Where’s Syria’s George Washington? The Unexplored Cost of Persistent Political Oppression

Jill Zabel

Throughout the world, authoritarian regimes imprison, torture, exile, and kill opponents that could challenge their leadership.  Where holding office is the reward for ruthlessness or loyalty to a deceased authoritarian leader, the most competent visionaries rarely rise to the top.  Cracking down on political opposition can clear the playing field of leaders that could manage a country’s democratic transition.

Some may shrug this off, insisting that the United States must be practical and work with whoever is in power to achieve their foreign policy aims.  To some extent, this is true since engagement is more likely to foster influence than isolation.  But focusing exclusively on existing leaders and power structures and turning a blind eye to their political oppression is short sighted and ultimately hamstrings the United States’ ability to meet key strategic goals.  As we have seen in several of the Arab uprisings, when the time comes to change political systems, there is often no one worthy of the United States’ full support.

Syria is a perfect example of how a long, sustained period of political repression can eradicate or neutralize opposition leaders and cause fallout for the United States.  Bashar al-Assad, like his father Hafiz before him, systematically squashed criticism, severely limiting the potential leadership pool.  Killing or “disappearing” political opponents not only silenced those critics of Assad rule, it prompted others that might oppose regime policies to leave the country, taking their ideas of a more just and open society with them.  The Syrian system has actively—and often violently— discouraged the emergence of new leaders and governance ideas, but punishments were largely meted out to individual dissidents before March 2011.  Since then, the Syrian regime has collectively punished its population.  A recent United Nations estimate suggests that 80,000  Syrians have been killed, and over a million are displaced.

The Arab uprisings have shown us that popular frustrations can topple dictators but also that without a unifying leader, internecine fighting, score settling, fractured coalitions, and other problems can make for a bumpy transition.  The Arab uprisings that began in Tunisia and spread throughout Egypt, Yemen, Libya, and elsewhere have proven that leadership in the sense of one man or woman leading the (literal or figurative) charge is no longer a precondition for  a revolution’s success.  Instead, technology and social media outlets facilitate leaderless revolutions that can sideline unresponsive leaders.  While popular support for regime change is essential, leaderless protests present a unique problem once the old government is gone.  When hundreds of bloggers, Facebook administrators, and other protesters coalesce to rid themselves of dictatorship, what single group or person can credibly assume the mantle of leadership and fill the power vacuum?

Although Syria has been mired in turmoil for over two years, the United States has rightly hesitated to throw its full support behind any of the opposition and rebel factions that have popped up on the scene.  It is not just because we are unsure of what the best realistic options are and how U.S. actions could help to achieve them.  It is because, despite scouring the Syrian opposition groups in exile as well as inside, the United States realizes there is no leader on the horizon who can unite the factions and lead Syria out of this mess—let alone one that could deliver a more open, free, and democratic Syria that would protect the rights of Sunnis, Alawites, Christians, and Kurds alike.  Some Syrian opposition figures have had decent leadership credentials on paper.  For instance, the former head of the Syrian National Council, Burhan Ghalioun, was a sociology professor who spent countless hours thinking about how to remake his country for the better.  However, three decades in France hampered Ghalioun’s ability to form a power base within Syria and he never gained sufficient clout within the opposition to forge Syria’s post-Assad future.

When Washington can’t find someone with the right combination of brains, values, tenacity, influence, and charisma to fashion a system that would institutionalize democracy and spur development, it looks to whoever happens to be the big guy holding the gun.  That has not worked in Syria since the armed opposition is every bit as fractured as its civilian counterparts.  The Free Syrian Army (FSA) has suffered from competing armed opposition groups, internal squabbles, and disconnects between FSA leaders in Turkey and fighters on the ground.  Furthermore, the FSA’s problems have made many potential benefactors wary to support it, and the FSA’s subsequent dearth of funding and equipment has helped to empower extremists like the Al-Nusra Front, which is better equipped.

The absence of a Syrian opposition leader with the necessary combination of leadership skills and appeal to multiple groups has resulted in the United States and many other Western countries dragging their feet on decisions to provide aid (lethal or otherwise) and truly commit to a post-Assad Syria.  Hundreds of Syrians die each week, among them innocent children.  Chemical weapons are used with impunity despite President Obama’s declaration that such a use was a red line for the United States. Syria’s Internet access is increasingly spotty, as the regime tries to hamper opponents’ communication and block news of U.N. resolutions against the regime.

As much as I hope Syrian people one day enjoy the benefits of democracy, I do not see a clear path to that in the near future, and things are likely to get worse before they get better.  I am not advocating for a particular course of action in Syria; instead, I am urging U.S. policy makers to understand that political repression is not only a human rights issue.  As we learn from Syria, depriving a country of critical voices and thought leaders can become a U.S. national security problem in already volatile regions.

While it is impossible to retroactively create viable leadership in Syria, the United States must use its influence to discourage political oppression within countries, while identifying potential democratic leaders and strengthening opposition voices.  The U.S. State Department, Freedom House, and others do an admirable job tracking political suppression; their reports should be taken into consideration when making decisions about aid, military exercises, and other engagement activities.  Wherever and whenever possible, the United States should cultivate and train new leaders, while taking into consideration the cultural and religious sensitivities of the country in question.   The United States should bolster its engagement with civil society groups and journalists through seminars, visits, and trainings, and speak out against imprisonment for reformist different ideas.  Bolstering U.S. efforts to identify and prepare potential democratic leaders would position the United States to see endangered dictators as an opportunity rather than an intractable problem.


