Syria is dying. Bashar al-Assad has made it clear that the price of his removal is the death of the nation. A growing extremist minority in the armed opposition has made it clear that a Syria of citizenship and civil society is, in its view, an abomination to be killed. And those in the middle long begging for Western security assistance are increasingly bemoaning that it is already too late. Between the cold, cynical sectarianism of Assad and the white-hot sectarian hatred of those extremists among his opponents Syria already is all but gone, a body politic as numbingly cold and colorless as the harsh wintry hell bringing misery and hopelessness to untold numbers of displaced Syrians.
It might in fact be too late to save Syria from the diabolical ministrations of Assad and his enabling Salafist enemies. Indeed, the single-minded, self-centered destructiveness of foes who once cooperated in the killing of Iraqis and who now collaborate in the murder of Syria may be sufficiently powerful to block any effort at national salvation regardless of its source. By facilitating Assad’s poison pill sectarian strategy Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia have facilitated the implantation of al-Qaeda (in the form of the Nusra Front) in Syria. By funneling arms and money to those calling for death to Alawites and the establishment of a Syrian emirate, donors in certain Gulf countries, Turkey, and elsewhere have advanced Assad’s survival strategy with a toxic blend of tactical skill and strategic stupidity. As in “Murder on the Orient Express,” many hands have plunged the knife into a victim perhaps too far gone to be saved.
Yet even if one accepted, analytically, the “it’s too late to save Syria” thesis, and the argument that saving Syria was never something the United States and its allies could do, can this be the basis of prudent policy? If Syria, as now appears likely, becomes a death star of failed statehood, will the effects of its ravaged carcass on the surrounding neighborhood be so benign as to present no challenges to US statecraft far more perilous than those presented by Syria now? Will the great sucking sounds of Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and perhaps Iraq being pulled into the black hole of what was once Syria become the next normal; chapter two in the “it’s too late” saga? Will Americans at that point look back with regret at our reluctance to try to shape and influence when we may at least have had a chance to do so?
No doubt the foreign policy, intelligence, and national security organs of the US government have this matter under urgent review. While it would be wonderful if UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, with Russo-US help and Assad’s acquiescence, could pull the “peaceful, managed transition” rabbit out of his hat, the odds of him doing so are low. Syria’s course will most likely be determined by force of arms inside Syria. Those who fight will have much to say about how Syria (or pieces of Syria) will be ruled and by whom. If the United States decides that it will not enter this arena—that it will not try to dominate the logistical system governing the flow of arms into Syria so as to influence the emergence of winners and submergence of losers—then the decision should be a conscious one based on a thorough evaluation of capabilities, costs, and benefits.
In August 2011 President Obama stated publicly that Bashar al-Assad was the essence of Syria’s problem and should therefore step aside. For those who work in the executive branch of government such a presidential statement is not seen as an advisory opinion, a rhetorical device, or a check-the-box drill to meet some editorial demand that the administration “get on the right side of history.” What the President’s words set in motion was a determined effort to make happen that which he had, in effect, ordered, an effort focused in large measure on isolating the regime diplomatically and economically while helping a nascent opposition coalition get organized under the most challenging circumstances imaginable. Yet the objective was clear: bring down Assad.
It is understandable that even now, as the last vestige of peaceful protest has long since been killed by regime terror mandating armed resistance, the administration resists the notion that it should somehow enter the arena where the struggle for Syria is actually being fought. For an administration that prides itself in having brought to an end US military involvement in Iraq, Syria perhaps looks like a trap. For an administration that seeks to minimize the US military footprint in Afghanistan, maybe Syria looks like a beckoning morass. For an administration wanting to pay attention to Asia while strengthening the economy at home, Syria could look like a costly distraction. All of this is totally understandable, every word of it.
And yet, what if the arm’s length approach to the armed Syrian opposition is precisely the wrong medicine for a patient at or near death’s door? What if an approach seen by its advocates as the very epitome of prudence is in fact the opposite? What if the United States can help shape a decent, civilized outcome in Syria by providing security assistance to select opposition elements, and do so with no US boots on the ground? What if it can help in the context of lethality but consciously elects not to?
These are questions that are no doubt causing the midnight oil to burn in many office buildings in greater Washington and elsewhere, as dedicated, overworked public servants try to provide answers and options to an intensely curious and engaged commander-in-chief. Whatever attraction the “it’s too late” thesis may have for scholars and essayists, it cannot be an answer or even a guide for those charged with advancing the national security interests of the United States.
In a recent article, I urged the Syrian Opposition Council and Supreme Military Council to cooperate in forming a provisional government, one offering an alternative to the regime by standing up for Syria’s minorities and for democratic, civil society based on the supremacy of citizenship. A person prominent in Syrian opposition affairs wrote soon thereafter to say that the appetite for a provisional government was being dampened by the fear of insufficient material support from the West, a deficit that would cause its rapid failure and permanent loss of credibility, all for the benefit of Assad. To be sure there are many ways to articulate the “it’s too late” mantra. What they all have in common is the view that American actions will never match American words.
In truth the American taxpayer has hardly been AWOL from Syria’s struggle, as the United States leads the world in providing humanitarian assistance to desperately needy Syrians. And Assad would not be hiding money abroad were American efforts to cut the regime’s cash flow so meaningless or ineffective. Moreover, there is no shortage of people in Syria’s local revolutionary committees who will testify to the efficacy of American technical and non-lethal material assistance. It is all true, it is totally honorable and it reflects real decency. Yet Syria’s fate will likely be decided by men with guns. If a firm, irrevocable decision is in place that the United States will not play in this arena, then it may indeed be too late for Syria as the Assad/al-Qaeda tag team crowds out all other opponents from the ring, making Syria ungovernable, 22.5 million Syrians vulnerable, and neighboring states fully exposed to a catastrophe that could persist for decades.
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.