Why Syria’s Assad is still in power

By Ian Bremmer
April 4, 2012

We can’t afford to throw him out.

Last week, likely GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney caused a tempest in a teapot when he told CNN that he thought the top U.S. geopolitical foe is Russia. President Obama’s White House seized on the comment, rebutting that al Qaeda is actually our top foe abroad. But if we look at the way American foreign policy has been enacted since the beginnings of the global crisis, it’s clear that America’s biggest opponent on the world stage is really itself.

Take what’s going on in Syria as the most recent example. That country’s leader, Bashar al-Assad, continues to tease the world’s diplomats by claiming to want peace for his people, yet he cracks down with unfettered abandon on their protests against his oppressive regime. Having just agreed to yet another peace plan, a troop withdrawal by Apr. 10, it’s clear he’ll find some way around his latest bargain, as he always has. What’s even more shocking is that the peace deal, negotiated by Kofi Annan, did not even call for Assad to leave power, which to outside eyes seems like a precondition for any sort of success. And the absence of the demand that Assad go is squarely due to the U.S.’s refusal to back it up with the sort of severe consequences it used to dole out: military strikes, preemptive wars and overwhelming use of force. For the U.S., at least for now, those days are over. And Washington won’t make foreign policy promises it can’t or doesn’t intend to keep.

After all, consider the fall of Gaddafi in Libya. Here was a decades-long enemy of the U.S. whose people rose up against him in a huge insurgency. His people lived in a backward state while he enriched himself with billions of stolen dollars. To borrow a phrase, the case for his deposal was a slam-dunk. Yet even this most climactic act of the Arab Spring did not draw out a single ground-troop commitment from the Obama administration. The U.S., in fact, only ran about 10 percent of the total NATO bombing runs over Libya – not exactly the type of campaign the U.S. military is used to making against brutal dictators with bad reputations who antagonize it.

So what’s changed? Well, first it’s worth noting that while Libya was a lost cause, Syria has been a pawn in a larger proxy war in the Middle East being fought in the U.N. Security Council chambers, with Russia and China blocking every U.S. move to force Assad out. Second, even though the Gulf Coordinating Council is eager for U.S. help in Syria (and with containing Iran, and all its other problems), there is obviously fatigue over the amount of blood and treasure that’s been committed to the region by the country over the years, one that Obama is sensitive to. He’s going to support the GCC, but he’s not going to fight its battles unless the American interests in them are great and unmistakable.

But perhaps the real reason the U.S. is not leaping into the breach is because its own house is not yet in order. The U.S. still has high domestic unemployment and a structural debt problem, thanks to years of reduced tax revenue and the prosecution of two expensive wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Americans are bracing for a summer oil shock that everyone seems to know is coming. All this is what has led us to the world’s present G-Zero condition: The U.S. isn’t in Syria because, among other reasons, it simply can’t afford it. This is a symptom of a leaderless world.

Whether you think America’s habit of leaping into foreign conflicts is good or bad, here’s the reality of how tepid U.S. support of the insurgency in Syria will play out: Assad will find a way to keep military control over Syria, even as his support from other leaders in the region withers. (Former ally Turkey, for example, has turned strongly against Assad’s government.) Meanwhile, Syrian citizens will continue to push for a popular uprising, which will lead to more violence in the streets. But without U.S. backing, neither Saudia Arabia nor Turkey – nor any other country in the Middle East that wants to see Assad gone – will dare go in alone. We’re reaching the limit, in other words, of kicking this particular can down the road. The stalling won’t work, the humanitarian crisis will get worse, and by the end of the year, Assad will most likely still be in power, and many more people in Syria will be dead because of it. The probability of a successful outcome in Syria is falling off a cliff.

