Atlantic Council
March 08, 2013
Syria's descent into state failure now seems unchecked and inevitable. Nearly two years of turmoil have produced over a million refugees, with at least two million more internally displaced. Fighting rages on between a family-based regime willing to destroy the country rather than yield power, and a disjointed opposition whose fragmentation makes victory and defeat equally difficult. The regime of Bashar al-Assad is in full terror mode, pumping everything from mortar shells to Scud missiles into residential neighborhoods, with scant regard for where things land. And some who oppose the regime—a minority, though a high-profile one—answer terror with terror.

Until now, the policy prescription offered by the West to stop the bleeding and stabilize the patient has been one of peaceful, negotiated political transition from rule by the Assad family to a modern, representative government and rule of law. Last June in Geneva, under the chairmanship of Kofi Annan, the United States, Russia, Britain, China, and France agreed on a basic formula to ease the family out and usher in a real government. Negotiators from the Syrian opposition and the existing government would create, on the basis of mutual consent, a unity government with full executive powers. Stripped of all political power, including command of the armed forces, former President Bashar al-Assad would then be free to stay in Syria to sample transitional justice, or leave the country for exile.

Assad rejected the formula. Kofi Annan resigned. Russia backtracked and today argues that the transfer of full executive power applies to the Syrian cabinet (which has no power), but not to the Syrian president (who has it all). The leader of the Syrian opposition, Shaykh Moaz al-Khatib, has offered to begin transition talks, but Assad has reacted with cold contempt. Still the West, with the United States and United Kingdom in the lead, upholds peaceful, negotiated political transition as the policy goal.

As laudatory as the goal may be as an aspiration for a diplomatic alternative to continued bloodshed, it has hit a brick wall. Assad, by all accounts, rejects it totally. Weighing the extent of the on-the-ground combat support he gets from Iran and Hezbollah against western fears of further militarization (and the collapse of public institutions like that in Iraq in 2003), Assad calculates he can prevail. Russia, seeing Iran's single-minded determination to win in Syria, throws sand in the gears of the already stalled Geneva process in the hope of sharing in Iran's forthcoming proxy war victory.

Secretary of State John Kerry wants to change Assad's calculation. He wants to find ways to make a negotiated departure appealing to the dictator. He has opened up a direct relationship with the armed Syrian opposition, offering halal rations and medical kits: the implication being that other forms of assistance may be forthcoming. He has not tried to dissuade others from providing arms to the opposition. He has welcomed Britain's announcement of armored vehicles and other non-lethal assistance, and he has not given up on Russian influence being a potential game-changer. Kerry has now completed his visit to the region. He will report his findings and recommendations to President Obama, making a case perhaps for greater US involvement. His task may not be easy.

Syria is not the ground on which the president wishes to battle Iran. Syria, to the president, is a beckoning morass: an Iraq-in-waiting. Syria is a place where the United States has decried regime brutality, called on Assad to step aside, offered training and material assistance to the unarmed opposition, organized effective international sanctions, and shown real generosity by committing real resources to address the burgeoning humanitarian catastrophe. Syria, in the president's mind, is the farthest thing imaginable from a proxy war. It is a hemorrhaging wound crying out for a diplomatic tourniquet. The last thing Syria needs, in the view of President Obama, is more weaponry.

If only the criminals at the base of this abomination had the decency and humanity of Barack Obama. Yet they do not. The mild-mannered Bashar al-Assad averts his glance from the murder, rape, torture and terror he has carelessly, but quite deliberately, unleashed on his own people. The Iranians need Syria for one thing: Hezbollah, the point of their spear into the heart of the Arab world. The master of Hezbollah will fight to keep his Syrian ally in business, no matter the human cost. The Kremlin takes heart in the hope that the world will see the US-led West as impotent, not wishing to further militarize a situation where arms and money flow easily to those who glory in the shedding of innocent blood and intermittently (at best) to those who resist with decency and honor.

Kerry's offer of help to those bearing arms in resistance to the regime should not be discounted. Food and medical kits are important. Are these provisions ready to move? If there is real seriousness they will move very quickly. Will they be enough? No. Even the supplying of arms to well-vetted rebel elements, delivered in ways designed to promote organizational unity, political moderation, and end-use accountability, will not be enough.

A policy paradigm shift is needed if the United States is truly committed to changing Assad's calculation. It will also be needed to counter the growing impression that the United States, burned in Iraq and stretched in Afghanistan, will bear no burden and fight no foe when it comes to Syria. Boots on the ground and even manned aircraft in the airspace are not on the table, but the United States can and should help foster an alternate Syrian government on the ground in liberated parts of Syria. That government should be recognized by the United States and all of the Friends of the Syrian People Group. It should be given the resources it will need to govern. NATO and regional powers should assist in its defense. Would a no fly zone really require an extended bombing campaign to neutralize air defenses when stand-off systems can kill, on the ground, much that flies? Might Assad's calculation be affected if key regime command facilities begin to disappear? Ideally these steps will not be necessary. Ideally Assad's calculation will change without them. Yet the West may, in the end, have to be as bloody-minded in trying to end the Assad-Iranian terror spree as the regime and its supporters have been in facilitating it.

There is nothing wrong with wanting a peaceful, negotiated political transition. Yet it is a cul-de-sac when only one party wants it. As the bodies pile higher while terrified, traumatized children go homeless and flee for safety with their parents, one must ask how long the United States can stay on its present policy course. Those who argue that you can't lose a proxy war you don't fight will, in the fullness of time, be proven wrong. Yet even if they are right, is there nothing to be said for using some of the tools at our disposal to neutralize those whose sense of invulnerability emboldens their savagery? Syria can be saved when self-doubt in the West gives way to something more worthy.

Frederic C. Hof is a senior fellow of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council and the former special advisor for transition in Syria at the US Department of State.

RELATED CONTENT