The objective of US policy for Syria should be a Syria fundamentally inclined to cooperate with the United States in the region and beyond, as discussed in a previous commentary. Achieving this objective would involve seven conditions: elimination of the Assad regime; its replacement by a non-sectarian government of citizenship and civil society, one governing the entire country; a total break with the nefarious practices of Iran and Hezbollah; a complete end to terrorism as a tool of state; commitment to comprehensive Middle East peace and nonviolence in the pursuit of Syrian objectives; respect for the independence and territorial integrity of all neighbors; and openness to ridding Syria of weapons of mass destruction.

Summarizing a strategy: How can these objectives be realized?  The Syrian crisis is not one that can be handled well in the seat-of-the-pants mode, relying on reactive measures and public affairs messaging to compensate for the absence of disciplined execution. A detailed strategy, perhaps in the form of a national security decision memorandum, should begin with a brief summary along the following lines:

The United States will lead a coalition of allies and other partners to implement steps assisting Syria’s mainstream opposition in terminating the Assad regime and replacing it with a stable, non-sectarian government able (with international assistance) to impose order, protect minorities, facilitate humanitarian assistance, restore essential services, and set Syria on a path toward reform and rule of law. While the national security objective includes nullifying the influence of Iran and Hezbollah in Syria, ending terror as a tool of the Syrian state, securing Syrian support for comprehensive Middle East peace, ensuring Syrian support for the independence and territorial integrity of all neighbors, and persuading Syria to free itself of weapons of mass destruction, none of this is possible until the regime is gone and replaced with a decent, competent, and stable alternative. Therefore, the overwhelming priority of US effort and that of the coalition will, for the foreseeable future, be to help to destroy the Assad regime and facilitate a suitable replacement. The use of lethal military force against regime targets may be approved on a case-by-case basis by the President, bearing in mind, however, that the presence of US forces on Syrian territory is to be avoided.

Getting rid of the Assad regime would be job one. Several factors account for its persistence: 

  • The regime seems to possess enough military capability, augmented by Iran and Hezbollah, to keep the armed opposition from finishing it.
  • It believes that it can, at a minimum, hold Damascus and perhaps reassert its armed control elsewhere. It hopes, as it holds on, that jihadist elements alongside the armed opposition will increase their profile, locking in its support from fearful minorities, and ultimately enabling an attempt by the regime to remarket itself to the West as a bulwark against al-Qaeda in the Levant.
  • It seems confident of Russian support and the ongoing, dogged determination of the United States and Western Europe to avoid anything smacking of military intervention (including the establishment of direct support relationships with elements of the armed Syrian opposition).
  • It enjoys the support (mainly grudging) of millions of Syrians who have no illusions about the rottenness of the regime, but who fear the post-Assad unknown: especially Alawites, who feel implicated in (if not incriminated by) the regime’s use of Alawite-heavy military units, intelligence cadres, and criminal gangs to counter an uprising that is mainly Sunni Muslim.
  • It feels no need to cooperate with a plan for negotiated power transition brokered by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council in Geneva on June 30, 2012: one that would transfer full executive powers from the regime to a transitional governing body formed by opposition and government negotiators on the basis of mutual consent (i.e., mutual veto).

Any strategy, therefore, would have to specify steps to be taken to address all of the factors accounting for the regime’s persistence. Obviously regime removal is not a matter of unilateral US action; and yet a key assumption that should guide strategic planning is that US leadership is essential. We need not do it all, yet we must make sure it gets done. Persistent, non-stop, hands-on diplomacy with allies and friends will be required. This will be labor-intensive and will require leadership enjoying the full confidence of the President and the secretaries of state and defense.

What, then, might be the key elements of a strategy aimed first at ending the regime and replacing it with something decent?

Close working relationships between the United States and carefully vetted elements of the Free Syrian Army. Weaponry may well be part of the equation. Surely training in the operational arts and transitional justice will be vital, as well as providing non-lethal military equipment, and timely tactical intelligence. The flip side of these relationships would be the denial of parallel assistance to jihadist groups parasitically feeding off the Syrian revolution. If the United States acknowledges that men with weapons will be very influential in charting Syria’s future, then spurning these relationships, and not trying to govern (with the vital cooperation and assistance of others) what enters the country for military use (including money) is tantamount to letting nature run its course regardless of the dire implications for Syria and the neighborhood.

