’s chemical warfare stocks. Now it has turned the same trick a third time, but with a significant twist.
Sunday’s New York Times revealed the Obama White House’s new tack. Since the Annan peace plan has clearly failed, the Administration is now hoping on the Russians to deliver a “Yemeni variant” wherein the Russians talk Assad into leaving, while other senior officials in the government remain to work out a transition with the opposition. Apparently, the President raised this possibility personally with Prime Minister Medvedev, and Medvedev didn’t say “no” (as if what Medvedev thinks and says matters in the slightest on such subjects).
What’s the twist to which I referred above? While the other two recent feints at seriousness at least carry the scent of plausibility, this one is—how to put this?—downright ridiculous, stupid as a board really. Tom Donilon and his NSC Middle East helpers really dropped the ball this time to let the President make such an ass out of himself.
So what’s the matter with this idea? What isn’t?
Let’s just start with the fact, borrowed from the former silliness in thinking the Russian-supported Annan Plan might actually work, that the success of what is a U.S. policy depends on Russia. It is true that Assad may have become a liability for the Russians in recent months, but that hardly means they’re about to dump him to do us a favor. Anything the United States Government wants in world affairs ipso facto becomes in Vladimir Putin’s mind something the Russian government automatically strives to deny. Unless, of course, it can exact a hugely disproportional price from the United States—now what might that be? Something to do with missile defense in Europe maybe? Again? Obama has already shown the Russians that he’ll sell the new NATO allies down the river just to hear a pleasant rendition of “Midnight in Moscow.” So why not an encore? Boy, the Russians sure have a good reason to like re-sets, where we make concessions and they do essentially nothing in return they would not have done anyway in their own interests.
But in this case, I think there’s no deal in the offing. The Russians are not going to lift a finger to harm Assad. If they have a motive even to seem to seriously discuss a Yemeni Variant, it’s just to buy more time for Assad, whose “mopping up” campaign against the rebellion recently included the Houla massacre—the story featured right next to “U.S. Hopes Assad Can Be Eased Out With Russia’s Aid”, right there on the front page of Sunday’s paper. (How embarrassing, if the Administration has the wit about it even to be embarrassed.)
But the real problem with the idea is the extent to which it reflects a complete misunderstanding of the Syrian regime and situation, not to speak, probably, of a complete misunderstanding of Yemen. Over many decades now U.S diplomacy in the Middle East has stumbled for failure to understand the differences and rivalries within the region. To the senior guys in Washington, from the Eisenhower Administration all the way to the current one, they all look alike. One can almost hear the mellifluous voice of Spiro Agnew coming from the grave, as it were: “When you’ve seen one messed up Arab country, you’ve seen ‘em all.”
In Syria, the minoritarian Alawi regime is fighting for its life—literally. The opposition is mainly Sunni, who for centuries prefaced their pronunciation of the adjective “Alawi” with the modifier “filthy.” They don’t like each other. There are no regime elements that could carry on without the Assad clan, especially not after the systematic mass murders of recent months. Most of the non-Assad related or associated by marriage members of the elite are also Alawi, and of the rest very few are Sunnis. Gone are the days when lunatic flacks like former Defense Minister Mustafa Tlas held senior positions in Syria.
In Yemen, by contrast, the leadership competition is tribal and clan-shaped in nature, not sectarian. There are some very interesting sectarian cleavages in Yemen, to be sure; they just don’t for the time being involve the leadership echelon.
Seeing Syria as ripe for a Yemeni-like transition is a little like expecting a pumpkin blossom ultimately to produce an eggplant. Ain’t gonna happen.
This is not esoteric or arcane knowledge. I taught a Middle East intro course in the winter term to a bunch of University of California-system 19- and 20-year olds. When the course began, most of the students did not even know where Syria and Yemen were. By the time the term ended every single one of them was capable of making the basic distinction between Syrian and Yemeni politics that I just explained. If they can do it, why can’t the President of the United States and his NSC staff do it?
Only toward the very end of the NYT article, in the 18th out of its 20 paragraphs, do the authors—Helene Cooper and Mark Landler—allow the thought that “The biggest problem with the Yemen model, several experts said, is that Yemen and Syria are starkly different countries.” Well, thanks very much for getting around to that.
I can hardly wait to learn what the Administration will trot out next in its Syria policy. Maybe an attempt to put some new life in NASA by proposing to send Bashir al-Assad to the moon, all expenses paid—on a Russian launch vehicle.