Is it possible that the conflict in Syria is one of those wicked problems that defy a strategic solution? Up to this point it is impossible to tell, because the Obama administration’s policy on Syria seems to be bereft of any real strategic logic. The Geneva II conference, a diplomatic initiative in which the U.S. has invested significant political capital, was built on a strategic reality that may have existed in 2012, when the first Geneva meeting was held, but no longer prevails today. With the Assad regime having gained significant traction militarily on the ground, and with further fragmentation of the rebel groups, very little of what the U.S. is doing is likely to yield any meaningful relief to the suffering, or lead to any sustainable resolution to the political crisis engulfing Syria.
If the U.S were to have an actual strategy for Syria, how would it differ from what the Obama administration has already done? First, it would make a clear distinction between what its goals are and what means will be used for achieving those. It appears that the removal of Assad, which originally may have been intended as the means for restoring order and ending the carnage in Syria, has now morphed into an end in itself. The problem with this is that with a splintering opposition, and the proliferation of Islamic jihadist militant groups, it is possible that the removal of Assad may actually make the security situation on the ground even worse for the Syrian people than it is today. So the Geneva communiqué, which mandates a transition to a new governing body in Syria, is outdated and contributes to a confused strategy that makes no clear distinction between what the goals are and what the means are for achieving them.
Second, a strategy would be based on an accurate and current assessment of the conflict. When protests first broke out in the southern Syrian town of Dera’a in 2011, the legitimacy of the Assad regime was in fact the core issue. As divided as the various rebel groups were on tactics, they coalesced around the view that Assad had lost his legitimacy to govern. So when President Obama called for Assad to step down in August of that year, and then committed non-lethal support to the rebels, the administration’s strategy may have been based on an accurate analysis of the situation.
But today the battle is no longer just about who will govern Syria, but also about whether Syria remains intact as a state. The Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS), along with other jihadist groups that have entered the fray, are not just threatening the Assad regime, but is also regionalizing the conflict, threatening the integrity of state boundaries separating Syria and Iraq. Moreover, the insertion of Hezbollah into the conflict on the side of the regime threatens the delicate political balance in Lebanon as well. U.S. policymakers need to address the reality that who governs Syria legitimately is only part of the problem. A greater threat to U.S. interests could be the eventual collapse of the state of Syria, and possibly state failure in Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan.
Third, a strategy would need to take into account how each party to the conflict derives leverage. U.S. efforts through the Geneva process have focused primarily on negotiations between the Syrian opposition and the Assad government. While undoubtedly important, it ignores the fact that the Syrian conflict is now a proxy war, with Iran and Hezbollah giving support and leverage to the regime, and Saudi Arabia and Qatar giving support to different factions of the Syrian opposition.
If the Obama administration intends on influencing the calculus of Assad, its strategy needs to shift from a focus on the parties fighting in Syria to an emphasis on the regional powers that are now fueling the conflict. In a departure from the Geneva process, talks and negotiations now need to include all regional powers with a stake in the fight, including Iran. Make no mistake—it will be a daunting task to bridge the divergent interests and strategies of Saudi Arabia, Iran, Qatar and others. But it isn’t impossible. The specter of widening regional conflict, which benefits none of the regional powers locked in this proxy war, could be the basis for finding common ground in Syria.
Last, a strategy would need to consider the different scenarios that could possibly emerge out of the Syrian crisis. And U.S. policymakers would need to decide which of these they and their international partners can and want to get behind. One scenario would be that the Assad regime is able, with the help of Russia, Iran and Hezbollah, to consolidate control over most or all of Syria. While it is far-fetched to think that Syria will ever return to the status-quo ante, it is possible that continued assaults by government forces on Aleppo and other areas of Syria, could ultimately break the back of a disunified opposition. Another scenario could be that Syria remains nominally intact, but the civil war continues on for years to come, with or without the Assad regime. A third, but unlikely, scenario would involve Syria fracturing into Alawite, Sunni, Christian and Kurdish rump states. And the fourth, perhaps least likely but most scary, scenario would involve the complete collapse of the Syrian, Iraqi and Lebanese states, and the complete erasure of international boundaries between them.
Since the third scenario that involves Syria fragmenting into rump states and the fourth scenario that involves a complete redrawing of international boundaries are likely to lead to greater regional instability and further bloodshed, and a possible expansion of al-Qaeda’s influence, the U.S. needs to support scenarios that involve Syria staying intact, even if that means working indirectly with the Assad regime, through its Russian and the Iranian benefactors. While Assad is brutal, Machiavellian and has lost legitimacy, we should not completely rule out a role for him, at least in the medium term, if as the least-bad option it is the only pathway towards achieving the goals of greater stability and a cessation of violence.
Even the best-crafted strategy that manages to shift Iran into a constructive role for Syria, and gets cooperation from the other regional protagonists, might not lead to a cooling of the civil war. But with the crisis in Syria now merging with the crisis in Iraq, and with the risk that the conflict will completely engulf Lebanon and Jordan, ultimately threatening U.S. interests, including Israel, the stakes are too high to continue on a failed Geneva track that focuses mainly on the Syrian opposition and the Assad regime, to the exclusion of Iran. As the conflict has regionalized, the U.S. also needs to regionalize its strategic efforts. While with a more robust regional strategy we may not be able to solve a problem that has been years in the making, without it we risk that the current conflict spreads even wider, posing grave threats to the interests of the U.S. and its allies.
Ross Harrison is on the faculty of the Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, where he teaches strategy. He also teaches Middle East politics at the University of Pittsburgh, and is the author of Strategic Thinking in 3D: A Guide for National Security, Foreign policy and Business Professionals (Potomac Books: 2013)
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