Creation of a viable, credible alternative to the regime, one that would actually appeal to minorities and others either sitting on the fence or supporting the regime. This can only be done by way of an alternate government, operating on Syrian territory, and recognized by the United States and the balance of the Friends of the Syrian People Group as the legal government of Syria. It must consist of competent, credible men and women of good reputation. It must have financial resources and extensive, on-the-ground technical assistance so that humanitarian aid can be distributed efficiently in liberated parts of Syria, and essential services, starting with law-and-order, restored. It must have the means to defend itself from the regime, which would (after governmental formation and recognition) be regarded by the bulk of the international community as insurrectionists. Clearly a major task for the United States and the coalition will be to press the Syrian Opposition Coalition, the Supreme Military Council/Free Syrian Army, and local committees to form and deploy this government sooner rather than later. Yet persuasion can only be effective if the opposition is convinced it will have the security, financial, and technical assistance it needs to govern effectively in areas liberated from the regime. To secure the required assistance, the opposition must, in turn, persuade the United States and its partners that the government to be formed will indeed be one that will uphold citizenship, rule of law, civil society, and protection of minorities.

Possible use of military force by the United States and coalition partners. A strategy would need to address this issue in two contexts: assisting in the defense of a new government; and responding to regime massacres of civilians, whether by armed men going door-to-door or artillerymen/pilots dropping ordnance into residential areas. Ideally a new government, whose military elements would be receiving material and training support, would be able to defend itself on the ground. Yet this capability should not be assumed. Indeed, the strategy should address conditions under which non-American ground forces might be introduced to assist a recognized government. Whether in defense of the government or in response to regime massacres, the US kinetic contribution might usefully be limited to lethal stand-off assaults on artillery formations, military aircraft and their facilities, and high profile regime installations. 

Continued US cooperation with the mission of Special Representative Lakhdar Brahimi. No strategy can dismiss the possibility that the regime might, under circumstances not currently existing, elect to cooperate with the mission of Special Representative Lakhdar Brahimi. Such cooperation would feature the release of tens of thousands of political prisoners, the cessation of attacks on populated areas, and an expedited negotiating process (with the new government, if it exists, or the opposition if it does not) that would transfer all executive powers from the regime to a transitional governing body: a national unity government containing neither regime elements nor jihadists. The possibility of a regime change of heart, while low, mandates continued US support for the Brahimi mission and discussions with Russia about its implementation. Whether the regime (or Russia) cooperates or not, a good intermediate step for the achievement of the US objective would be the creation of a transitional government of national unity upholding the principles and practices deemed vital by the United States and its partners, while ensuring continuity of government to the maximum extent, consistent with the total uprooting of the regime (the family and its key enablers).

Countering Iran and Hezbollah: To the extent this element has a diplomatic component it should focus on Iran (Hezbollah’s leadership cadre being in the service of Iran), and might usefully run to ground the notion (probably false) that Iran can be part of the solution in Syria. With Saddam Hussein long gone, Iran needs Syria for one thing and one thing only: Hezbollah. The meat of the strategy with respect to Iran may simply be a ways and means to defeat Tehran in Syria, concentrating mostly (though perhaps not exclusively) on steps described above to end the regime, replace it with decent governance, and consolidate security and stability in post-Assad Syria.

Support the United States and its partners would bring to bear in the immediate aftermath of the regime’s departure and replacement by a decent government. Having an international stabilization force ready to assist a new government of citizenship and civil society in restoring law and order, expediting humanitarian assistance, and protecting vulnerable populations would be important. Indeed, helping the new government address urgent nutritional, medical and shelter needs, resettle refugees and the internally displaced, restore essential services and infrastructure, control (and perhaps dismantle) stocks of weapons of mass destruction, police borders, and control the proliferation of conventional weaponry will be vital.

The above is far from comprehensive. The written strategy would go on at considerable length and detail specific implementation steps to be taken, with department/agency responsibilities for each. It would be a living document, subject to constant review and updating. Ideally the early updates would focus on the attainment of the five policy goals transcending the replacement of the regime by a government of citizenship and civil society. Indeed, time—the time available to the Assad regime and to jihadists who collaborate in the regime’s sectarian agenda while trying to kill it—is of the essence. Given enough time and sufficient resources, these enemies, who function in a practical sense as partners in crime, will kill Syria and plunge the Levant into an extended era of chaos and instability. That would be the polar opposite of a Syria fundamentally inclined to cooperate with the United States in the region and beyond.     

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 Experts: Frederic C. Hof