For those convinced that the United States and Israel are the driving force behind a regime-change project which is intent on toppling Bashar al Assad, no piece of evidence will seem more conclusive in supporting this theory than the existence of a project called “The day after: Supporting a democratic transition in Syria.” Look out for reports on this at Press TV and Russia Today — I have no doubt they are being drafted right now.
In a post for The Cable blog, Foreign Policy has the scoop: “Inside the secret effort to plan for a post-Assad Syria.” That’s the teaser on the home page, but the post itself replaces “secret” with “quiet”. If it really was secret we wouldn’t be reading about it, would we.
For the last six months, 40 senior representatives of various Syrian opposition groups have been meeting quietly in Germany under the tutelage of the U.S. Institute for Peace (USIP) to plan for how to set up a post-Assad Syrian government.
The project, which has not directly involved U.S. government officials but was partially funded by the State Department, is gaining increased relevance this month as the violence in Syria spirals out of control and hopes for a peaceful transition of power fade away. The leader of the project, USIP’s Steven Heydemann, an academic expert on Syria, has briefed administration officials on the plan, as well as foreign officials, including on the sidelines of the Friends of Syria meeting in Istanbul last month.
The project is called “The day after: Supporting a democratic transition in Syria.” Heydemann spoke about the project in depth for the first time in an interview with The Cable. He described USIP’s efforts as “working in a support role with a large group of opposition groups to define a transition process for a post-Assad Syria.”
The opposition leaders involved in the USIP project have been meeting since January and providing updates on their work to the Arab League, the Friends of Syria group, the team of U.N. Special Envoy Kofi Annan, and the opposition Syrian National Council.
The focus of the group’s effort is to develop concrete plans for the immediate aftermath of a regime collapse, to mitigate the risks of bureaucratic, security, and economic chaos. The project has also identified a few things can be done in advance to prepare for a post-Assad Syria.
“We organized this project along systematic lines, including security-sector reform,” Heydemann said. “We have provided technical support for Syrian opposition participants in our project, and the Syrians have identified priorities for things that need to be implemented now.”
He emphasized that USIP’s involvement is primarily in a facilitation and coordination role. “The Syrians are very much in the lead on this,” he said.
In line with the claim that this is not a U.S.-directed project, Heydemann underlines the fact Obama administration officials have neither participated in nor observed any of the Berlin meetings. But to say “the Syrians” are in the lead begs the obvious question: which Syrians? How many, if any, have been directly engaged in the uprising?
Beyond the implications for the Syrian population and for the region, President Obama has a political interest during the presidential campaign in not being portrayed as a disengaged observer who stood by and simply watched Syria fall apart.
While foreign policy is still unlikely to feature strongly in the campaign, Mitt Romney is bound to make full use of the narrative that the Middle East has been reduced to anarchy under Obama’s watch.
One of the ironies of the anti-interventionist perspective is that it focuses on the dangers of the U.S. being too actively engaged in the Middle East at a moment when the administration is more afraid of those critics who say it is disengaged. For that reason, the administration actually wants to play up its level of engagement rather than mask it.
Thus we get the theatrics at the United Nations where supposedly the noble efforts of the U.S. and its allies are repeatedly being thwarted by Russia and China. Don’t expect anyone to openly acknowledge this, but Washington may secretly welcome these diplomatic shackles. If let loose, it would probably have a much harder time explaining why it is so reluctant to become more deeply involved in the crisis.
The idea that Syria is a pawn in a new Great Game, is an idea that shapes the perceptions of many observers, but what seems closer to the truth is that ultimately Syria will demonstrate how diminished the influence of the great powers has become.
Steven Heydemann’s Day After project no doubt represents the Obama administration’s desire to be able to mitigate the chaos that will likely ensue with the collapse of the Assad regime, but desires and capabilities are very different things.
Competition to define a post-Assad transition will only accelerate as the fall of the regime grows nearer. Whether these efforts will pay off for the United States or for Russia, however, is uncertain. The scale of Russian support for the regime poses severe obstacles to Moscow’s future influence in a post-Assad Damascus, while the limits of U.S. support for the opposition will likely constrain Washington’s future influence, as well. Moreover, there are regional players in the game and they enjoy significant advantages. For the United States to maximize its leverage it would need to overcome its reluctance to support the armed opposition, yet this remains a large step further than Washington is willing to go. Not least, there are revolutionary forces on the ground, that have no intention of permitting Syria’s future to be dictated by outsiders, who, together with the external opposition, have little confidence in Kofi Annan and are appropriately cynical about efforts to force them into negotiations with elements of the Assad regime. In this critical period, the Syrian opposition remains a diffuse and elusive target in Washington’s efforts to manage the end game in Syria.
Devising a plan is very different from determining an outcome.