Peeling Syria from Iran is a high-return investment, but the West must first stop imposing risk-free policies with expectations for supra-normal returns.
May 15, 2009 – Farid Ghadry – Today, the Obama administration is attempting to answer the same difficult questions its predecessor had to confront: How to peel Assad away from Iran? What policies are the most effective? The answers are readily available but the will to implement them has been altogether lacking.
Washington and Jerusalem both enjoy the benefits of a myriad of experts on Syria. Some are inspired by their patriotic duty to country and fellow man, yet there exists among some a fascination for the minority rule of the Assad family dating back to the silver-tongued mastermind of three decades of terror, Hafez al-Assad. This latter group, and their devotion to an old regime’s personality, has been quite successful in proposing ideas that upon implementation have failed to deliver the expected results. Case in point: US attempts to peel Assad away from Iran, which was proposed some 4 years ago under Condoleezza Rice, remains to this day an elusive goal.
The latest fad emanating from those Assad “experts”: The West should provide Syria with business opportunities; yet another misguided attempt at extracting Assad from Ahmadinajead’s bosom with the Western carrot of capitalism. These “experts” argue that should the West invest in Syria’s Assad, Syria will eventually peel away and attain autonomy. In the midst of this argument’s fog, we fail to notice that investing in Syria in exchange for trust (we tried this with North Korea) could easily backfire. All it takes is a visit by Assad to Ahmadinajead to remind the Middle East that the war with the West is far from being over. When on his latest overseas trip to Austria, Assad asked Europe to invest in Syria; one could not but question where the roots of this idea were concocted to also be proposed by western experts. In fact, in their attempt at formulating a policy to reel Assad away from Iran, many western advisors are advocating policies that effectively provide bait to a fish the way we provide food to our pets.
For Assad, it is a matter of cost-benefit analysis. So far, the benefits of association with Iran have outweighed the costs to the Assad regime and unless the Obama and Netanyahu administrations formulate policies that would make the cost to Assad far steeper than the benefits he derives from his partnership with Iran, the question of peeling Syria from Iran will still be debated years from now at both NSCs. With Assad, it is not about diplomacy, because the family is known for asking but giving nothing in return.
What Washington and Jerusalem need is a different perspective. Ideas that are difficult to implement but have a much higher rate of return than what has been proposed so far.
Here are three proposals that may force Assad to rethink his existing contract with Iran:
- Talk directly and openly with the Syrian opposition: Nothing scares an authoritarian regime more than the opposition to its rule. The effectiveness of outright support for Walesa in Poland and Sakharov in Russia have had deep positive results for the west. Study your history and emulate.
- Freeze the assets deposited in the west by Syrian businessmen supporting the regime: Internal power in Syria is garnered by a few pillars, one of which is a corrupt business community keeping the regime afloat like a lifejacket saves its wearer from drowning. Deflate the capital life vest and force Assad to calculate on the basis of survival rather than high expectations from the west.
- Do not hesitate to strike Assad’s pillars of oppression: In a pack of dogs, the one that barks the most is the one that has yet to be bitten. Assad has never been bitten and his barking can only be tempered if he tastes the same medicine his neighbors have been sadly accustomed to without punition for over 6 years now.
One can almost hear the objections of the pro-Assad camp argue against these measures; yet, despite the many failures of peeling Syria from Iran, they continue to frame the answers to the problem to suit Assad more than to suit the interests of the West. The fisherman reeling in the fish does not invite her to his boat to ask what bait suits her the best.
Pressure to deal with Syria is about to reach a feverish pitch in anticipation of the US visit by PM Netanyahu. Smartly, Washington remains in an exploratory mood and is fast realizing the failure of engagement with Assad to incentivize real change in his behavior. The renewal of US sanctions by president Obama is a case in point. My advice is to pursue those policies that Washington and Jerusalem have yet to explore and which have no choice but to throw on the table given how destabilizing the policies of Assad have remained.
If you believe one way of weakening Iran is to separate Syria from its orbit of influence, then investing in this action must take into account the inherit risks and returns associated with its opportunity cost. Treasury Bills do not yield a 20% annual return; but the riskier equity investments do, as do the three above proposals. The US needs more skin in this game in order to boost the potential return, and that means taking on more risk before we find ourselves at the mercy of a nuclear-armed Assad regime unafraid of barking and biting.
If you want to reel Assad away, separate yourself from his advocates and start implementing the difficult and risky choices necessary to win this battle. The easy choices will never produce the Assad we all wish he could be, and if we do not act swiftly, he will turn into the Assad we have hoped for a long time he would never become.