Syria: Back To Basics

In his 2014 Munich Security Conference remarks, Henry Kissinger commented that democracies must, in foreign policy, articulate clear objectives within parameters that the public can support. In the specific case of Syria, said Kissinger, the objective has to be about more than the removal of a person. Ideally the Obama administration used the pause offered by Geneva II to reassess its options, perhaps in the context of Kissingerian basics.

What is it the United States would want ultimately to emerge from the Syrian crisis? Washington would like someday to see a Syria predisposed to cooperate with the United States and its allies in the Middle East and beyond. This means a Syria partaking fully in comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace (which entails, among other things, a longstanding Syrian territorial demand), partnering with the civilized world against the scourge of international terrorism, and working closely with neighbors to frustrate the hegemonic goals of outsiders. It does not necessarily mean a formal alliance and it certainly does not mean subordinating Syria to the United States. It means a stable relationship between parties sharing basic values and perspectives, if not identical views on every issue.

In trying to establish a value-based, cooperative relationship, it will matter to Washington how Syria is governed. This is not a matter of demanding or imposing democracy. At times it was possible to do transactions with the Assad regime. Yet a relationship of trust and confidence was never possible. The regime, existing as it did on the basis of violent internal repression, was not confident enough in its own legitimacy to trust anyone—not even other family members or senior functionaries. This is why the achievement of the US objective—a Syria predisposed to cooperate with Washington in the region and beyond—depends on legitimate Syrian governance.

This is why Dr. Kissinger is right. The US objective vis-a-vis Syria cannot be just about the removal of Bashar al-Assad and his regime. To be sure, the removal of the regime would be an essential part of a strategy aimed at achieving the objective. The companion piece of such a strategy would be to encourage, inside Syria, a political transition process aiming for legitimacy. In the twenty-first century political legitimacy stems from one source: governments deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. This means rule of law: law applying equally to governors and the governed; to all citizens, regardless of sect, ethnicity, gender, or any other categorization used politically to elevate, denigrate, or discriminate.

None of this is to imply nation-building or US unilateralism. This is about the Syria Washington would like to see emerge from the ashes: a country capable of sustained cooperation with the United States because it has a internal system of governance based on the consent of the governed; a system whose legitimacy-inspired stability enables political leaders to rise above routine, case-by-case, what’s-in-it-for-me-and-my-clique/family transactionalism.

To meet the Henry Kissinger standard for Syria, however, the objectives of the United States have to be articulated in ways that US citizens can identify as relevant to current events. Yes, the president should refer to the long-term goal, which obviously entails supporting Syrians who wish to replace Assad with something civilized: with a system reflecting nonsectarian consent of the governed. Yet before anything positive can transpire in Syria, the mass murder must stop. Although many Americans will yawn in response to a recitation of national security objectives, they are acutely aware of the fact that profoundly bad things are happening in and around Syria.

Well over 130,000 people have been killed. Countless others have been traumatized, both physically and emotionally. Tens of thousands are incarcerated, and many of those are being tortured. Some 2.5 million have fled Syria as refugees, and over 6.5 million people have been driven from their homes but remain inside Syria. The Syrian regime is mercilessly bombing, shelling, and rocketing residential areas where rebel fighters operate: activities described as war crimes and crimes against humanity by independent observers. Al-Qaeda affiliates have taken advantage of the regime’s brutality to set up shop in parts of eastern Syria, perhaps even with the connivance of the regime and its main ally, Iran. Even though there are no celebrities who have taken up the cause of Syrian children or other innocent Syrian victims, most Americans are aware that bad things are taking place. The regime’s deadly chemical attack on defenseless civilians in August 2013 was the lead news story in the United States for over two weeks.

Americans are not indifferent to mass murder in faraway places. Yet most do not see slaughter in Syria as a problem for the United States to solve. Most Americans are, quite understandably, focused on their own problems. The theme of minding one’s own business is wide and even deep. It is the default position of the US public. Samantha Power’s landmark study of similar episodes of mass murder in faraway places in the twentieth century comes to one powerful conclusion: unless the President of the United States takes the lead in explaining to the public why it is important that the United States interfere, and what form that interference will take, nothing will happen. To date President Barack Obama has sounded an uncertain trumpet. Even when he has sounded the charge—Assad should step aside, Assad must not cross the chemical red-line—he has not led it.

The key variable now is whether or not President Obama sees important US interests being engaged by the regime’s wholesale targeting of residential areas; interests important enough to merit a policy that would feature military strikes if the war crimes and crimes against humanity do not stop quickly. Although there are those who advocate robust measures (sometimes including military) in response to all such incidents of mass murder, President Obama is very much in the pick and choose school, using US national security interests as the tie-breaker.

