Thoughts on some friends' Syria analysis

Over at Syria Comment, Josh Landis highlights three pieces by Syria hands on the situation there. Two of them are by friends, and I'd like to comment on those.

Peter Harling is a great Syria-watcher at ICG. His piece argues that the regime should act now to embrace genuine reforms rather than try to ignore the problem, and makes a convincing case for it. Yet one wonders whether even he understates the fundamental nature of the threat now faced by almost every Arab regime, and that it might simply be too late for reform: rupture is what is needed, including the prospect that the Assad family might not hold Syria's presidency forever. The Syrian regime has never given any indication that it is interested in real reform. Why trust it now, except to avoid bloodshed? Of course ICG (which I used to work for) is in the business of conflict prevention (usually — sometimes it favors military intervention) and Harling appears convinced that the Assad regime is still on a solid footing. But what happened in Egypt and Tunisia suggests that the strongest of regimes can turn out to be paper tigers, and caution on Syria could be misplaced. I defer to his better understanding of the country (and the general agreement on this by Syria analysts that the regime is a) still strong and b) likely to react bloodily) but still feel it is necessary to highlight that the Assad regime is probably incapable of reform and that any transition in Syria is almost inevitably going to be violent. 

Andrew Tabler and I have known each other for a long time, since he used to live in Cairo a decade ago, and I have benefited from his hospitality in Damascus. He is very knowledgeable about Syria, notably its business circles, and the trajectory of Bashar al-Assad's reign. I am puzzled with the following passage in his recent WINEP piece, though, and have to wonder whether the wording has to do with that institution's well-known affiliation with the Zionist lobby:

The unrest has deep implications for U.S. policy. The Obama administration has based its Syria policy on facilitating peace talks between Syria and Israel. A major cog in that premise was that a large part of Asad's legitimacy rested on his piecemeal effort to "reform" Syria. This week's protests have called that legitimacy into serious question. The question now remains as to how -- or whether -- a minority leader with a narrowing domestic base and severely compromised domestic legitimacy rooted in a proven inability to launch real reforms will be able to abandon Syria's state of war with Israel.

Syria is in a state of war with Israel because it was invaded and continues to be occupied by Israel. This is not highlighted here, and the piece in general fails to convince that there is an intrinsic relationship with the important need for political change in Syria and the question of Israeli-Syrian peace. Syria has joined the Arab Initiative of 2002, which has been rejected or ignored by successive Israeli leaders, and demonstrated willingness to recognize Israel and establish peaceful relations in exchange for the return of the occupied Golan Heights. It is Israel that has refused to do so, contrary to international law and multiple UN resolutions. This has little to do with the sorry state of human rights in Syria. I am also surprised to learn that the Obama administration based its Syria policy on the idea that Bashar is a reformer — I was under the impression that the late Bush era and Obama approach to Syria were based on Damascus' policies towards Lebanon, Iraq and Israel, particularly the idea that it could restrain Hizbullah, with domestic issues largely irrelevant aside from being a pressure tool.

(Update: Here's another example of this muddled thinking: Chaos in Syria and Jordan Alarms U.S. - NYTimes.com

Deepening chaos in Syria, in particular, could dash any remaining hopes for a Middle East peace agreement, several analysts said. It could also alter the American rivalry with Iran for influence in the region and pose challenges to the United States’ greatest ally in the region, Israel.

What hopes for a peace agreement? At least the piece acknowledges that "Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has shown no inclination to talk to Mr. Assad".)

Brian Whitaker recently had a good post with a round-up on Syria sources. He points to this Time piece by Landis, which warns that there is probably no soft landing in Syria.

P.S. You should really follow the Syria live blog at al-Jazeera.