Atlantic Council
February 19, 2013
What is it that the United States wants to accomplish in Syria?  What should be done to achieve it?

These are simple questions. Yet there are no simple answers. What we want and how to get it are contentious issues. Yet when it comes to matters of national security there are few governmental processes more important than defining an objective and setting a strategy to achieve it, nearly always in the form of a document such as a national security decision memorandum. Whether the issue pertains to specific countries (Syria, North Korea, Iran) or cross-cutting topics (international terrorism, non-proliferation), the beginning of wisdom is to know what one wants and how to get it.

What, in the end, do we want of Syria? A Syria fundamentally inclined to cooperate with the United States in the region and beyond: that is the objective. How, then, do we get from where we are now to where we want to be, understanding in advance that even a rigorous, disciplined and systematic application of American leadership in the context of a realistic, goal-oriented strategy may not, in the end, succeed?

For many decades the Washington-Damascus relationship has been one of deep mutual suspicion, punctuated by brief moments of cooperation and much longer periods of strong contention. The default position of each side has been to see the other, at any given time, on a scale ranging from deeply problematical to outright hostile. Now, thanks to the carelessly violent reaction of a corrupt, family-based regime to protests over police brutality in populations already deeply aggrieved by economic stagnation and incompetent, callous governance, Syria is committing national suicide via a destructive, increasingly sectarian civil war. What, in the end, do we as Americans want of this possibly moribund state?

Obviously we want Syria to pull out of its death spiral. Yet is that enough? Would it be acceptable to us if the Assad regime were somehow able to murder, torture, and terrorize its way back to total power, making Syria quiet again?  Would we celebrate the restoration of stability under the auspices of sectarian primitives who imagine or merely claim they can channel the contemporary political, social, and economic wishes of God Almighty?  Either result would be abominable for 22.5 million Syrians and their neighbors. Neither result would be satisfactory for the United States.

What we want now is what we have always wanted of Syria but have never been able to achieve: a country fundamentally inclined to cooperate with the United States in the region and beyond. Fundamental cooperation is not necessarily an alliance. It has nothing to do with patron and client. It has everything to do with shared values. It means a minimum of mutual suspicion and a basic agreement on the big things. It means mutual respect and a sense of equality. From the US perspective seven things would have to happen for this objective to be achieved.

The first two conditions for meeting the goal are the most important: the Assad regime (family and senior enablers) must be removed, root and branch. Its replacement, in the form of a legitimate government with jurisdiction over the entire country, must reflect a Syria of citizenship, civil society, rule of (nonsectarian) law and government (including empowered local jurisdictions) deriving power to govern from the consent of the governed. Yes, it is possible that the sectarian survival strategy of the regime could produce post-Assad sectarian governance. No, the United States cannot have a relationship of fundamental cooperation with such a regime in a multi-confessional society such as Syria. A Syria ruled by a sectarian regime, should not induce the United States to lift economic sanctions or encourage trade, aid, and investment. The United States simply cannot endorse the replacement of one form of tyranny with another.

Replacement of corrupt, incompetent, and brutal family rule with something reflecting modernity and decency would make possible elements three through seven of fundamental bilateral cooperation from the US standpoint: a Syria that terminates all military, intelligence, and terror relationships with Iran and Hezbollah; a Syria that rejects terror as a state instrument and tolerates no terrorists on its territory; a Syria that supports comprehensive Middle East peace and commits itself to the peaceful, diplomatic pursuit and resolution of its claims on Israel; a Syria that respects the territorial integrity and independence of each of its neighbors; and a Syria favorably disposed toward ridding itself of weapons of mass destruction.  

No doubt, Syria will want things of the United States in return. Yet from a US perspective the seven characteristics listed above would be the foundation of a Syria fundamentally inclined to cooperate with the United States in the region and beyond. Although it stretches one's imagination to the breaking point under current conditions, Syria as a regional exemplar of decent, non-sectarian governance is by no means inconsistent with the impressive human capital resident in the Syrian population. Indeed, such governance could persuade Syria's best and brightest (who rank high in the world's best and brightest) to stay home and build a country others in the region would envy and copy, instead of searching for dignity, security, and opportunity in places like Canada, France, Australia, and the United States.

A sequel to this edition of Viewpoint will outline major components of a strategy aiming to achieve the objective.

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