It was clear during his appearance before the Syrian-American community that Ambassador Ford was very focused on American interests. He was an American official explaining American policy. It was not a debate or an argument but a statement of policy. And the policy he described was real politic. He seemed sincere in his concerns about the humanitarian situation but his American-centric approach left some of the audience cold because he approached Syria from this country's perspective, not from Syria's perspective.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov offered a similar perspective in a recent article. He said that if this situation deteriorates, the whole region will suffer and be destabilized. There will be "a devastating impact on both regional and international security" including the Israeli-Syrian situation, the Lebanese situation, terrorists getting weapons, and "perhaps the most dangerous of all, an aggravation of inter-faith tensions and contradictions inside the Islamic world." That is scary.
We can just think of 200,000 or more Christian refugees pouring into Lebanon, and equal numbers of Alawis and others pouring into Turkey or Jordan. Would Turkey and Jordan just sit there and let that happen? Perhaps real politic is a better way to make foreign policy than the humanitarian approach. When a giant country starts trying to do good, it can end up creating chaos. It can also end up being accused of double standards, hypocrisy, and deceit (which I happen to think is sometimes the case). Maybe the humanitarian interest is sometimes best served by real politic. (Note: Obama has people in his administration who are on the humanitarian side and would strongly disagree. We cannot tell at this point how this is going to work out).
Second, Ford made it clear that this is not 2003. He was very non-partisan (originally a Bush appointee) but emphasized that we were burned and bankrupted by Iraq and Afghanistan and are not getting involved in another war, even if that regime deserves to be overthrown. And we are not going to do what we did in Iraq, replace something with nothing, with consequences unforeseeable. Tony Blair reported in his memoir that Vice President Cheney wanted to send the U.S. army into Syria as soon as Saddam was overthrown. Blair said if that happened, Britain would not be there. Listening to the American political debate over Syria, it seems that if there were a Republican administration in office, we would be far more likely to take military action. This is a legitimate debate, but I felt reassured by the Ambassador's statements of caution and restraint.
Alas, if you are a Syrian watching your people suffer, these are words of abandonment. (It was interesting that both supporters of the regime and its opponents were so upset that they walked out in protest). I don't see it quite that way. The Ambassador made it clear that other countries (Saudi Arabia and Qatar, for example) are shipping in weapons and we are coordinating with them. He felt that we had a strong policy.
One point he did not make but I will. The three key state actors (Russia, Turkey and the U.S.) seem in agreement that their needs to be a political transition. Turkey and the U.S. have decided that Assad himself must go. Lavrov is more cautious but not opposed. (I remember once hearing an American diplomat say about the Congo's then dictator, in the midst of an uprising, that "Mobutu is not our chosen instrument." It was cold, imperial, chilling, brutal). Of course, since Mobutu had been our chosen instrument once this gave us considerable leverage. Russia is in a similar position. A joint tripartite position is still possible.
This anecdote is a segue to one last point. The primary players in this situation are Turkey and Russia. Both had close ties with the regime. Both are frustrated and alienated from their former ally. The Turks are openly calling for the removal of the regime (and having Syria shoot down their plane this week did not help). We are really outsiders, and we are not nearly as smart or influential as people in the Arab World think we are. Our leverage is our enormous military capability (which many countries want to use for their own purposes. Think of the Israelis and Iran).
Ford was very clear that while military operations are not off the table (his words) they are not under consideration at this point. A New York Times article last week described various military plans being developed, but U.S. officials quoted in the story said these were contingency plans. Ford said the story was "inaccurate." His voice was emphatic but his meaning ambiguous.
Was everything inaccurate or just parts? It is what diplomats call creative ambiguity.
- Ron Stockton is a professor of Political Science at the University of Michigan-Dearborn and co-author of 'Citizenship and Crisis: Arab Detroit After 9/11.'