How can Europe and the United States effectively work together to try to end Syria’s nightmare, bringing about a comprehensive political transition from corrupt and incompetent family rule to a modern, representative, and nonsectarian government? 

The United States and European governments have supported the goal of a peaceful, negotiated political transition in Syria, with the Final Communiqué of the Action Group on Syria, issued on June 30, 2012 as their guiding text.  On that date the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and others agreed that negotiators from the opposition and the existing government should meet and form, on the basis of mutual consent, a transitional governing body that would exercise full executive powers in Syria.  There was, in short, a clear way forward for peaceful, stable and total political transition in Syria.  Yet within a very short period of time Syrian President Bashar al-Assad rejected the formula, Russia backtracked on the clarity of its provisions, and the architect of the agreement, Kofi Annan, resigned in frustration as the United Nations and Arab League special envoy. 

Annan’s successor, Lakhdar Brahimi, tried to resurrect the Geneva plan, but Assad remains uninterested and Russia has resorted to redefining “full executive powers,” to apply to the Syrian cabinet (which has no power) but not to the Syrian president (who has it all).  So from Moscow’s perspective, transition negotiations would produce yet another powerless prime minister and cabinet, leaving all political power in the hands of Bashar al-Assad.  Needless to say this is not the kind of transition to democratic, pluralistic government called for in two UN Security Council resolutions.

There is nothing dishonorable or naive on the part of Europe and the United States in wishing to see a peaceful, negotiated transfer of power in Syria.  The problem is that two key parties—the Syrian regime and the Russian Federation—see no value in it.  Russia and the Assad regime are likely weighing the clear, on the ground determination of Iran and Hezbollah to produce a favorable military outcome against what they perceive to be uncertainty in the West.  Assad believes Iran will save him.  Russia thinks it can be on the winning side.  Both sense they can deal a real blow to the United States and its allies. 

The collective response of the United States and Europe to this reality is, at best, discordant and confused.   On the one hand, US Secretary of State John Kerry and British Foreign Secretary William Hague acknowledge the obvious: Assad’s calculation must be changed for him to be the slightest bit interested in a negotiated transfer of power.  This is why they have opened direct relations with the armed Syrian opposition: relationships that will involve, at least initially, providing nonlethal assistance to that opposition.  In the case of the United Kingdom, it was a decision by the European Union to permit nonlethal assistance to the armed opposition that made it possible for Hague to announce the provision of armored vehicles and other items.  In the case of the United States it will be food and medical kits.  Now the United Kingdom and France are taking the lead in the European Union to reconsider the one-sided arms embargo on Syria.

On the other hand, however, we have senior European statesmen making statements that must reassure the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Hezbollah gunmen helping the Assad regime terrorize noncombatants.  It has been said that providing arms to rebel groups might block any chance of getting Russia to stop supporting Syria in the UN Security Council, as if such a chance exists.  It has been said that delivering weapons to the opposition could present the danger of an arms race, as if Iran and Russia are holding back out of respect for unilateral Western restraint.  It has been said that we must be sure not to contribute to the further militarization of Syria, as if there is some moral or practical basis for a one-sided arms embargo, rewarding the side that has deliberately channeled peaceful protest into armed resistance.  Perhaps senior statesmen making statements like these should try to imagine how they are received by people who have demonstrated no interest whatsoever in peaceful conflict resolution; people who are trying to kill their way to victory while we in West decry, with fine impartiality, the militarization of the situation in Syria.

The United States and Europe do not necessarily need to arm the Syrian opposition.  As long as our governments know what to supply, to whom, and how, it may well be that the most useful contributions Europe and the United States can make to moderate armed elements would be in the form of training, non-lethal equipment, and intelligence.  Beyond that, it may be enough to channel arms provided by others to the right people, and to deny, wherever possible, arms going to the wrong people: jihadist elements attracted to Syria by the sectarian tactics of the Assad regime.  What is necessary is that the United States and Europe first recognize that they are dealing with a regime and supporters of that regime who share neither our values nor our priorities.  A political solution to this crisis cannot be achieved via appeals to Assad’s humanitarian instincts or imploring Russia to intervene on our behalf.  Instead, the United States and Europe must change the regime’s calculation.

