“Behavior Change” in Western Media and Think Tanks
Reem Issa Reem Issa

“Behavior Change” in Western Media and Think Tanks

While many political commentators describe US policy in Syria to be “somewhat mysterious”, at least based on what is publicly stated, the only constant over the last few years is one phrase that has been frequently repeated, and more so lately: “regime behavior change”.

Although neither the current US administration nor its predecessor has actually explained what “behavior change” means, it might be useful to look at what media outlets and think tanks, particularly Western, say about the matter, as well as official US sources.

Washington and US officials started using this expression increasingly since the beginning of 2019. Specifically, in mid-December 2018, during an event at the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank, in which James Jeffrey, the former US special envoy to Syria participated, he said: “any policy that focuses on the situation in Syria, cannot simply focus on the internal conflict”. He then went on to list the US's three goals in Syria, including: “the 2254 UN process, ... and that requires a changed regime in Damascus that doesn’t drive half its population away”. He then added: “we want to see a regime that is fundamentally different. It’s not regime change. We’re not trying to get rid of Assad, we just want to see a regime that does not produce the kind of horrors that we have seen.... We’re not asking for regime change; we’re not asking the Russians to leave”. At the time, this caught the attention of many who are following the Syrian file, as the US began thereafter to increasingly use the expression “change the behavior” of the regime.

The media and thinks tanks say…

Last October, Carnegie conducted an interview with Joe Macaron, a researcher specialized in the region and US policy, who said among other things: “there is currently a U.S. return to the mantra of changing Assad’s behavior, which signals Washington’s expectation that Russia should pressure Assad to make concessions to resolve the Syrian conflict. Assad’s future largely depends on this U.S.-Russian attempt at making a deal.” Interestingly, Macaron focused a great deal on the Arab regimes’ increasing engagement with the regime, citing the “Arab” gas pipeline as an example. He also noted that “there has been clear US fatigue with the Middle East” and that “the establishment in Washington is eager to shift resources from the region to counter China and Russia”.

Earlier in October, Foreign Policy published an article by another Syria “expert”, Charles Lister, on US policy in Syria, who started by saying “the world is gradually accepting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad back into the fold.” He later notes that “US President Joe Biden’s administration has also adopted a largely hands-off approach to Syria”, and “although the Biden administration itself may not be welcoming Assad back into the fold with open arms, it has clearly left open the door for others to do so”.

Lister cited the US’s declared “demand for a behavioral change on the part of Syria’s regime (as opposed to regime change) as a condition for diplomatic reengagement or economic reconstruction.” He then reviews steps taken by Arab regimes, such as the UAE and Jordan, tying the latter with Jordanian King Abdullah’s visit to Washington last July, who (according to Lister) had said that “If you really want to see behavioral change from Assad’s regime…, then we must define what that means and begin a ‘step-for-step’ process of tests and confidence-building measures with the regime to ascertain its willingness to act constructively.”

Lister also lists several steps by Arab regimes that went unopposed by the US, with great emphasis on the “Arab” gas pipeline, and noted that “Washington’s willingness to oppose or block its regional allies’ from [normalizing or upgrading diplomatic relations with the regime] is clearly waning.” He then concludes that the Biden administration’s approach to Syria is “disliking but refusing to prevent and, at times, facilitating the normalizing of Assad”, which he says “appears to be part of a wider philosophy of what I call ‘delegated stabilization’ toward the Middle East”.

An article in the Atlantic Council in October also looked at the latest moves by Arab regimes, with special focus on the Jordanian role. The author noted that “it’s clear a new regional dynamic – the US withdrawal from the Middle East – is pushing Jordan and other countries in the region to be more pragmatic in securing interests and promoting regional stability.”

A Newsweek article practically says the same thing, using much of the same examples as well as talking about stability of the region, with the US “not dissuading Arab partners” from taking steps to “normalize relations with Assad”. This includes, according to David Schenker, who served as assistance State Department Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs until early this year, not fully enforcing “Caesar Act sanctions, [which] if applied, may prevent Arab states from resuming ‘normal’ relations, including trade, with Syria.”

Preliminary conclusions…

The above are just a few examples of what media outlets and think tanks have said about “behavior change”, which hardly reveals anything of the truth of the matter. In fact, it seems that nearly all these media outlets and think tanks agree that there are some actions taking place, by Arab regimes towards the regime, with no resistance from the US, despite having the diplomatic and economic tools to do so. They also seem to not see anything by the regime in return, that is, no “concessions” or anything that could be perceived as the “price” for getting all that, let alone actual behavior change. Some observed that while both the Biden and Trump administrations have talked about behavior change, and in fact made it the official requirement for the regime, neither has ever provided even in the slightest any indication of what that entails.

Some talked about understanding behavior change to include such steps as releasing of detainees, creating the proper conditions for safe return of the displaced, and taking steps to fulfilling commitments relating to chemical weapon, among other things.

Looking at the matter from a different angle, perhaps the “behavior change” is not something that the US (or the West at large) is looking to get from the regime itself. That is, the price that US is getting for “allowing” Arab regimes to “normalize” with the regime and not applying the Caesar Act for certain things like the “Arab” gas pipeline, might be something that the US is not getting from the regime itself, but from the Arab regimes, the main aspect of which is “regional stability”, from a US perspective, of course.

Looking at the steps that some perceived as possible indicators of behavior change, they are consistent with the conditions enumerated in the Caesar Act under the section relating to “Suspension of Sanctions”. While we believe that the Caesar Act might be the right place to look for what constitutes behavior change, we think that the correct section is actually “statement of policy”, particularly that about Syria having “peaceful co-existence with its neighbors”.

In other words, this is part of the regional “stability” that the US is hoping to achieve using all the tools it possesses, and it is also becoming clearer that the Caesar Act was not meant to only be used against Syria, but as a bargaining tool to get others in the region to get something (e.g., not being subject to sanctions according to the Caesar Act) in return for also “peacefully co-existing” with certain “neighbors”, specifically with the Zionist entity.

Side but relevant note…

When it comes to the US and “behavior change” in Syria, while the phrase is used publicly with regards to the regime, it is not the only party with which the US uses the policy. As noted above, it is clear that for the US, behavior change has nothing to do with how the authority treats the people living under its control, but only with what serves US policy. We can draw a comparison with the way the US has dealt with al-Nusra and al-Jolani, and the infamous statement by Jeffrey on January 30, 2020: “We [the United States] recognize that there are terrorists in Idlib. There’s also a very large group, the al-Nusra or Hayat Tahrir al-Sham group, HTS, that is an al-Qaida offshoot. It is considered a terrorist organization…. It itself claims – we haven’t accepted that claim yet, but they do claim to be patriotic opposition fighters, not terrorists. We have not seen them generate, for example, international threats for some time.” Thus, in the case of al-Nusra too, all that is needed is “behavior change”, which in one aspect of it is to not be an “international threat”, regardless of what it is doing on the ground.

(Arabic Version)

Last modified on Tuesday, 30 November 2021 17:12
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