The swirling controversy over chemical weapons, red lines, and leaks that the administration is reconsidering giving lethal aid to the Syrian opposition threatens to blur that which should be clear: American objectives in Syria and how to achieve them. While the controversy du jour may well focus the thinking of the US interagency in a positive manner, involving the credibility of US President Barack Obama in ways that transcend Syria, it also threatens to distract the administration in terms of the basics: objectives and strategy.

The long-term, immutable national security objective of the United States with respect to Syria is a Syria fundamentally predisposed to cooperate with the United States in the region and beyond. In terms of the uprising against corrupt, incompetent, and brutal family rule now taking place, the president’s  nearer term objective is a complete political transition in Syria from family rule to rule of law; a transition consistent with the Geneva agreement of June 30, 2012. The emerging, evolving strategy in support of this near-term objective is being spearheaded by US Secretary of State John Kerry. It aims to change the calculation of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad with respect to negotiating in accordance with the Geneva formula agreed to by Russia, China, France, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The formula would produce, on the basis of negotiations featuring mutual consent, a new Syrian government: one receiving full executive powers from the existing regime. Although the goal of securing full Russian cooperation in this endeavor has not been abandoned by the administration, it nevertheless recognizes—with some degree of discomfort—that the only thing likely to change the Syrian regime’s calculation is the certainty of military defeat.

Although the chemical weapons controversy no doubt obliges the Obama administration to examine options the president finds viscerally unattractive, what should drive deliberations irrespective of red lines and chemical weapons is the effective implementation of the Kerry strategy in support of the Obama objective. The secretary of state got off to a good start months ago by establishing a direct relationship between the United States and the mainstream opposition’s Supreme Military Council. Supplies promised in February—medical kits and halal military rations—were significantly delayed, but have finally been delivered. The administration is trying to insure that everything coming into Syria for the armed opposition in Syria—lethal and non-lethal, regardless of the source—goes through the Supreme Military Council so that its commander, Major General Salim Idris, has a fighting chance to bind the disparate elements of the Free Syrian Army into a recognizable chain of command and to begin to marginalize jihadist elements seeking, with the sincere best wishes of the Assad regime, to hijack the revolution. Putting the United States in a position to coordinate external assistance is the best way to harness the energies of other regional actors whose rivalries and appetites for clients within the Syrian opposition help sustain the regime by exacerbating opposition fissures. Although the harm that has been done to Syria and its revolution by those who have helped the Nusra Front and others cannot be fully undone anytime soon, a central political and logistical role for the United States can limit further damage.

Changing the regime’s calculation with respect to a negotiated transition means setting the stage for the regime’s military defeat. At present the regime seems confident of survival. The involvement of Iran and Hezbollah in combat operations has produced some tactical success and has given Syrian army regime loyalists an opportunity for greatly needed rest and replenishment. With his artillery, air, and missile forces largely intact and with Russia providing diplomatic cover, Assad sees no reason to curtail a terror campaign bombarding civilian residential areas not under regime control. It is this campaign that is largely responsible for the humanitarian catastrophe wrecking Syria and flooding its neighbors. It is quite possible that the regime actually believes it will not ultimately lose militarily and can therefore act with impunity. If this is the case, and absent effective Russian diplomacy binding Assad to the Geneva process and its results, the Obama administration’s objective is not achievable. There is not so much as a speed bump obstructing Syria’s headlong dash to state failure and chaos in a region where American allies and American interests are fully present and fully engaged.

Kerry’s visit in Moscow this week will focus largely on shoring up Russian support for a solution along the lines of the Geneva agreement, yet there are strong doubts in the minds of many specialists that Russian President Vladimir Putin has any inclination at all to facilitate a process consistent with what he agreed to in Geneva nearly a year ago. Putin understands clearly that such a process would produce a new government minus the Assad regime. At a minimum, Kerry should use his visit to gain a clear understanding of whether pursuing this approach with Moscow makes any further sense. Whether Russia still has the ability to influence a regime riding the wave of Iranian and Hezbollah intervention is another matter altogether.

If changing the regime’s calculation means altering the combat situation on the ground to its disadvantage, then ensuring the right elements of the armed opposition get the right tools—lethal and non-lethal, irrespective of the source—is as obvious as it is urgent. There are legitimate concerns about end-use and proliferation, particularly with regard to anti-aircraft weaponry. Yet the focus of these concerns really ought to be on the threat posed by the regime itself, which is rapidly becoming a thuggish militia possessing a large inventory of dangerous weaponry and led by a ruling family with a track record of self-enrichment at the expense of Syria’s people and Syria’s interests. Yes, it is possible that weaponry provided to elements of the Syrian opposition could fall into the wrong hands. Indeed, weaponry and money from non-American sources has already flowed—to the dismay of Syrian nationalists and the delight of the Assad regime—to jihadist primitives, a situation the United States is belatedly trying to correct. Yet it is the survival of a regime whose brutality is limitless and whose corruption is bottomless that should most concern those who worry, with good reason, about proliferation of weaponry present in Syria. Weaponry for the nationalist opponents of the regime need not necessarily come from American stocks or from caches procured by the United States, but the United States must absolutely be in charge of who gets what from sources external to Syria.

Part of the dilemma faced by the administration is the fact that even if the right stuff were to start flowing now to the right people, it would still take time to neutralize the ability of the regime to murder and terrorize people whose only offense is to reside in areas beyond the regime’s control. Perhaps Kerry can persuade his Russian hosts that this is a situation the United States simply cannot abide; the regime’s ability to wreck Syria and destabilize the neighborhood must cease or at least significantly curtailed the secretary of state can make this point effectively only if he is secure in the knowledge that the Obama administration has indeed decided that it will no longer abide business as usual Assad style. If such a decision is arrived at, accompanied by a decision concerning the means that would be employed to throw a spanner into the regime’s killing machine, there may be merit in giving the regime an opportunity, via a quiet ultimatum, to stop. The use of military force, even if it involves methods requiring no personnel on the ground or in the airspace of the country in question, is a profoundly serious step that is anything but risk free. But accepting the situation now prevailing in Syria as a tolerable norm has high costs and is hardly without risk: certainly not to the people of Syria or their neighbors. Shall we wait to see if things are better six months from now, with the regime still pounding residential areas from a distance while its foreign allies do the up-close knife work? 

Time is not the friend of a peaceful, negotiated settlement of the Syrian crisis. The December 2012 recognition of the Syrian Opposition Coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people will turn out to have been the emptiest of gestures—a mere deliverable for an international Friends of the Syrian People conference—if it does not result soon in a functioning government on liberated Syrian territory: a government reflecting citizenship, rule of law, and readiness to negotiate the creation of a transitional unity government for the entire country. Such a government, recognized by the United States and others, might help change Assad’s calculation. An opposition better armed and better organized might change the regime’s calculation. The removal of instruments of death currently employed in the random killing, maiming, and terrorizing of tens of thousands of noncombatants might change the calculation of those willing to burn a country rather than yield political power. 

None of these things is easy or without risk. Yet without some or all of them, the objective of the United States with respect to Syria is flatly unachievable. If the stated objective is only a rhetorical device designed to help sustain an approach reportedly reaffirmed by the president against the advice of his national security principals last summer, fine. Yet such an approach to Syria, shaped by risks associated with certain courses of action, should also take into the account the risks of standing aside and permitting nature to take its course in Syria. This approach begs the question: why is Syria’s current trajectory less risky to the United States and its allies than steps taken to alter that course?

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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