Cautionary tales related to the US invasion and occupation of Iraq are often cited to justify the Obama administration’s reluctance to intervene militarily in Syria, even in ways falling far short of boots on the ground.

Normally the warning is cast by means of the slippery slope metaphor: use a cruise missile to destroy part of the regime’s terror apparatus, and inevitably the 82nd Airborne Division will have to parachute into Damascus; arm and train the opposition and US occupation is unavoidable. Yet there may be something else also affecting the administration’s thinking and that of our allies: the notion that if Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is brought down too quickly and without the benefit of a negotiated transition, an Iraq-like evaporation of state institutions may occur, setting the stage for a long-term insurgency by disgruntled military and civilian personnel no longer drawing paychecks. That, after all, is what occurred in Iraq.

No doubt what happened in Iraq in the wake of Baghdad’s fall was gratuitously catastrophic. For the US military to enter the country without a detailed, ready-to-execute civil-military operations plan emphasizing and implementing continuity of civil government to the maximum extent possible represented the overturning of decades of Army and Marine Corps civil affairs doctrine for no discernible or defensible reason. The lesson learned from this act of breathtaking negligence was burned permanently into the minds of military and diplomatic professionals forced to deal with the insurgency it caused.

Therefore, the same thing applies to Syria, right?  Even though a US invasion is not in the cards, the last thing we need is a rebel military victory resulting in civil servants and largely Alawite regime armed units out of work, denied pay and pensions, and angry to the point of violence while the country is without a government, right? 

No, this is not correct. The pro-Assad security forces we hope not to alienate are currently engaged in operations that are tearing the country apart, and as long as the Assad regime remains alive, Syria draws closer to the ungovernable vacuum feared by all. Is the opposition prepared to govern?  No. Does the Supreme Military Council, the Syrian Opposition Coalition, or the newly-named opposition prime minister have a civil-military operations plan emphasizing continuity of government?  No. Is either of these factors reason to believe that there should be no undue haste in ousting Assad?  No.

Can anyone believe that Assad is performing his constitutional duties as president of the Syrian Arab Republic and providing governmental services to the people of Syria, or that a prime minister and cabinet existing only to execute the orders of a capricious ruling family are in the business of governing?  Will anyone explicitly argue that this murderous system should stay in place either until Assad is ready to cooperate with his own transition, or the opposition has demonstrated its ability to govern? 

Continuity of government—at least in terms of providing basic services and maintaining essential infrastructure—is of paramount importance in Syria. It would be essential for a post-Assad interim government, with generous external funding, to keep civil servants and the rank and file of the government security forces on the payroll and (in some cases) on the job until Syria’s longer-term governance can be managed. This would be very reassuring to minorities, the Alawite community in particular. Yet to entertain the notion that it might be desirable for the transition to be delayed until negotiated arrangements for a smooth landing are in place is to contemplate a price in blood and human misery for Syrians and their neighbors, that is simply unacceptable. It is the equivalent of giving Assad something tantamount to veto power over what comes next and when. His calculation of the utility of a peaceful transition may change for the better once he knows he will be beaten on the ground. Western devotion to a managed, stable, negotiated, and civilized transition impresses him not in the least.

We have every reason to be deeply worried about post-Assad governance in Syria. This is all the more reason to leverage all possible means now to support the Syrian Opposition Coalition, the new opposition prime minister, the Supreme Military Council, and the local committees in establishing an alternate government on liberated Syrian territory: a government that the Friends of the Syrian People will recognize, fund, and help defend. This group of Friends, including the United States, recognized the Coalition in December 2012 as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people, but has withheld more tangible support due divisions within the opposition. Divided they may be, but there is no other alternative and those deemed to be the legitimate representatives should be in the business of governing. To expedite this process, a Friend’s steering committee should be established in Cairo now to drive the near-term establishment of a government on Syrian territory: a government capable of administering areas under its jurisdiction and ready, if the opportunity presents itself, to negotiate the composition of a transitional government of national unity that should indeed preserve major parts of existing ministries, departments, and non-criminal security elements.

If our reluctance in establishing an alternate government, helping vetted armed opposition elements, and considering stand-off strikes to stop regime atrocities is driven by the idea that there is merit in seeing the regime and its associated government survive until negotiations fix everything or someone else is ready to rule, we need to think again. If this is why we have been slow to form full relationships with the mainstream armed opposition or to consider the kinds of kinetic actions that could save thousands of lives without an American boot scraping Syrian soil, we need to reconsider. 

The lessons learned in Iraq should never be forgotten. Yet they need not be shoe-horned into a situation where another priority takes urgent precedence. We had the luxury in 2003 to delay decisive action until all of the pieces were in place. We were completely in charge of timing in an endeavor that was totally of our choice, and yet we still failed to do the requisite homework. In this case we are not calling the shots.

Give the Assad regime more time to work its survival strategy and Syria will, before long, make Iraq at its worst look like a playground. Give it enough time to murder, terrorize, and torture, and there will be no government, state, or Syria to preserve. Yes, alternatives should be made ready, and existing governmental institutions worth preserving should be preserved. Yet to hold back in trying to implement that which US President Barack Obama called for in August 2011 in the hope that negotiations will take place and end the nightmare is neither prudent, nor realistic, nor feasible.

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. 

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