Q: One last question and that is on Syria. I gather President Chirac told President Bush that the French believed that if Syrian troops do withdraw that it would begin the unraveling of the Assad regime in fairly short order. Do you share that assessment and is the United States, I know that senior U.S. officials talked to a Syrian opposition party yesterday, are we taking any steps to try to reach out and look to what the alternatives are?
SECRETARY RICE: What we're trying to do is to assess the situation so that nobody is blindsided, because events are moving so fast and in such unpredictable directions that it is only prudent at this point to know what's going on in the whole-- The possibility for what I often call discontinuous events, meaning that you were expecting them to go along like this and all of a sudden they go off in this direction, in periods of change like this. So we're going to look at all the possibilities and talk to as many people as we possibly can.
Fairly non-committal answer, but read it with this article from the same issue of the WaPo and things begin to look different:
A meeting Thursday, hosted by new State Department "democracy czar" Elizabeth Cheney, brought together senior administration officials from Vice President Cheney's office, the National Security Council and the Pentagon and about a dozen prominent Syrian Americans, including political activists, community leaders, academics and an opposition group, a senior State Department official said.
The opposition group comes from the Syria Reform Party, a small U.S.-based Syrian organization often compared to the Iraqi National Congress led by former exile Ahmed Chalabi. The INC, which led the campaign to oust former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, had widespread U.S. financial and political support from both the Clinton and Bush administrations, as well as Congress.
U.S. officials, however, yesterday denied that the meeting was intended to coordinate efforts to oust Syrian President Bashar Assad's government.
"That would be a monumental distortion," a senior State Department official said. "But it was a discussion about supporting reform and change in the region and specifically Syria -- and how we can help that and work with people in the region and Syria to support that process."
The U.S. outreach is a direct result of President Bush's discussion last month with French President Jacques Chirac, said U.S and European officials. Advising against any discussion of "regime change," Chirac told Bush that the Damascus government was unlikely to survive the withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon. The French president predicted that free elections in Lebanon would in turn force change inside Syria, possibly unraveling Assad's government, U.S. sources said.
Since that Feb. 21 meeting, the Bush administration has begun looking at possible political options in Syria, said analysts familiar with the U.S. thinking. "They're taking seriously that a consequence of getting out of Lebanon will be the collapse of the Assad regime, and they're looking around for alternatives," said Flynt Leverett, former senior director for Middle East affairs at the National Security Council under Bush.
Another interesting quote from the Rice interview was an offhand remark about the lack of Arab defense of Syria at the recent meeting of the Arab League:
You know, I did find it interesting that the Arab League essentially did not come up with anything on this issue. That's interesting given the history of the Arab League.
I guess what she means by that is that it was surprising not to see the Arab states rally to Syria's side in a stronger way.
All of this suggests to me that forcing regime change is being seriously considered, and that the US and France want to have a hand in choosing a replacement for the Assad regime. In fact, I am starting to think that the primary goal of UNSC resolution 1559 and the current crisis is not "liberating" Lebanon but regime change in Syria, which would remove Iran's biggest ally in the region and cut it off from Hizbullah. All this talk of "things moving fast" and not knowing what might happen sounds pretty disingenuous.
Update: Also see the essential Josh Landis on Bush Administration Probes Syria's Future With Assad's Opposition and Can Syria Survive the Lebanon Debacle?. From the latter:
Is George Bush intent on bringing down the house of Asad?
I think it is. Bashar has become the anti-Bush in the Middle East, despite his early intentions to be a reformer. He champions stability; Bush champions revolution. He champions authoritarianism, Bush democracy and elections. Bashar argues Levantine society is too tribal and religiously divided for radical experiments and large doses of freedom; Washington says anything is better than the status quo and the evil of Baathism. “Stuff happens,” but the end result will be a new Middle Eastern consensus, one that will end terrorism. The Greater Middle East is prepared for democracy and will prove liberal, Bush insists. Bashar insists that Bush’s polities will lead to the death of many Arabs, increased terrorism, increased instability, and the loss of more Arab land in Palestine. Bush increasingly sees Bashar as the problem, standing in the way of the fourth wave of democratization. Bashar says Bush is the problem.
There will be no compromise deals or true dialogue between Syria and the US so long as the neo-conservatives hold sway in the White House and Bashar refuses to insist on radical internal reform. Bashar’s miscalculations in Lebanon have done great harm to his position in the Arab world and perhaps, more importantly, at home.
Syria’s Baath leadership is correct to assume that sooner or later president Bush will embrace the notion of regime-change in Damascus. It is not Washington’s official position to date, but all signs suggest preparations are being made to adopt it down the road. New bills put to the house spearhead this change of policy by insisting on the “democratization” of Syria. They will work their way up the policy chain without significant opposition. Who in Washington will now defend Bashar?