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This interview (conducted on August 15, 2013) is the second in a series of discussions with American and international policymakers who have been involved with efforts to advance freedom and democracy. We continue the series with a three-part conversation with Elliott Abrams. This second part of the interview covers the conflict in Syria and models for a democratic transition.  You can read the first part, Leadership and Freedom, here


 FS: I was reading your recent testimony before the U.S. House Armed Services Committee and I was really drawn to some of the parallels you made between what compelled the Clinton Administration to act in Bosnia and what might compel action in Syria. Some have argued that the aftermath in Bosnia has been good because there’s no fighting. Others disagree, saying that the Bosnian system of governance is so dysfunctional that they can’t move forward under the current arrangement. What lessons have we learned from Bosnia that might be applied to the post-conflict environment in Syria?


Abrams: That’s very hard, in part because you can’t prove a negative. That is, it’s difficult to say “had we done this, the following things would be better. And had we failed to do that, things would be much worse.” One can make those arguments, but if people are really quite resistant to American activism, they aren’t going to buy it. My view of what happened there is that when the United States decided to take leadership in addressing what was a festering problem in the middle of Europe, the situation improved. Not overnight but clearly it improved with respect to the amount of violence and the amount of freedom over a reasonably short period, not decades, but over a period of years.


I want to go back and point out one other problem here. My memory is that when the Clinton Administration decided to intervene in the Balkans, it had a fair amount of Republican support. I think of people like Bob Dole. And one of the problems I think we face now is greater partisanship. We saw this during the Bush years and we see it during the Obama years. Some of the opposition to intervention anywhere, I fear, is opposition on the part of Republicans and conservatives who don’t want to do anything that President Obama wants to do. If he’s for it, we’re against it. Another way of putting it is, “I might like it if a Republican president did it, but I don’t trust this guy.” On one level this is all understandable. We have a two party system. The purpose of the opposition party is to oppose. But on another level, it can become quite dangerous quickly in that people are opposing potential or possible action for the wrong reason.


FS: And do you think that is happening now?


Abrams: I do think so. Some of the Republican opposition to possible greater American involvement in Syria is opposition to the Obama Administration, rather than to the proposed policy. To put it a different way, there are some things they might back if a Republican president were contemplating doing them. There’s a lot of blame to go around.


I first came to Washington, D.C. in 1975 to work for Scoop Jackson. That’s a long time ago. I have seen a much greater partisanship develop on foreign policy issues. If you go back to the 1970s, there was an enormous amount of partisanship and of course we have a competitive two party system. But it wasn’t quite as partisan as it is today. Even on issues where there were strong differences, it very often broke down along ideological rather than party lines, and that in a certain way made it easier because it meant there were bipartisan agreements possible. You could work across the aisle. There was a sense that politics stopped at the water’s edge. I think that began to disappear really in the 1980s and is pretty well gone at this point.


FS: Let me ask you a hypothetical: assuming Assad falls, what should the United States government do the day after he falls? In your opinion, what kind of policies and what kind of programs should be put into place in order to help them reconstruct and build a new, and we hope democratic, government?


Abrams: That’s going to be very, very hard. First, the United States has played a minimal role, and whether that’s right or wrong, whether that’s good policy or bad, it does mean we won’t be in a good position to exercise influence the day that Assad falls. The people who will be in charge there, from the rebel side, will not feel that they owe their victory to us. So that means minimal U.S. influence. I would hope that what we would be doing now is beginning to talk about potential economic assistance to a new Syria from the World Bank, the IMF, the Gulf oil exporters, the EU, U.S., Japan, and making assistance contingent on certain political and human rights steps. For example, the protection of minorities. And the establishment of a pathway to civilian democratic government and respect for human rights. I’m not suggesting that will happen overnight, but I am suggesting that there needs to be a pathway forward for it that’s developed pretty quickly. I think we have enough influence with all of those governmental groups (the EU, the Gulf countries, and so forth) for us to try and organize that. I think we should also think about trying to organize a UN force that would be present in post-Assad Syria. Having UN observers on the ground in that region has proved to be effective, sometimes anyway, at keeping the peace. It has not helped to stop Hezbollah, but there’s a force that has kept the Israelis and Syrians apart (UNDOF), and there’s the Sinai observer force (MFO) in the Sinai. So there’s experience having international forces on the ground, and I don’t think it’s too soon for us to be talking to people about establishing such a force. Otherwise, you may see that after the fall of the regime the killing continues or even grows.


FS: This begs two questions: Will the Lebanon model of governance be the most natural goal, particularly of the minority communities in Syria.  And how are the strains of Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian civil war going to affect the domestic politics of Lebanon? Obviously it’s very unpopular in Lebanon to have Hezbollah fighters dying on behalf of the Iranian regime and Assad.


Abrams: Well on the second question, the involvement of Hezbollah in the Syrian war has already made politics in Lebanon more divisive. It has made it more difficult to put together a government. And the war in Syria itself has brought violence to Lebanon. Part of what’s happening in Syria, obviously, is a Sunni-Shia conflict and that’s been brought into Lebanon where you’ve seen killings and bombings and terrorist attacks. And you’ll probably see more of them. When you talk about the model of governance in Lebanon, do you mean the mathematical representation for different groups?


FS: That and the division of senior government positions between the various sectarian groups.


Abrams: Syria is different in that it is 70-75% Sunni. There is one very large majority group and much smaller minorities. In Lebanon you have several sizable groups. The question comes down to, first of all, whether a Sunni led regime, and it will certainly be a Sunni led regime, respects the rights of non-Sunnis in the smaller minorities, in particular the Druze and Christians. The harder question will be the relationship between the Sunnis and the Alawites. That is going to be really tough. There is so much violence. So much blood has flowed. There is so much of a desire for revenge already, and of course the war isn’t over. Giving people lectures about co-existence will not have a large effect. So, I don’t think you’ll end up with constitutional provisions that say a prime minister must always be an Alawite or something like that. Because this three quarters Sunni country is not going to agree to that. I think the Sunnis will say “Why? Why can’t we have a Sunni prime minister and a Sunni President? We’re tired of the Alawites ruling our country.” And I think this question of protection of the rights of Alawites is going to be one of the most difficult ones a future government of Syria faces.


Elliott Abrams is senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) in Washington, D.C. He served as deputy assistant to the president and deputy national security adviser in the administration of President George W. Bush, where he supervised U.S. policy in the Middle East for the White House.