In the case of Syria he has elected, thus far, to offer increasing levels of monetary assistance to friends and allies being inundated by refugees and (in the case of Lebanon) being dragged into internal chaos by the spillover from Syria. Only in the wake of the August 2013 chemical atrocity did he consider, albeit reluctantly, the use of life-saving, punitive strikes from the air that would have eliminated large parts of the regime’s lethal delivery mechanisms. In the end he backed down, stunning and angering allies and friends of the United States while demoralizing those Syrians bearing the brunt of regime savagery. He settled for a chemical weapons agreement; one that would oblige the murderer only to surrender the kind of weapon used in one specific killing. When the killer resumed his spree using other weapons, the president called for a peace conference.

Yet what if the president were to change his mind? What if the first ten days of the Geneva peace conference were enough to convince him that the Assad regime has no interest in stopping the killing or stepping aside in favor of a consensus transitional governing body? What if he were convinced that neither Iran nor Russia would force the regime to cease the war crimes and crimes against humanity? How would he articulate clear objectives within appropriate parameters? How would he convince Americans of the importance of taking action?

No doubt his case would center, as it did in August 2013, on the sheer horror of what is unfolding in Syria; on the special brand of human evil that produces, regardless of the precise motivations of the perpetrators, genocidal effects. The president would point out that he and his predecessors pledged that never again would the world stand idly by in the face of such an outrage.

The president would then make the point that the United States can do things to mitigate the catastrophe, things that can be done without committing the United States to an open-ended conflict. To make this case will require a presidential change of mind. Yes, he argued for limited strikes in August 2013. Yet he recently told The New Yorker that nothing short of an Iraq-style invasion or occupation of Syria would make much of a difference militarily. Maybe this is why he dropped the credible threat of military force so quickly: perhaps he never believed in it. If, however, he concludes that the horror that is Syria and the dolorous effects it is having on allies and the friends in the region can no longer be tolerated, he will have to revise his reading of reality.

In essence, the president would maintain that much of the weaponry being used to slaughter civilians in wholesale batches—aircraft, artillery, rockets, and missiles—could be destroyed in an aerial campaign (accomplished in significant part by unmanned, stand-off systems) lasting perhaps ten days. The military mission would focus exclusively on the destruction of weaponry and supporting infrastructure. There would be no invasion, no occupation, and no air support for Syrian opposition fighters. Although there might be considerable resentment generated toward the ruling clan by its supporters because of its breathtaking underestimation of the United States, a regime shorn of aerial and indirect fire assets might yet survive. The military mission, however, would center on saving lives; not regime change. Other effects—a changed regime calculation toward peace talks, downfall of the regime itself—might well occur, but should not be counted on or promised.

Yet beyond the near-term saving of lives, the president would want to cite the longer term objectives of removing the Assad clan from power, holding its principal officers accountable for war crimes and crimes against humanity and, in concert with allies and friends, helping Syrians establish a national unity government that could restore order and pave the way for reform, reconciliation, and reconstruction. This would take time. But the process would begin with the Department of Defense, working in countries bordering Syria, training, arming, and equipping nationalist forces capable of fighting on two fronts: against the regime, and against jihadist extremists whose presence in Syria is essential to the regime objective of eliminating a centrist, nationalist opposition.

The president would, in short, want to make it clear that Syrians alone are responsible for ousting the Assad clan, expelling foreign forces, and eliminating the al-Qaeda presence. But they can count on the support of a great many nations, led by the United States.

Naturally, all of this would have to be preceded by intense diplomacy with Iran and Russia, trying to persuade Bashar al-Assad’s enablers to pressure him into stopping the mass murder and permitting full United Nations humanitarian access to all of Syria. Obviously, there would have to be extensive consultations with the Congress and with allies. And naturally the American people will decide for themselves whether President Obama, in the end, accomplished the Henry Kissinger goal of successfully articulating foreign policy objectives within appropriate parameters. Needless to say, the president will be most persuasive if he believes what he is saying. Fortunately, if he tells the country that invasion, occupation, and the slippery slope can be avoided entirely by a narrow military mission of limited duration that will save lives while helping our allies and friends, he will be telling the truth.

Frederic C. Hof is a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

Related Experts: Frederic C. Hof

Image: US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov flank United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and U.N. Special Representative for Syria Lakhdar Brahimi before a trilateral meeting on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference in Germany on January 31, 2014. (Photo: US State Department)