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.