How to Lead on Syria

The world is miffed that Washington hasn't stepped up, but U.S. voters aren't eager for a new war. A careful path can restore leadership without entanglement.

Ten months since calling Syrian regime use of chemical weapons a game changer for U.S. policy—and having earlier this month acknowledged that a “red line” was crossed—the Obama administration is under pressure to show how its calculus has changed in Syria. Concerns over global credibility, increasingly high strategic stakes, and a dire humanitarian crisis are a siren song to U.S. action, yet the endgame is less clear than ever. Syria is a mess and we have few options, none of them good. One thing is certain: the United States is unable and unwilling to pursue ambitious goals in Syria. But as the United States eases or slips into involvement, plans for the aftermath should still influence actions taken today. We can, perhaps, eke out a modicum of success by bolstering moderate rebel elements and committing to coordinate allies’ efforts towards Syria.

Syria’s myriad problems are only getting worse. The death toll mounts, and refugees continue to flood into Turkey and Jordan. Once a self-contained civil war, Syria increasingly serves as a proxy fight for regional rivals. Iran, Russia and Hezbollah back the regime while the Gulf countries and Western powers support the rebels. Syria’s sizeable chemical arsenal is less secure than at any time before, and a surge of Hezbollah support to the regime has changed the trajectory of the fighting. With the regime’s core mostly intact, Assad’s allies providing substantive support, the rebels disorganized and Western support indecisive, momentum may be shifting from the rebels to the government.

A perceived lack of U.S. leadership has kept words like “feckless” and “dithering” oozing from recent editorials. Perhaps more important than bad press is the Arab and European powers' apparent lack of confidence in the U.S. ability to create unity of effort. While NATO countries wait for a mandate that isn’t forthcoming, the New York Times reports Saudi Arabia and Jordan quietly shut the United States out from a program to train rebels. In the absence of a clear U.S. commitment, no other power has stepped in to fill the leadership vacuum.

In the long term, the United States would like to see a stable, democratic government capable of providing security for its citizens and its borders. But the Syrian conflict is not about democracy; it is a vicious power struggle with regional implications. Some say strategic considerations such as stemming the spread of Iranian influence are paramount. Others focus on the humanitarian toll and urge intervention to stop the bloodshed. Ultimately, the conflict combines both strategic and humanitarian issues. Tragically, strategic and domestic considerations will likely trump purely humanitarian concerns. American public opinion remains solidly against intervening, and the death toll, while devastating, lacks the shock value sought by those who invoke Rwanda (and even then, most people ignored what was happening).

As bad as the conflict is today, there are no great outcomes either. Either the regime will win, lose, or settle for some unclear power-sharing compromise. In the first scenario, Assad would likely clean house—some suggest another one hundred thousand would be killed in opposition extermination—Iranian influence would grow, sectarian tensions could destabilize the region for years, and the West would be shut out of rebuilding. A rebel victory implies regime change, but we have little idea who among the rebels will come out on top or how they will govern. Reprisals and power struggles could lead to a destabilizing civil war similar to Iraq and spark a bigger humanitarian crisis. Not only does this create an environment inviting to extremist groups, but they also could end up in control of chemical-weapon stockpiles.

There will be tremendous need for outside assistance in stabilization, reconstruction, and economic recovery, but the degree of U.S. influence depends on planning efforts now—and on which opposition group dominates. A negotiated settlement without a decisive victory will be fraught with potential for future violence and will require the most external intervention to enforce. It would likely create a multiyear need for peacekeeping as well as reconstruction.

If Assad falls or the parties reach a negotiated settlement, Western interests need a moderate, strong and unified opposition. This is the greatest opportunity the administration's policy shift offers. The potential to bolster moderate groups likely outweighs the risks of arming the "wrong" rebels. To date, moderate elements have not gained traction on the ground. Instead, wealthy Gulf donors are playing real-world "hunger games" by funding and arming pet groups, many of which embrace extreme ideological orientations. These radical elements currently have better training and support networks, many built and refined in battle against U.S. forces and U.S.-supported governments over the past decades. If handled correctly, the new policy might reverse this trend and give moderate elements an upper hand for the first time.