Taking Action on Syria

The Syrian civil war has passed an inflection point and Washington is running to catch up. While it may be too late for the United States to have a decisive impact on the ground, there is still time to salvage an American role in the end game and, hence, an opportunity to help shape Syria’s future for the better.

The Syrian civil war has passed an inflection point and Washington is running to catch up. While it may be too late for the United States to have a decisive impact on the ground, there is still time to salvage an American role in the end game and, hence, an opportunity to help shape Syria’s future for the better.

The anti-Assad forces -mostly fighting under the banner of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – have more than held their own against the regime’s powerful military. And they have done so without American assistance. Due in large part to their success at overrunning Syrian military storage sites, they now possess stocks of potent weaponry, especially anti-aircraft systems.

In contrast, the Assad regime has been reduced to launching Scud missiles at suspected FSA concentrations. The Scud is poorly suited for attacks on a dispersed, guerilla army and shows the desperate straits the Syrian military finds itself in.

While the rebels may not be able to fully defeat the loyalist forces – especially if Assad continues to receive the military and financial backing of his Iranian and Russian patrons, and his soldiers continue to fear post-war reprisals – it has become abundantly clear that there is no reversing the rebels’ gains.

Four outcomes are likely. Near the bottom would see Syria broken apart along sectarian lines into warring statelets. Less unfavorable would be the country’s transformation into a loose confederation of sectarian states, which could well be expected to be antagonistic to each other. At best, the result would be a confessionalist unitary state (de jure power sharing along religious or ethnic lines) similar to that of neighboring Lebanon, which is, ironically, the very country that the Assad family spent decades undermining.

While the first two possibilities would certainly result in entities ripe for Iranian subversion, there is no doubt that the mullahs would prefer the fourth (and worse) outcome – that Syria would become an overtly Islamist state governed by sharia law and committed to undermining its neighbors, especially Jordan and Lebanon, while heating up what had been a cold war with Israel.

Early on in the conflict, wealthy Islamic fundamentalist Gulf Arabs began pumping money into extremist Salafist groups fighting the Assad regime. This largesse bolstered the Salafis influence amongst the Syrian population and helped to spread their narrative whereby the West, through its inaction, is complicit in the Assad regime’s war against them. Certainly, White House indecision over the past year and a half has won America no friends among the Syrian opposition.

An Islamist successor to the Assad family’s Baathist rule would hurt American interests by coming into conflict with major non-NATO ally Israel, strong partner Jordan, and fragile Lebanon. A Salafist jihadist leadership would even pose a threat to fellow NATO member Turkey.

On the other hand, a transitional leadership striving to become a pluralist government would thwart the regional ambitions of Russia, Iran, and a long list of violent, extremist Islamist organizations including a resurgent al Qaeda and other Salafi jihadist groups.

But the various groups that together compose the opposition to the Assad regime hardly constitute a government-in-waiting as yet. The largest such group, the Turkey-based Syrian National Council (SNC), while boasting a democratic platform and a set of plans for Syria’s political, economic, and military transition, is unfortunately quite close to Turkey’s ruling AKP government, an ally of the Muslim Brotherhood. The SNC is the largest member of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, known as the Syrian National Coalition, holding 22 of the Coalition’s 60 seats.

President Obama announced in mid-December that he recognized the Syrian National Coalition as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people, and pledged to tighten U.S. ties to the group. To date, nearly every country in the world has endorsed the Coalition.

While its ideological proximity to Muslim Brotherhood-type beliefs is disturbing, it is clear that the Coalition is the body with which the United States must deal if it is to have any impact on the Syrian situation.

What is not clear is the degree to which the Free Syrian Army and other smaller armed opposition groups harbor loyalty to the Coalition. Evidence suggests that such ties are not strong. Also, every anti-Assad organization, of which there are several dozen, bears a degree of allegiance to foreign benefactors, which include the aforementioned Turkey as well as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and entities and individuals with profoundly Islamist agendas.

