There has been no shortage of editorializing commentary laying out recommended strategies for the Obama administration to deal with the Syrian crisis since it began nearly two years ago. Although often well-written and soundly reasoned, many of these essays skirt the most pertinent definition of the word “strategy” offered by Webster’s: “the art of devising or employing plans or stratagems [an artifice for outwitting an enemy] toward a goal.” All too often plans and stratagems are offered without reference to a goal, which is often referred to in policy circles as an “objective” or a “preferred end-state.” A strategy disconnected from an objective is about as useful as tactics (stratagems) employed without a strategy. What is it, after all, that the United States wants with respect to Syria?

Many of the strategies offered up in the form of advice focus on a desired end-state that cannot, in reality, be anything near the end of the story for Syria and its 22.5 million people: the fall of Bashar al-Assad and his regime. Yes, the fall of a regime that has robbed, tortured, and killed tens of thousands of Syrians while subcontracting Syria’s independence and national security to Iran and Hezbollah would be totally consistent with US interests. And yes, the regime—the family business replete with enablers and employees—is indeed falling, as the writ of the government it has used to hold hostage an entire country narrows. Yet the transition of Bashar al-Assad from militiaman-in-chief to exile (or the hereafter) will be as far from the end of a story as the preface to a long book.

In the end Washington would surely like to see emerging from Syria’s travails a country fundamentally predisposed toward cooperating with the United States in the region and beyond. Those who adhere to the “realism” school of geopolitics, with its emphasis on national security interests, would certainly want to see a Syria no longer in the thrall of Iran and Hezbollah, no longer addicted to terror as a foreign policy tool, no longer attracted to chemical and biological weapons, and no longer inclined to harass, subvert, and exploit its neighbors. Surely no reasonable person would look askance at such an outcome, particularly if the emerging Syria were also one strongly inclined to support an honorable, just, and comprehensive Middle East peace.

Yet a predisposition to cooperation would involve more than the results described above. It is at least hypothetically possible, for example, that a successor regime in Syria would liberate the country entirely from Iran and Hezbollah and yet attempt to govern the country in a blatantly sectarian manner, penalizing Syrian minorities while spreading the kind of poison that is infecting Arab society and killing polities (see Bahrain) throughout the region. In this manner Syria, which always punched above its weight in the Arab world before becoming a vassal of Iran, would actively subvert the emergence of rule of law and civil society among its neighbors and throughout the region. 

If one is prepared to argue that the rise of sectarianism and decline of civil society throughout the Arab world are perfectly alright so long as Iran and Hezbollah are beaten in Syria, then one is perfectly free to base a recommended strategy on the national security objective of bringing down Assad. Indeed, bringing down Assadas deadly and as shameless a purveyor of sectarianism as the al-Qaeda criminals burrowing into his armed oppositionis a sine qua non for achieving the end-state the United States seeks. Yet a strategy that only lists plans and stratagems to terminate a thoroughly rotten and heartlessly brutal family business runs the risk of mistaking a way station for journey’s end. 

A Syria that becomes a long-term ungovernable space (with or without Assad among the breathing and politically relevant) will be a peril to its neighbors and a potent threat to American interests. A Syria that finds one form of tyranny replaced by another will more than compensate for its enmity toward Iran by persecuting its own citizens while polluting the neighborhood. Are there outcomes worse than Assad? Perhaps not; his willingness to bring about the death of Syria as the price for his family’s removal from power is as contemptible an attitude as may be found anywhere in contemporary politics. And yet there are two outcomesstate failure and sectarian rulethat could absolutely prevent the emergence of a Syria with which the United States could cooperate.

This is the reality of strategic planning that President Obama and his national security team face regardless of who comes and goes at Foggy Bottom and the Pentagon. It is the desired end-state in Syriathe goal of seeing a Syria not as a subordinate and certainly not as a stooge, but as a strong, united, citizenship-based state fundamentally disposed toward cooperating with the United Statesthat must shape its strategy. This is why it is important for the United States, in conjunction with Turkey and other allies and friends, to help those elements of the armed opposition most likely to support the emergence of the kind of Syria that will be a positive exemplar of decent governance in the region. This is why it is important for the United States, its allies, and its friends to get behind the formation of a provisional or transitional government, recognize it as Syria’s government, and make sure it has the resources to prevail militarily and deliver vital services in the parts of liberated Syria where it operates.

Keeping one’s eye on the ball has merit beyond baseball, America’s national pastime. Errors will always be part of the game and it’s not always the home team that hits the home run. It may, as some argue, be too late for the United States to shape and influence developments in Syria so as to promote its national security objective. But fans and players alike appreciate the truth of the adage attributed to former baseball great Yogi Berra: “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.” Syria’s story is far from over, and it will not end with the fall of the Assad regime. For the United States to pursue a strategy consistent with its goal it will have to go where President Obama has been reluctant to go until now. To do otherwise is to forfeit the game well short of the ninth inning.

 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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