Security Studies Program Seminar

Flynt Lawrence Leverett , Ph.D.
Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution

Is Syria Next?

May 11, 2005

Dr. Leverett discussed American foreign policy toward Syria . He was critical of the Bush Administration's policy toward Syria, arguing the US has not had a policy since the last year of the Clinton Administration. The Bush Administration has a long list of complaints, including: Syrian support for terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, Syrian insurgents in Iraq, lack of Syrian support for US objectives in Iraq. The US has a long list of complaints, but no integrated strategy for encouraging Syria to behave in accordance with US objectives. He believes the Bush Administration is moving towards a policy toward Syria , and it is one of regime change linked with Syria's position in Lebanon.

Dr. Leverett argued the Bush Administration believes that the "center of gravity" in Syria is shifting. The US sees the beginning of an unraveling of the Syrian regime. Senior French officials and Americans confirm that Bush and Chirac discussed Lebanon. In their discussions, the French President argued that once Syria pulled out of Lebanon, it would be very difficult for the Bashar regime to recover and would most likely lead to an unraveling of the regime. President Bush was very taken by this assessment. The White House believes that it can bring about political change in Syria. The administration is not seriously considering military action to bring about regime change. The idea is regime change on the cheap, with Syrian troops forced out of Lebanon and external pressure to bring the eventual collapse of the regime.

Dr. Leverett does not necessarily agree with this assessment. First, if regime change occurs, it would most likely be within the family. Second, if Bashar is seen as still influencing Lebanese policy even in the face of massive international pressure, he may come to be seen as a stronger figure both at home and within the region.

In his discussion of the Syrian regime, Dr. Leverett cited three important schools on Bashar: 1) Bashar as the closet reformer, who wants to take things in a different direction, but is limited by the old guard; 2) Bashar as the loyal son, who wants to continue the policies of his father and may even be more ideological than his father. 3) Bashar as the neophyte, who is a callow, inexperienced young man inadequately prepared for the job.

Dr. Leverett argued that Bashar has reformist impulses, but they are attenuated. He has a Western education (one-year residency in England in ophthalmology), but it was not experience that prepared him for the presidency or allowed him to think systematically about reform. He does not think Bashar has an elaborate vision of how to transform Syria. Bashar is also restrained by an entrenched, diffuse old guard. Bashar's strategy for dealing with the old guard is a gradual one. He is not interested in confrontation with the old guard, but assumes biology is on his side. In the meantime, he is gradually building up an alternative network of individuals with advanced western degrees in computer science, business and economics, who are outside the system and have experience in a real private sector outside Syria. Bashar recruits these people for second tier positions within the bureaucracy. He is not able to move many of these people up to the top level, but over time intends for these individuals to assume leadership positions. Bashar thus has a vision of reform that takes years, and it will likely be more than a decade before Syria engages in any significant changes. Given the tight strategic situation, does he have that time?

Dr. Leverett outlined three alternative US policies toward Syria.

•  A primarily unilateral policy of external pressure on Syria : It would involve continued sanctions. The US has followed this policy since 1979 when Syria was first listed as a state sponsor of terror. However, this policy has not brought about an appreciable change in Syria 's behavior. It is difficult to imagine a casual logic for thinking it would work now. Multilateral sanctions are more effective, but Dr. Leverett does not believe that this is likely to happen. American and European views on Syria converged on Lebanon, but there is no US-European understanding of collective action regarding terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, etc.

•  A policy of regime change: Dr. Leverett does not believe that regime change can be done on the cheap, as the Bashar regime is more resilient than often thought. Importantly, there is no effective, organized political opposition to the regime within country. The only way to bring about regime change would be a US-led invasion. The US, however, does not have the resources at its disposal to invade Syria. Even if the US did, the result would be quite messy. Syrian society is at least as complex as Lebanese society. The result would likely be a regime that is overwhelmingly Islamic in character, and it is not clear that such a regime would advance US interests.

•  Restart the Syrian track: This involves meaningful Israeli-Syrian dialogue. The Israeli government, however, is not interested in starting up negotiations with Syria.

Dr. Leverett proposes a US policy of "conditional engagement" apart from the Syrian-Israeli track. After 9/11, Syria provided high quality intelligence on Al Qaeda and Al Qaeda affiliates, which on several occasions prevented terrorist attacks on Americans. US policy needs to provide Syria with a roadmap of necessary changes in order to be removed from the US terrorism list. The US has only discussed this option in the context of a peace deal with Israel. The prospects for Syrian diplomacy are thus not all that great.

Dr. Leverett is a Senior Fellow at The Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy. He has served as senior director for Middle East affairs at the U.S. National Security Council, on the State Department's Policy Planning Staff, and as a senior Middle East analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency. He also holds a Ph.D. in Politics from Princeton University . He is the author of Inheriting Syria : Bashar's Trial by Fire (Brookings Institution Press, 2005).

Rapporteur: Kelly Grieco

back to seminar summaries, Spring 2005