Jill Zabel is an international security analyst with a BA from Vanderbilt University and an MA in International Security from Georgetown University. She is a regular contributor to the WIIS blog.

Selected Sources:

Foreign Affairs.  “Red Lines Matter.”  May 7, 2013.
The Guardian.  “Free Syrian Army rebels defect to Islamist group Jabhat al-Nusra.” May 9. 2013.
The Atlantic Wire.  “Syria’s Internet Is Offline Again.”  May 15, 2013.
The New York Times. “U.N. Calls for Political Transition in Syria.”  May 15, 2013.
BBC Online.  “US Has Seen Syria Chemical Weapons Evidence, Says Obama.”  May 16, 2013.

Stanli Montgomery

Weapons proliferation.  Cyber-security.  Global warming.  Drug laundering. International trade. All of these above issues, among many others, are top priorities that affect national as well as international security and dominate the agendas of international bodies.   However, terrorism, while still an important component of national security, has currently been waning in importance and coverage.

This is not without good reason.  There has been a series of accomplishments over the past several years that leads one to believe that terrorism is a diminishing threat to the United States.  For one, the long-time leader of al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, was killed in May 2011, which essentially cut off the head of the organization.  It was also a major blow to the symbolic nature of the organization – bin Laden was the face of al-Qaeda and synonymous with fear, terrorist attacks and the loss of many lives.

The successes do not end there.  There have been numerous senior al-Qaeda members based in the Afghanistan/Pakistan region who have either been killed through military strikes or captured and interrogated, leading to further uprooting of the organization from its original safe haven since September 11, 2001.   Primary affiliates, to include al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), have also suffered major setbacks such as the loss of leadership and the thwarting of major attacks.  Because of these successes – in addition to greater world-wide awareness of these groups, the help of individual nations stemming home-grown threats, and other international efforts – the organization we knew in 2001 is very different now.

It is important to not lose sight of the threat of terrorism in the coming years. The fiscal environment understandably calls for all agencies, terrorism-related or not, to prioritize national security threats more strictly.  However, one must recognize that terrorism still persists and important security policies require a similar sense of urgency to stem the prospects of terrorism and its root causes.

The primary reason for this is that terrorism has not completely diminished and continues to pose a very salient threat to the U.S. and its allies, including in North and West Africa as well as the Middle East. Many nations around the world have been more vigilant in combating the spread of al-Qaeda-associated and attributed violence throughout this region, most notably by al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and loosely al-Qaeda affiliated group Nigeria-based group Boko Haram.  Recently, France, with the assistance of other nations including the United States, has been trying to rid AQIM of its safe haven in Mali.  And while France and her allies have been successful to some extent in rolling back the terrorists,  there have been indications that these elements could possibly reemerge in other areas as well.

Terrorism has not diminished because the threat it poses is coupled with other security threats. Terrorism in and of itself does not exist within a vacuum. Standalone issues such as cyber threats, weapons proliferation and civil war can be used as a tactic or strategy for terrorist groups. It takes a whole-of-government approach to address these linked threats.  However, as seen in Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan and East Africa, due to the resources devoted to counter-terrorism efforts, the U.S. and her allies have been successful in addressing and mitigating terrorism with the back drop of other major security threats.  If and when the emphasis on combating terrorism decreases, it may be difficult in the long term to experience similar successes.

To be sure, al-Qaeda as a terrorist organization is very different from 12 years ago and there are many strikes against it.  However, making counter-terrorism efforts less of a priority assumes the risk of allowing terrorists to conduct more strategic and spectacular attacks. The current Syrian civil war is a prime example in which there are many elements that pose a threat to U.S. interests and allies in the region. As there has been a rise in opposition against the Bashir Assad regime, the opposition has been increasingly countered by outside support for the Assad regime, including by Iran and Hezbollah.  On the other hand, many, sources have indicated that the al- Jabhat al-Nusra Front, which is associated with the al-Qaeda elements in Iraq, are based within Syria and working with the opposition groups. Although it appears as though terrorism is a small portion of the current conflict, the terrorism element can no doubt create a complicated, longer-term issue.  It will likely prove to be difficult to decouple from not only the opposition but possibly from how the U.S. will work with a presumably new opposition-leaning government.

It is understandably necessary for our leaders in national security to differentiate the up-and-coming threats while also forming and implementing plans to mitigate these threats.  As the world continues to change and adapt, so do adversaries. However, the efforts and strides that were and are still being made in the fight against global terrorism should not be abandoned.


Stanli Montgomery is a Georgetown graduate and focuses on international security affairs in the Defense Department.  She is a regular contributor to the WIIS blog. Any opinions expressed in this article are her own.

Further Reading:
Foreign Affairs: Settling Syria, Why a Negotiated Peace is Possible – And Likely
Center for a New American Security: Light-Footprint: The Future of American Military Intervention