The best way to change the game and enable a peaceful political transition is for Europe, the United States, and the Friends of the Syrian People to support the formation and functioning of a new government on liberated Syrian territory: a governmental alternative to the Assad regime that would be largely technocratic in nature, with ministers drawn from the Syrian Opposition Coalition and local councils inside Syria.  The Syrian Opposition Coalition recently took the first step in this direction by naming a prime minister: Mr. Ghassan Hitto. 

Yet a decision to support the formation and functioning of a new government on liberated Syrian territory would not be a rhetorical, empty gesture or checking a box to produce a symbolic deliverable for a ministerial-level meeting.  It would involve real work and real commitment.   A government must be able to govern.  It will need resources and on-the-ground technical assistance and advisory services.  It may well need help defending populations under its jurisdiction.  It should be recognized by Europe, the United States, and the Friends of the Syrian People as the legal government of Syria and credentialed as such at the United Nations.  All of these things will require of the United States and Europe a strategic paradigm shift.  This is not about strategic communications and messaging.  It is about facing reality in Syria and changing the calculation of the Assad regime.

Still, there will be objections from those who prefer to hope that the fire consuming Syria will burn itself out without the benefit of a fire brigade.  Even though the opposition has been clear that it wants no foreign military forces intervening inside Syria, the United States and Europe must be prepared to respond appropriately if the regime and its supporters elect to attack the new government militarily and conduct terror operations on civilian populations falling under that government’s de facto jurisdiction.  Although a Western response need not involve the insertion of forces inside Syria, it could indeed involve engaging regime targets with stand-off weaponry, such as cruise missiles.  And the new government may wish to enter into formal security assistance relationships with some of the countries recognizing it.  Clearly, even if boots on the ground are ruled out in advance, any decision to support the establishment of such a government must be accompanied by a decision to help defend it if necessary. 

It will also be argued that the Syrian opposition is not ready to govern.  One response to this proposition is actually easy; is Assad prepared to govern?  Is the so-called Syrian Arab Republic Government—an order-taking mechanism for a family regime—prepared to govern?  Has it ever really governed?  No doubt Syria’s opposition suffers many internal divisions.  No doubt there are differences between and among exiles, between and among those fighting and dying inside Syria, and between insiders and outsiders.  Yet the Friends of the Syrian People Group did recognize the Syrian Opposition Coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.  Was that an empty gesture, or was it step one on the path to a governmental alternative to Assad inside Syria?  Will Western powers become fulltime, disinterested critics of its performance, or will they work with the coalition to establish, on Syrian soil, an alternative to a regime destroying a country to save a family business?

Finally, some argue that establishing a governmental alternative to the Syrian Arab Republic government would subvert the principle of continuity of government by subjecting the employees of the existing government to dismissal, creating something analogous to Iraq in 2003.  Yet there is no reason why such a government could not negotiate with Assad’s government the structure, program, and composition of a national unity transitional government if Assad someday agrees to negotiations: a national unity government that keeps employees on the payroll for an agreed period of time.  Indeed, establishment of a credible government on liberated Syrian territory may be just the motivation Assad needs to do what European leaders and the president of the United States want him to do: designate a team to negotiate, in good faith, the political transition called for by the UN Security Council and the Geneva Final Communiqué.

For Europe and the United States there is nothing easy about the case of Syria.  It is a problem from hell.  It promises to get worse if we believe that the fire consuming the country will burn itself out.  Left on its own Syria may be on a one-way trip to state failure and a generation’s worth of chaos and bloodshed spilling over borders into surrounding countries.  Europe and the United States cannot micromanage an end state for Syria.  Neither can they engineer, with fine precision, a guaranteed soft landing.  Yet Western powers can try their best to mitigate the worst, knowing that the work will be hard and the results uncertain.  Unless the work begins now, the United States and Europe will soon be drifting into a situation beyond the ability of anyone, for many years to come, to influence, much less control. 

*This Viewpoint is based on the author’s keynote address at the American Studies Center in Rome, Italy on March 25.

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.

Related Experts: Frederic C. Hof