The world is looking for the U.S. to get its house in order so that it can pay attention to global affairs again. The Arab League, NATO, the United Nations, and many others are beseeching Washington to play a role. In fact, the U.S. is playing one, but it’s nothing like what it’s been typecast for. To be sure, American diplomats are active, but they are doing things differently than the U.S. has done them in a very long time. We’re never going back to a pre-2008 world, the one where the U.S.’s “cowboy mentality” defined its foreign policy. Whether that change is good or bad – right now it looks like a little of both – the bottom line is the U.S. just can’t afford to be that cowboy.

This essay is based on a transcribed interview with Bremmer.

15 comments

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

For those “cowboy” wannabes out there — pay for your own hobby wars and fight them yourselves too. Keep your hands off my taxes and my military and my Government. If you do not, you may find yourselves looking for a new host country. The days of letting Washington pick which wars to fight are over.

As a country, if we cannot rely on our Government to use our military in our own interest, then we need to cripple it so that it cannot be hijacked again. “Weapons of mass destruction” !! If they do not have the tanks, the aircraft, the ships, the troops, they cannot use them to the detriment of the majority of American citizens. Yes, the People need to take charge again in this crooked, deceitful, corrupt country.

We are supposed to be able to choose our own Government, but there will not be an anti-war choice on the ballot this year, and there has not been one in half a century.

Posted by txgadfly | Report as abusive

Gregg Easterbrook: “Unemployment is the real price of war”:
http://blogs.reuters.com/gregg-easterbro ok/2011/06/22/unemployment-is-the-real-p rice-of-war

In the short term, war and its attendant industries can employ a lot of people. But in the long term, warfare paid-for by foreign debt does little good for the American economy; unless that USD-denominated debt is entered-into in bad faith (and creditors effectively hoodwinked), and then deliberately inflated away…
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-17301 032

The REAL answer in situations like this, is to do what Ronald Reagan did:
* Increase preparedness for warfare, and war propaganda/ diplomacy; but at the same time:
* Avoid actual warfare wherever possible.

Bush II damaged American credibility by going to war too easily. Obama is damaging American credibility by appearing unwilling to go to war, in any circumstances… Perhaps he’s frightened of having his Nobel Peace Prize rescinded? Whatever the cause, Obama should either go to Congress and argue the case for war, or argue the case against it: this muddy business of trying to fight wars without acknowledging that’s what he’s doing, can only make America look morally weak.

The consequences of weak foreign policy, or weak representation, can be observed here:
http://news.bbc.co.uk/dna/place-london/p lain/A3773216
Look up “Vienna Summit” in this article.

Consider further, the balance of diplomatic and economic power between America and the Middle East during the 1970′s oil crises/ deliberate price shocks…

Posted by matthewslyman | Report as abusive

Bremmer implies only interventionists can be considered leaders. Sounds like a stupid joke, but apparently the author is not joking.

Posted by Rothbard | Report as abusive

A total lack of imagination… promoting salafi style democracy , due lack of capacity to challenge the media story and go after the true one…

Posted by bekmaitre | Report as abusive

In time of the uncertainty over the roles of world powers, this event is just what everybody has reconfirmed the role of US. Everybody has been observing outmoded decisions in favor of authoritarian regimes while peooples of the world demanding more freedom i.e. US-like managements and loathing against the supporters of authoritarianism.

Posted by hallofids | Report as abusive

It seems that the Cold War ended with the collapse of the Soviets for people, but states (like Russia, China) cannot give up their authoritarian habits as in the example of Syria.

Posted by hallofids | Report as abusive

You ask, Why is Syria’s Assad still in power. Really? Why not ask, Why hasn’t Israel been dragged into the ICC for crimes against humanity? Or, for that matter, Why hasn’t G.W. Bush been prosecuted for his deceitful war on Iraq? The fact is, there is no moral compass in today’s world–it’s all geopolitics, and our friendly genocidal ally (Israel) gets a pass while our peaceful enemy (Iran) gets sanctioned. Don’t look for universal laws of political behavior–it’s all very idiosyncratic and depends purely on who’s in power and what they have to do to stay there. Might, indeed, makes right in today’s degenerate world.

