The situation in Syria has reached a critical stage. While a diplomatic, managed transition from the Assad regime to an opposition-led consensus national unity government would be ideal, the likelihood of it happening is very low. The situation is enormously complicated and fraught with peril. But seven points must be kept in mind.

  1. Time is the enemy. The more time the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has to implement its sectarian survival strategy, the more time extremists fighting him will have to gather strength. The regime and the al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front feed off one another; both want a sectarian fight and both would be content with a failed state if they cannot prevail. At the core of the Nusra Front are terrorists whose passage to Iraq the regime once facilitated. Now they are back in Syria, biting the hand that fed them but also helping the regime justify its existence. Each side relies heavily on outside assistance: the Nusra Front from private Gulf money (which needs to be cut off), the regime from Iran and Hezbollah. The longer this deadly dance between former collaborators continues, the greater the danger for Syria and all of its neighbors.
  2. There is no silver bullet. Ultimately the Assad regime will fall because of an accumulation of pressures, perhaps punctuated at the end with explosive force. Many of those pressures—economic and diplomatic—were put in place with US leadership early in the crisis. And slowly the balance on the ground is shifting toward the rebels. Reliable and capable regime military units are few in number and seriously exhausted. Regime consideration of chemical weapons use is perhaps indicative of growing desperation. While no-fly zones, protected zones, and protected humanitarian corridors may someday come into play as conditions permit, none of them can be decisive in and of itself. While regime use of dirty weapons could stimulate a strategic aerial bombing campaign—which could panic the regime into a rapid departure—one would have to measure potential downsides carefully. This is not, after all, a video game. Collateral casualties and damage will be inevitable. The potential reactions of other players would have to be taken into account. While nothing should be ruled out—except perhaps for US boots on the ground—no one should imagine that the single, discrete silver bullet exists.
  3. You can’t beat something with nothing. Millions of Syrians remain ambivalent about the near-term ouster of the Assad regime. No one has any illusions about the regime’s incompetence, corruption, and brutality. But many, particularly in minority communities, wonder if the devil they know is better than what may follow. Extremists remain a small minority of those opposing Assad, but their numbers are growing and they are scaring the uncommitted. Most of the opposition has said the right things about civil society and rule of law and has refrained from replying in kind to regime massacres. But for Syrians it is unclear who will govern and how once Assad is gone. It is time now to move to a provisional government consisting of respectable, well-known people. This government should install itself on Syrian territory as soon as possible. Those states belonging to the Friends of Syria Group should recognize it. As long as the opposition remains either faceless or mischaracterized by the high profile of the Nusra Front, the regime will retain the grudging tolerance of millions of Syrians.
  4. Guns will likely decide the outcome. UN and Arab League Special Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi deserves support as he tries to devise a “managed transition” for Syria, one in which Assad would voluntarily yield full executive powers to a “transitional governing body,” a sort of interim national unity government consisting of opposition figures and past and present Syrian government officials with blood-free hands. Yet the probability of Brahimi succeeding is low. There is no evidence of regime interest in stepping aside voluntarily. There is no evidence of regime interest in what follows it when it goes. The much higher probability is that armed combat will persuade the regime to abandon Aleppo and ultimately Damascus, either leaving the country quickly or repairing first to the Latakia region. But whether the regime goes voluntarily or at the point of a gun, one thing is clear: those who fought the regime with arms will have much to say about how Syria will be governed in the future, even if a coherent civilian government comes to power. Therefore . . .
  5. Who gets arms and from whom is important. This conflict is now militarized to the maximum. Trying to avoid further militarization is no longer a relevant policy goal. The United States, its key allies (UK, France, Turkey), and others (Qatar, Saudi Arabia) must try to insure that weaponry going into Syria reaches armed groups committed politically to a Syria in which citizenship reigns supreme over ethnicity, sect, gender, and all other ways in which people can be divided politically. The United States, in particular, should not be shy about working closely with Turkey to master weapons logistics and end-use. To be credible with Syrians in this role the United States will have to become directly involved in arming units now affiliated with the new opposition Supreme Military Council. That Council, in turn, should be hard-wired into the emerging provisional government and fully responsive to that government’s defense minister. Hoping that the Syrian state will not fail, praying that al-Qaeda will not establish itself firmly, and wishing for a country united by citizenship will not be enough in a conflict where guns will likely decide the outcome. Those who wish to influence and shape must get into the arena. This is not about messaging. It is about doing.
  6. The post-Assad era will be messy. This will be true no matter how the regime falls. One need not accept the thesis of an Alawite mini-state to foresee the possibility of Alawite soldiers, either individually or as units, retiring to predominantly Alawite areas to wait and see what develops in the balance of Syria. The same may be true of large numbers of Alawite civilians now residing in Damascus and elsewhere outside of their ancestral towns and cities. One need not accept the thesis that Syrian Christians will leave the country in large numbers to foresee that there will be high anxiety in that community. Likewise Kurds in the northeastern part of the country will view the post-Assad era with a mixture of fear and opportunity. If a national unity government can install itself in Damascus, it should take the following steps right from the beginning:
    • Keep in place, to the maximum extent possible, existing ministries and other institutions of state, even as the regime—the former ruling family and its enablers—are removed totally from positions of power and government. Reform can come in time. But continuity of government will be important to reassure minorities and to facilitate outside humanitarian and reconstruction assistance.
    • Proclaim the necessity of national unity, the primacy of citizenship, the requirement for justice and accountability coupled with the inadmissibility of violence and revenge, and the duty of local councils to constitute regional and municipal governing authorities. It should insure the release of all political prisoners and ban, without exception, the use of torture in any phase of law enforcement.
    • Request that an international stabilization military force, working in coordination with the Supreme Military Council, enter Syria as quickly as possible to help Syrian forces protect vulnerable populations, expedite the delivery of humanitarian assistance, provide law and order and suppress, with deadly force, extremists and stay-behind regime elements, if any. The protection of minorities from al-Qaeda terrorists and other vengeance seekers will be an important mission, perhaps one that a Turkish component in any stabilization force might wish to take on in Alawite areas and neighborhoods.
    • Open the country completely to the UN’s humanitarian assistance mechanisms and work closely with international agencies and neighboring countries to return refugees and the internally displaced to their homes and to restore vital services as quickly as possible. For these agencies to work effectively security will be essential, hence the need for an international stabilization military force to be designed and ready to deploy.
    • Give the Syrian people a clear political horizon defining how government based on the consent of the governed, featuring civil society, rule of law and the supremacy of citizenship, will come about in terms of constitutional deliberations/referendum and parliamentary elections.
  7. The international community cannot be AWOL. Relief and reconstruction in Syria will cost billions of dollars. It could take The World Bank and other international financial institutions months to do needs assessments, organize pledging sessions and the rest. But time will be of the essence, particularly in the restoration of vital services. An interim Syrian Reconstruction Fund should be established by the Friends of Syria Group and provided with seed funding, mainly from Gulf sources. Syrian managers should operate the fund. Its establishment now would, in and of itself, send a powerful signal to the Syrian business community and to 23 million Syrians that putting the Assad era behind them would pay dividends very rapidly.

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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