Syria: Steps to Resolve the Problem from Hell


The problem of Syria is a problem from hell. It is a problem for which there are no easy or painless solutions. It is a problem that will likely be with us for a long time, even if we had every lucky break imaginable. As a private citizen I have some reservations about the approach to this problem being pursued by an administration of which I was once a part. But please let me make this clear at the outset: there are no silver bullets or magic wands that will fix this problem quickly or completely. And although there is no rule saying that op-ed writers or television commentators must put themselves in the position of the president of the United States when they recommend bold steps or dramatic gestures, it is not a bad intellectual exercise. Actions have consequences, some of which are not predictable and some of which may produce unintended results. But the same holds true for inaction, or more precisely, actions that do not address the core of the problem. And this is the essence of the dilemma for an American president who would earnestly like to focus on economic reconstruction here at home, and who would truly like to avoid owning a problem—a problem from hell—not of his own making.

Yet this problem from hell is, in fact, unavoidable. Those who would counsel President Barack Obama to keep Syria at arm’s length—to stick with programs of humanitarian and nonlethal assistance—should also explain how this approach will help our allies and friends bordering Syria avoid the consequences of Syria’s systematic destruction as a state and a society. If the situation prevailing now in Syria persists for another six, twelve, eighteen, or twenty-four months, will the concerns of Jordanians, Turks, Lebanese, Iraqis, and Israelis diminish? Will a family-based regime, enjoying the complete support of Iran and Hezbollah, and willing to kill, maim, stampede, imprison, and torture its fellow citizens by the millions to stay in business, do anything at all to mitigate the effects of its behavior on its neighbors? It certainly has not done so to date. Indeed, it has made it clear that if it goes down others go down with it. This problem is not avoidable. If the Assad regime is not a threat to the peace and security of the region, the phrase itself has no meaning.

Obama wants to see a negotiated end to this crisis.  He wants to see talks proceed in accordance with what was decided last June in Geneva by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. What they decided then was that the Syrian opposition and government should create, on the basis of mutual consent, a national unity government exercising full executive powers. Mutual consent means mutual veto, in other words that Bashar al-Assad and his regime insiders would have no role in the new government unless agreed to by the opposition. This is what  Obama wants to see. This is what Secretary of State John Kerry wants to see as he tries, with the help of Ambassador Robert Ford, to put together a new Geneva conference in the near future.

The challenge the president faces as he seeks a negotiated end to this nightmare is that those who agree with him are not the forces dictating or driving the situation we face. It may well be true that most Syrians want a national unity government that sidelines this rapacious family while preserving the state and the key institutions of government: true, but irrelevant, at least for the moment.

Start with the regime. By all accounts Assad thinks he is winning. He has Iran and Hezbollah all-in on his behalf. As I noted in a study published by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in March, the regime’s sectarian terror tactics have drawn al-Qaeda-related elements and a motley collection of foreign terrorists to Syria, helping Assad to make the specious claim that the uprising against him is not Syrian. Make no mistake about it: the Nusra Front is a gift to the Assad regime that keeps on giving. The key point, however, is that the regime sees no need to negotiate. It firmly believes that, with Iran and Hezbollah on the ground and with Russia providing diplomatic top-cover, it can hang on and eventually prevail.

When he joined the administration Kerry made the central point: for a negotiated political transition to take place, the calculation of the Assad regime must be changed. The problem is that the regime’s calculation is rooted in its assessment of the combat situation. And the president has made it clear, notwithstanding talk of red lines and game changers in the context of chemical weapons usage, that his appetite for military steps that might change that calculation is well under control. While I am well-removed from whatever the administration may be thinking about in that regard, I would imagine that planning is likely complete for a range of options from ensuring that vetted rebel units get what they need in terms of arms, equipment, and training, to steps that would eliminate or seriously degrade the ability of the regime to pound populated areas with artillery, aircraft, and missiles. Rations, medical kits, body armor, and vehicles are all good. But they will change the calculation of no one.

Doubts about the nature of US support are also helping to fuel the reluctance of the mainstream Syrian opposition to attend a Geneva conference. Kerry and Ford may eventually be able to persuade the opposition to avoid handing the regime an opportunity to show up in Geneva and debate an empty chair. And yet, the opposition—both inside and outside Syria—can see very clearly that which is obvious. Iran and Hezbollah are totally committed to a regime military victory. The United States is not, either rhetorically or operationally, committed to an opposition military victory, even one accomplished by opposition elements in which we have confidence. Neither has the United States committed itself to helping the mainstream opposition to establish an alternate government on Syrian territory, one it would recognize and help defend. Yes, the opposition is fragmented. Yes, there are big egos and private agendas at work. Yet there is agreement on one point in opposition circles: Assad and his friends aim to win; the United States aims for talks. The only way for this circle to be squared is for the United States to take seriously its own conclusion that the regime’s calculation must be changed. If the regime proves unwilling to stop the terror campaign that is destabilizing its neighbors, the United States should take steps to destroy or seriously degrade that capability. By doing so we might actually give negotiations a chance to begin and to succeed.

Allow me to conclude with a few observations about Israel’s role in this crisis. Israel views this problem from hell very much through the prism of Iran. Iran sees the preservation of the Assad regime as a national security imperative. What Iran needs of Syria is very simple: land access to Lebanon, where Hezbollah provides Iran with a deterrent and retaliatory capability vis-à-vis Israel. Israel, of course, would like to break that link. It is watching very closely for any indications of significant weapons transfers to Hezbollah from or via Syria. It has taken action when it has seen such indicators, and will likely continue to do so. Although Israel obviously has not suffered the consequences of Assad’s tactics to the extent Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey have, it is alert to the possibility that the regime may try to heat up the long-dormant Golan front. Ironically, Israel is now facing a situation along the blue line with Lebanon that is quieter than any time in recent history. Hezbollah is otherwise occupied inside Syria, and Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, knows that his supreme duty now—besides trying to save the family regime next door—is to keep his powder dry just in case Israel elects to strike Iran. That is his reason for existence: to help defend Iran and to project Iranian power inside Lebanon. That is why Israel, notwithstanding understandable reservations about extremists trying to dominate the Syrian opposition, wants on balance for the Assad regime to go away.

* This article is based on the author’s remarks at the American Jewish Committee Global Forum in Washington, DC on June 3.

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. Photo Credit.

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