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Is US policy on Syria regime change or democracy building?

Is US policy on Syria regime change or democracy building?

.George W. Bush’s befuddled attempt to bring democracy to Iraq had no plan in place other than the removal of President Saddam Hussein on the suspicion of stockpiling weapons of mass destruction. The subsequent five years was a failed attempt to bring about democracy. It was, said former US ambassador Robert Ford on 3 May in California, a failure caused by a lack of a planning.

Ford is a seasoned diplomat who served as ambassador to several Middle Eastern countries; his final posting was in Damascus. He has expressed his growing concern for the Trump administration’s lack of policy trajectory in Syria and fears that the US president will stumble over the same hurdle as Bush, namely the absence of a plan.

Trump’s sabre-rattling post Al-Shayrat air strike is reminiscent of Bush’s rhetoric in the run-up to the Iraqi war. As Trump officials become increasingly bellicose toward Assad, Ford’s concerns become increasingly valid.

Regime change is a tricky business and Washington’s past attempts at it in the Middle East have been fraught with complications. Failure is built into regime change as it relies on the hard power of the military and seeks to replace one leader with another, while ignoring the apparatus of governance that provides stability in democratic systems.

Democratic governance is a process requiring the soft power of diplomacy and decades of dedicated coalition building. It cannot happen spontaneously, which is the expectation of regime change. Syria is not simply a case of regime change, but also an opportunity to establish a democracy.

According to former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in her recent book, democracy building is the cornerstone of American policy. The strength of the case for Syrian democracy building is the foundation currently being laid by Syrians on the ground. The hundreds of Syrian Local Governing Councils (LGCs) and the White Helmets are serving as the civil society organisations required to cultivate a robust democracy. Yet until Assad is removed, Syrian democracy cannot flourish.

Moreover, without assistance from the US and the international community to remove Assad, the social reform required to establish democracy will fail to materialise, and Daesh will continue to utilise the chaos to its advantage. While Washington and the international community work towards the ouster of the Assad regime, they should initiate a plan to maintain stability and ensure a transition to a new government in Syria. For this, the international community and the US should a) equip vetted factions of the Free Syrian Army (FSA); b) strengthen the governance structures of the Syrian National Coalition; and c) implement and enforce a ceasefire.

The main argument against the removal of Assad postulates that it would create a power vacuum for Daesh to fill. Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan are often cited to justify this view. However, the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan differ substantially from Syria’s popular uprising. The Iraqi and Afghani people did not support US invasions, nor were there indigenous civil society organisations in place to fill a power vacuum.

The liberated regions of Syria are maintained by local governing structures; in addition to the stabilising effect offered by the LGCs, the FSA and law enforcement are indigenous entities capable of protecting the integrity of their borders. These elements were not present in Libya prior to regime change and the situation on the ground there was complicated by inaction in Syria, which produced a refugee crisis on Libyan shores and allowed for the rise of Daesh.

Ford also argued in his California speech that Libya is not an example against regime change in Syria, and that it could arguably be a case for it. In comparison to Syria, Libya is safer and more stable.

The FSA, particularly in Dier Ezzor, the region bordering Iraq, was an effective counterweight to Daesh until it was frustrated by a lack of US and international backing, which led to the growth of the extremist group. The FSA can continue to be relied on as an ally in the fight against Daesh. Recent military victories over Daesh and Assad regime forces by the FSA demonstrate its continued viability as a fighting force. The Syrian people do not require foreign boots on the ground; they are more than capable of fighting their own battle, but they require supplies and air cover.

In addition to a successful military, the Syrian people require the cultivation of strong governance structures to prevent the quagmire of failed Arab states brought about through regime change. The failure of such change lies in the sole focus on an executive branch, to the detriment of the judiciary and legislature. The Syrian National Coalition seeks to establish an executive branch, much in line with regime change. Yet democracy is inclusive of three branches of government. It is imperative that the focus evolves to embrace the additional branches.

LGCs are currently functioning in the capacity of a legislative branch to an extent, but have no formal position in the National Coalition. Including the LGCs as part of a legislative branch would increase the National Coalition’s legitimacy on the ground and internationally as the voice of the Syrian people.

Establishing a Syrian congress should be a priority to pave the way for a representational government while the Assad regime is cleared away. Members from LGCs, Syrians in the diaspora and the people from all sectors of Syrian society should be allowed. Inclusiveness, despite its difficulty, is the hallmark of a democracy.

This is not to say that war criminals and their supporters should be part of a transitional government; they should be prosecuted to prevent retaliation and in order to initiate national reconciliation. The US coalition should be instrumental in delivering Assad and his supporters to The Hague for trial. This should be the main role of the international community, particularly now that the International Criminal Court has accepted its first case against Syrian regime officials.

The establishment and enforcement of a ceasefire is a foundational requirement to initiate a transition to a new government, and will mark the firm commitment of the international community to the process. The enforcement of a ceasefire will signal to the Syrian regime and its handlers that the US coalition is committed to the removal of Assad.

Ford pointed out that the Obama administration sought to use the outer circle of influence as the preferred negotiation tactic that primarily involved Russia, Iran and the US to have an impact on what was happening on the ground in Syria. However, the former ambassador emphasised the importance of returning to the inner circle of Syrian-to-Syrian negotiations as the only means of resolving the six year-old conflict.

After decades in the Middle East, Ford asserted that, “We [the US] don’t have the ability to control the Middle East, but at times we can influence.” In the end the Syrian people are best suited to decide the trajectory of their country. They will require support and space to evolve for the transition into a Syrian democracy.

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