The collapse of the Geneva II negotiations seems to have inspired a reassessment of Syria policy within the Obama administration. The Assad regime challenges vital US interests in at least two respects: as a magnet for al-Qaeda and other transnational terrorists; and as a perpetrator of war crimes and crimes against humanity producing tsunami-like effects on allies and friends in the region. Iranian and Russian military support for the Assad regime has made peaceful, negotiated political transition impossible for the foreseeable future: together with the Assad regime, Tehran and Moscow seek a military solution to the Syrian crisis. The choice for Washington and its allies is either to accede to that solution or frustrate it by working toward an outcome for Syria reflecting the ultimate triumph of citizenship over sectarianism.
Early indications suggest that the Obama administration is leaning in the direction of frustrating the Iran-Russia-regime drive for a military victory. There are reports of renewed administration interest in significant lethal assistance being vectored toward non-jihadist opposition units, an activity whose success would require the active support of Saudi Arabia and others: topic number one of any Syria-related approach of Washington to Riyadh and other Gulf capitals. The interest of the Kingdom and others in a sectarian political outcome for Syria has been a gift of enduring value to the Assad regime. Those in the Gulf region who want a more assertive US policy toward Syria must accede to—in operationally meaningful ways—Washington’s view that political transition in Syria must uphold the full citizenship rights of all Syrians, according neither privilege nor penalty to anyone on the bases of sect, ethnicity, or gender.
Taking a leadership role in the struggle for Syria is not easy for the Obama administration. Syria’s future, for better or worse, is being determined by men with weapons. Even those who sincerely believe there is no military solution to Syria’s travails must take into account the fact that neither is there a diplomatic solution to this crisis without a credible military component. This might not be the case were the Assad regime something other than a stay-in-power-at-any-price criminal enterprise. A military component might be superfluous were Iran not committed to the political survival of a corrupt clan willing to do its bidding with respect to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Diplomacy with no military dimension might be possible were Russia willing to abide by what it signed in Geneva in June 2012. Yet all of this make the hunt for a purely pacific diplomatic outcome futile. Still, some in the administration find themselves trapped in a policy cul-de-sac created last September; one that has seemingly made the resurrection of a credible, diplomacy-enabling military component dependent on a miracle.
The trap seen by some is composed of three parts: President Barack Obama’s referral of potential military strikes to Congress; Congress’ negativity toward the proposition, reflecting as it did public disapproval of military intervention in Syria; and the president’s subsequent surrender of the military strike option in return for a chemical weapons agreement. This three-part cul-de-sac has some very smart officials totally perplexed. There is, after all, no such thing as a new, improved Geneva II. Negotiations will always reflect facts on the ground, a truism illustrated by regime efforts to go after the relatives and the property of the opposition’s Geneva delegation.
Part of the way out is to do what is reportedly being initiated: couple enhanced lethal assistance to Syrian rebels with the binding of regional governments to a civilized definition of Syria’s ultimate political end-state. At best, however, success along these lines will be a holding action. Yes, vulnerable Syrian populations being subjected to regime and jihadist depredations deserve a measure of protection. Yet it will take time, and plenty of it, to compensate for sins of commission and omission with respect to arming Syrian rebels and enabling nationalist forces to operate effectively against the regime and its jihadist enablers. Even if rebels were to acquire the means to bring down regime helicopters armed with barrel bombs, vulnerable populations would still be subject to mortar, artillery, rocket, and missile strikes.
Thus mass murder through indirect fire would likely persist even if regime air assets found it hard to operate with impunity. This presents the administration with a difficult choice: permit the safe-distance slaughter of civilians to continue unabated, at least until the chemical weapons agreement is totally implemented; or seek a follow-on UN Security Council resolution mandating the regime’s compliance with UN Security Council Resolution 2139, one whose inevitable veto by Russia and China could be followed by strikes from the air on regime artillery, aircraft, rockets, missiles, and associated support infrastructure.
Putting the chemical weapons agreement first would preserve the possibility of a significant arms control achievement. Yet the US representative to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has, very forthrightly, detailed the regime’s failure to perform in accordance with the agreement’s terms. Although one may safely assume that the regime would cancel its compliance altogether in the wake of strikes neutralizing its ability to inflict mass terror, the administration must calculate also the political and moral costs of being held at bay militarily as a humanitarian abomination persists and grows. Surely Iran and Russia should be given fair warning and a chance to get their client out of his principal criminal enterprise before strikes commence. Indeed, Iran should be engaged by the United States now to explore steps Tehran might take to terminate Assad regime war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Even a limited, humanitarian intervention would be a holding action. Crippling the ability of a lawless clan to inflict mass murder effortlessly will not necessarily remove that clan from power. And, if he chooses this option, President Obama would have to make clear to all the limited, humanitarian nature of the military mission, the inadmissibility of US boots on the ground, and his strong disinclination to involve the United States militarily beyond the saving of innocent lives and the arming, training, and equipping of the nationalist opposition. Yet even if strikes succeed in removing the regime’s tools of mass murder, the regime itself—borne aloft by foreign fighters courtesy of Iran—would likely stay in place. Strikes could save thousands of lives. They would not, however, solve Syria.
Although a military component is essential to successful diplomacy in the case of Syria, it will not suffice if the objective is to bring about complete, inclusive political transition in Syria. Exiting the policy cul-de-sac created by the events of August-September 2013 will also require that the United States and its partners get serious about governance inside Syria.
For all of 2013, the Obama administration clung to the view that a Geneva II negotiation must, by definition, involve a government delegation and an opposition delegation, as opposed to a regime delegation and a delegation representing an alternate government recognized by the United States and other Friends of the Syrian People. The opposition of the administration to the creation of an alternate government inside Syria rendered hollow and meaningless the December 2012 recognition of the Syrian National Coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people. Worse, when combined with the failure to arm, train, and equip Syrian nationalist forces adequately, administration opposition to an alternate government helped to create a vacuum filled by al-Qaeda and other jihadists.
The Syrian National Coalition still enjoys the external conferring of legitimacy, but without an internal Syrian component. Now that the illusion of regime cooperation with Geneva-style political transition has vanished, the enabling of competent governance in areas beyond the regime’s control can be approached systematically and with a sense of mission. As suggested by a recent Policy Brief (“Zooming in on Syria: Adapting to Local Realities“) produced by the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center, enabling civilized governance in liberated areas will require a bottom-up effort protected by top-down security. The Syrian National Coalition and the Istanbul-based interim government can, with the assistance of the United States and its partners, play vital roles in binding together a wide variety of local actors. Yet this plan will require a major commitment of effort and resources by the Friends of the Syrian people. Still, if an escape from the policy cul-de-sac is sought, filling the governance vacuum of non-regime Syria can build security, marginalize and eventually banish al-Qaeda terrorists, and provide the long-awaited alternative to the Assad-Makhluf clan. If the regime ever decides to negotiate the terms of political transition, it will have a legitimate counterpart with which to negotiate.
Nothing in the foregoing is a silver bullet or a magic potion. The full emergence of 23 million Syrians from the nightmare of criminal clan rule will be the work of decades. As the Obama administration seeks an exit from a policy cul-de-sac it entered in the hope of accomplishing something important, it would do well to focus on defining its objectives and then binding regional powers to their accomplishment. Yes, if the mass murder continues unabated there may be no moral and political alternative to military strikes designed to stop it, and there is no alternative to the United States in this regard. Yet if Washington can convince others of its seriousness, it may find helping hands willing to do some heavy lifting.
Frederic C. Hof is a resident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.