Quiet planning for post-Assad Syria has roots in 2008 ‘democracy promotion’ conference
By Maidhc Ó Cathail
The Passionate Attachment
July 22, 2012
The latest exclusive by Foreign Policy’s Josh Rogin is entitled “Inside the quiet effort to plan for a post-Assad Syria.” Two days ago, the reliable conduit for all the latest “democracy promotion” news blogged on The Cable:
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.”
Explaining the lack of direct government involvement, the USIP project leader — whose efforts to undermine Arab authoritarianism date at least from his previous employment at the pro-Israel Saban Center for Middle East Policy — told Rogin:
The absence of Obama administration officials at these meetings, even as observers, was deliberate.
“This is a situation where too visible a U.S. role would have been deeply counterproductive. It would have given the Assad regime and elements of the opposition an excuse to delegitimize the process,” Heydemann said.
The calculated decision to obscure Washington’s involvement in the regime change project is interesting in light of a report of a conference held at Stanford University’s Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law (CDDRL) in May 2008. Entitled “Reorganizing U.S. Government Democracy Promotion Efforts,” the report (.pdf) states:
The more democracy promotion is tied to the U.S. government, the more we are tying our own hands. We now have many U.S. government entities handling NGOs and it is increasingly becoming a more state centered democracy promotion scheme. It is important to create distance between U.S. foreign policy and democratic transitions in foreign countries because it does not look right to have the U.S. government telling civil society groups in foreign countries to rebel against or question their own governments. (emphasis added)
Among the 31 “leading scholars and policymakers” brought together “to consider what could be done to improve the United States government’s efforts to promote democracy abroad” (i.e., thinking up better ways to get foreigners to rebel against their governments), Heydemann’s USIP was represented by J. Alexander Thier.
Those who believe that Tel Aviv would be adverse to Washington’s democracy promotion efforts in the Middle East might be surprised to learn that those with a passionate attachment to the self-defined Jewish state were very well represented at the CDDRL conference, including, most notably, National Endowment for Democracy President Carl Gershman, who formerly worked in the “research department” of the Anti-Defamation League; National Democratic Institute for International Affairs President Ken Wollack, who from 1973 to 1980 served as legislative director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC); and J. Scott Carpenter, a fellow at the AIPAC-created Washington Institute for Near East Policy and director of its Project Fikra, which describes itself as an “online community that aims to generate ideas to support Arab democrats in their struggle with authoritarians and extremists.”
However, despite the substantial presence of Israel partisans in such revolutionary circles, Tel Aviv has been far more successful than Washington in creating distance between itself and its destabilization agenda (.pdf) for the region, obscured as it is behind the façade of American democracy promotion.
Maidhc Ó Cathail has written extensively on Israel’s key role in U.S. democracy promotion.