The Obama administration wants President Bashar Assad to leave office. He massacres his population. Washington refuses to arm Syrian rebels. Iran and Russia send weapons to Assad’s killers. This is the dispiriting equation with which Syrians are living today.
What is it about the Syrian conflict that Barack Obama does not get? On Tuesday, the American president assured us that Assad would not last. “Ultimately this dictator will fall,” he declared, before adding that the United States would not engage in unilateral military action. Syria is “more complicated” than Libya, Obama observed. He was right, but its complications do not entitle him to formulate an unintelligible policy that only ensures the dictator slaughters more innocents.
Adding to the sense of bewilderment among Assad’s foes is an ambient assumption that Vladimir Putin’s election in Russia might change Moscow’s approach to Syria. This presumes that Putin regards Syria primarily as a domestic issue, when it was always considerably more than that. And yet Russia’s behavior will be essential in facilitating Assad’s exit, provided that Putin is made to realize that the Syrian regime is a burden he cannot afford to carry for very long.
The Americans insist that they don’t want to provoke a Syrian civil war by arming the Free Syrian Army. That vindication is inaccurate, disingenuous and incomplete. It is inaccurate because Syria is effectively in a civil war of sorts, one propelled by the regime and its outrages. It is disingenuous because, while Washington does not want to resort to a military option, others will, including U.S. allies Qatar and Saudi Arabia, and the Obama administration probably won’t actively hinder such steps. And it is incomplete, because American officials have omitted from the conversation the sinister role played by Iran and Russia, confirming that they regard the survival of the Assad regime as a strategic necessity, mainly against American interests.
Assad’s tactic is to crush the rebellion, village by village, town by town, and city by city. How the Syrian president intends to govern his sullen citizens after that is an open question. But if the principal American motive is a responsibility to protect civilians, then issuing statements of condemnation and piling up sanctions are unlikely to change Assad’s behavior; and a new Security Council resolution will either be vetoed by Russia or so watered down as to be irrelevant.
Whether Obama likes it or not, the only way to put the Assad regime on the defensive is to devise a plan that includes both military and political components. No one is asking that the United States go to war in Syria; but the administration can, with its Arab and Western partners, assist in organizing, training, and coordinating the actions of anti-regime combatants. The ultimate objective would be to negate Assad’s military superiority and compel Russia to alter its stance.
What the Free Syrian Army needs is the means to establish territory outside the control of the Syrian regime. I’m no military expert, but the Americans and Europeans have plenty. They must, with their Syrian counterparts, determine the kinds of weapons that would permit the Syrian opposition to create defensible autonomous zones where a government could take root, toward which deserters and civilians could flock, that would serve as points of distribution for humanitarian aid, and that would affirm daily that Assad is losing ground, with the tremendous psychological boost this would bring.
If such territories are created and expanded and Assad’s efforts to impose his will by force are seen to have hit a wall, it would become easier to advance a diplomatic solution. Necessarily, the basis for such a solution would be the departure of Bashar Assad and his acolytes. The imposition of a stalemate on the ground would effectively undermine the Russian (and Iranian) scheme to give Syria’s president the leverage to negotiate with the opposition from a position of strength. If an alternative government is formed in “liberated” areas, and is recognized by the Arab states and the international community, Moscow would have little choice but to consider Assad’s departure.
In that case, the United Nations Security Council could ask the Russians to mediate a resolution, alongside Kofi Annan, the new U.N.-Arab League envoy on Syria. The rationale would be to give Moscow latitude to defend its stakes in a Syrian transition. In the end, it will be up to a new Syrian government to determine what it expects of Russia, but there do not appear to be insurmountable objections in Washington, Brussels, or even Israel to granting Russia the influence it seeks in Damascus, on the condition that it embrace a change of regime.
For this to succeed, the regime’s military advantages have to be offset. The confidence and determination of the rebels is high. It took weeks for Assad’s army to enter Baba Amr. Even then, the regime employed tremendous firepower and brought in its crack 4th Armored Division to finish the job. A calibrated, well-thought-out military aid program could prove decisive. The Americans and Europeans might study Hezbollah’s tactics against Israel during the 2006 war for ideas.
Much more can also be done to lay the groundwork for a post-Assad order. The analyst Michael Weiss has astutely suggested putting together a police force, to maintain security in areas freed from Assad rule. The Syrian National Council has been utterly incompetent, justifying Western and Arab hesitation. But the opposition leadership can be thrust in the right direction if the United States, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the Europeans collaborate in sponsoring a more effective coalition. After all, they hold the powerful weapon of recognition.
Unchanged, the current dynamics will bring chaos. Some Arab states have promised to send weapons to the rebels. If this is uncontrolled, it could destabilize Syria’s neighbors, through which the weapons would have to pass; the impact could be limited; and it might strengthen the otherwise relatively weak Syrian Islamists, alarming many in the West.
The Obama administration is keen to see a negotiated outcome in Syria. That is why it must embrace a military approach that defines a political endgame. Bashar Assad and Vladimir Putin have to feel that their reliance on intimidation is going nowhere. Only then might Putin show Assad the door, so he himself remains in the house.
Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR. He tweets @BeirutCalling.