Posted by cautious123 | Report as abusive

It’s interesting how the naive and deceiving this author is. He says in the article”The world is looking for the U.S. to get its house in order so that it can pay attention to global affairs again”. Seriously? No you are looking forward for that, the world wants less US intervention in the rest of the world. US intervention in the Middle East apparently happens only if there is oil involved, or if it is for the protection of it’s vicious ally in the region, Israel.

Posted by free_urmind | Report as abusive

matthewslyman -

The US helped the EU with their Libyan adventure, and now you Brits want the US to go it alone in Syria? What gives? Murdoch and Cameron can’t get the Royal Navy to do it?

Posted by TobyONottoby | Report as abusive

Great Ian, but you still havent explained why the US should be involved at all.

Posted by pragmagujurat | Report as abusive

Assad is an angel compared to most NATO leaders.
How many thousands were killed in Iraq by the US war against a nonbelligerent country?
In Syria, regime change again is the goal, this time through mercenaries paid by Saudi Arabia.
The majority of people in Syria are opposed to these thugs, but of course the West calls them unarmed civilians and will end up intervening to divide Syria, using these FSA thugs and traitors as a ploy.

Posted by mcanterel | Report as abusive

I’m not convinced that “the world” wants the US to lead anymore. Back in the day when the USSR and China were running around the world menacing people, the US was an effective foil. But today? Today, the US is the one running around the world menacing people. Just as there is a boatload of detritus from British mismanagement (the way that the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent were hacked up by the Brits is a prime but not sole example), there is a boatload of detritus from American mismanagement. We have spent decades foisting authoritarian regimes and dictators on various parts of the world and now those regimes have become sufficiently sclerotic that their citizens are pushing them over. Furthermore, those citizens don’t have a really great view of the US for having stuck them with their dictators. To make matters worse, we continue to interfere in everybody else’s affairs as a part of our ongoing effort to remake the world in our image. I’m suspecting that world would appreciate it if we just stopped.

Posted by majkmushrm | Report as abusive

SO WHAT IS THE ANSWER, DID WE MISS SOMETHING ALONG THE WAY IN ALL THE TALK AND OPINIONS VENTURED ABOVE…

DO WE WANT A CIVIL WORLD; IF THE ANSWER IS YES WE DO NOT FIND IT ABOVE…

BUT MORE EVASIVE AND MORE OBVIOUS EVERYDAY IS THE LACK OF UNDERSTANDING AND THE ANSWERS NEEDED TO MAKE THIS WORLD WORK FOR ONE AND ALL…

DICTATORS WHO KILL TO ENFORCE THEIR VIEWS RATHER THAN TALK IT OUT TO ACHIEVE A BETTER STANDARD AND UNDERSTANDING ARE STILL ABOUT AND IT SEEMS THEIR CONSCIENCE IS CLEAR AND THEIR ENFORCERS LACK ANY COMPASSION FOR THEIR FELLOW CITIZENS…

THANK YOU.

Posted by chapapet | Report as abusive

Perhaps if the US/Israel weren’t threatening to kill, displace, maime, and terrify ANOTHER millions of people in Iran, Yemen, Lebanon, Palestine… it would have a stronger moral voice. Russia drew the line in the sand when we plotted with the Israelis a conquest of South Ossetia. The only thing that saved South Ossetia from imperialist treachery was the threat of Russian tactical nukes.

The US/Israel and NATO have done more than their fair share of diminishing moral/legal force in this world. Russia has drawn another line in Syria and perhaps behind the scenes they have drawn one around attacking Iran militarily.

There are no “good guys” anymore.

Posted by JagPop | Report as abusive

I got $10,000 that says Assad will not be in power by the end of the year Mr.Bremmer, and you might have considered Libya and Egypt before you wrote this.

Now, you will eat your words, because you must not understand what’s really going on with the “Arab Spring.” For if you did, you’d know Assad’s demise is as sure as tomorrow’s sunrise.

Posted by mick68 | Report as abusive