Further complicating matters are Syria’s roughly 2.5 million Kurds, making up 12 percent of the population. They have long sought autonomy if not a fully independent state along with Kurds in Turkey, Iraq, and Iran. Attempting to stymie his armed opposition, Assad gave a pass to Syria’s Kurds if their militias stayed out of the fighting. The Free Syrian Army, dominated by nationalist Sunni Muslims, has skirmished at least once with a Kurdish force at the town of Ras al-Ayn, abutting the Turkish border. Confusing the situation further, these FSA leaders – most of whom are former officers in Assad’s military – have long distrusted the Kurds and oppose their goal of independence. Meanwhile, the Islamist factions wish to bring the rather secular Kurds under sharia law.

The very real prospect of an autonomous Kurdish enclave in northern Syria, if not an independent statelet, has Turkey in fits. Without Turkish cooperation, there is little chance for military and economic aid to flow into Syria.

Then, there are the Alawites who also make up some 12 percent of the Syrian population. It is from the Alawi community that the Assad family and its fiercest defenders come, including the preponderance of Syrian generals and field commanders. Fear of vicious reprisals by the Sunni-dominated opposition may keep the Alawi-dominated Syrian military fighting until the bitter end. Assurances by the anti-regime forces to the Alawite community that such reprisals will not be allowed to occur could well hasten the collapse of Assad’s military.

By severely curtailing Hezbollah’s arms supply as well as restricting the movement of Tehran’s Revolutionary Guards cadres, a non-Islamist successor government in Syria would set back Iran’s Middle East strategy of destabilizing Iraq and Lebanon.

While a strictly secular government in Damascus may not be possible, any degree to which Syria’s future rulers are not representative of or beholden to jihadist movements should be seen as a success.

For now, it appears that military stalemate defines the situation in Syria. This is not good. The longer the conflict lasts, the more attractive the Islamist extremist groups fighting Assad’s forces, especially the virulently anti-U.S. Salafi jihadist groups, become to the Syrian population. The United States can still act to tip the scales in favor of the anti-regime forces and thereby end the fighting faster.

To do so, the United States should pursue the following policies:

  1. Humanitarian assistance to Syrian refugees should be provided as soon as possible, especially winter-specific items desperately needed in the teeming camps operating in Turkey and Jordan. Strict measures should be taken to ensure such assistance is not politicized or corrupted by political and criminal factions active in the camps.

  2. Determine straightforward standards for identifying the Islamist extremist groups that will not be dealt with and move decisively to begin cooperation with the others as long as they support an inclusive agenda for the country.

  3. Determine those groups’ immediate needs including weaponry, and institute the means to provide for them in cooperation with Turkey, without whose consent nearly all U.S. efforts to aid the anti-Assad forces would fail.

  4. Work with those groups, including the Syrian National Coalition, to identify and promote a national leader with the intention of creating a pluralist government in Syria.

  5. Utilize its influence and ties to Turkey and other regional actors to obtain cooperation for the securing of the Assad regime’s chemical and biological weapons arsenal and place those plans into action as soon as practicable.

  6. Continue to work with European partners to prepare future Syrian officials to set up and operate the structures of a pluralistic government including an impartial judicial system. While regime officials accused of war crimes can be expected to face trial, assurances to the Alawite community that wholesale reprisals will not occur will bring progress toward a post-war peace that much faster.

  7. Economic assistance should be lined up to provide for the rebuilding of the Syrian state, with clear guidelines to ensure that aid is provided only as long as the transitional government adheres to specified standards of behavior and makes progress toward a pluralistic style of governance.

  8. Offer attractive alternatives to Tehran’s mediation/peace talk machinations with the long-term goal of degrading Iran’s influence in Syria.

  9. Leverage its relationship with Russia to reduce Moscow’s diplomatic and military assistance to the Assad regime.