Apparently my view that few US foreign policy options remain when dealing with Syria disturbed our colleague bolgger Tony from “Across the Bay.” He asked that I examine “the broader perspective and review the facts.” Given my respect for Tony I will do exactly that, hoping to ease his anxiety and spur a positive discussion.
In my opinion, diplomatic pressure is the only viable foreign policy tool currently at the administration’s disposal. The US military is overstretched and there is strong domestic opposition to any new military adventure. Likewise, US economic leverage over Syria is very limited due to inconsequential volume of trade between the two countries. Thus, to effectively pressure Syria, the US administration has little choice but to act multilaterally through the UN Security Council.
Recent developments at the Security Council indicate that there is strong resistance to U.S efforts. France and the UK aside, very few countries of consequence are ready to go down the path of sanctions; even targeted sanctions. Russia is intent on containing US regional ambitions through supporting Syria and Iran, China will oppose as long as Russia does, and even European states are not in favor, fearing that the US will eventually lead Syria down the road to where Iraq is today.
Despite their strong displeasure with Bashar’s actions, Arab States also prefer stability over escalation. All have made their calculations after Hariri’s assassination and now prefer accommodation. The Egyptians are increasingly conscious of the regional balance of power now that Iraq is no longer a threat to Israel’s eastern front. A further weakened Syria introduces instability and further shifts the regional balance in Israel’s favor. Despite grievances with Bashar they prefer to guide him to safety instead of leaving him to dry. As clear from their on-going efforts, they are trying to wrap things up at the expense of the investigation. Frustrated, Jumblat and Sa’ad Hariri rejected this today claiming “the mediation aims to subvert the truth.” Mubarak’s response was swift, warning them of “improving Syrian – American ties.” (Check Al Diyar)
It should also be noted that US Ambassador to Cairo Francis J. Ricciardone came out in favor of the mediation efforts.
The Saudis were especially affronted by Hariri’s assassination, but not enough to advocate regime change or sanction either. In fact, Saudi Arabia’s Prince Bandar played the star role in getting Asef Shawkat off the interrogation list and in replacing Beirut with Vienna as a location. (Read Al Hayat) Frankly it’s no surprise that Mehlis decided to pack his bags and go home after he was pressured to publically yield to Syrian demands.
In short, given limited policy options and growing opposition to sanctions, I wouldn’t be surprised if the US tries to reach a strategic accommodation with Syria. Maybe Blair's overture yesterday was an indication. As Flynt Leverret of Brookings recently argued, “What is the US interest in a few flag waving Lebanese, when we can reach an understanding that saves lives in Iraq, Israel, and even Lebanon? Why ignore deals that can help secure oil pipelines and reign in militant groups?” While Bush might still be committed to “democracy promotion”, such arguments are becoming more prevalent in DC policy circles. Last week US bloggs reported that Condi Rice was exploring a “Libya style deal” until Ambassador Bolton purposely sabotaged it by leaking it to the press. (Check Washington Note) This was then repeated in DC policy circles.
All I’m saying is that there are increasing signs that Syria has weathered the storm. An analyst who recently returned form Damascus put it this way: “Bashar called the American bluff with his war speech at the University of Damascus. He told them that the regime will stick together and is ready for confrontation should the US have the stomach for another Iraq in Lebanon.” The assasination of Tueni on the eve of the Security Council meeting was a literal translation.
So with UN sanctions now unlikely, and limited policy alternatives, it’s not unreasonable for the US to shop around, nor for one to say Bashar might have won this round.