Back in March, looking at the crisis in Syria, it made sense to argue that “the test of statesmanship in such violent transitions is to define the least bad outcome and to select a mixture of diplomatic, economic and coercive tools appropriate to the specific case.” It also made sense to write that providing humanitarian and lethal assistance to opposition forces helps to “send a signal to the regime’s backers, and it helps level the playing field.” The goal of policymakers, I argued, should be an internationally negotiated and monitored transition that removes Assad while preserving the unity of the country and the continuity of basic state institutions.
Those judgments remain valid. But the goals have receded into the distance. Plans for a second round of UN-hosted, U.S.- and Russian-backed peace talks in Geneva are in abeyance, though the goal of a Geneva II conference was just reconfirmed by G-8 leaders. What has happened since March? Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad and his friends exploited their superior weaponry and coherent logistics to outmaneuver and outgun an ill-organized and underequipped set of opposition militias, reversing some rebel gains and threatening to consolidate the regime’s strategic position for a long, grinding war of attrition. Standing by their military and diplomatic ties to Damascus, the Russians raised the military ante even as they talked about peace talks. In parallel, Iran unleashed its Hezbollah clients, who formally and publicly joined Assad’s brutal crackdown.
By finally taking the decision to provide direct, military assistance to the opposition, the Obama administration has persuaded itself to do—or, at least, to be seen as doing—what its allies, partners and domestic critics have been pleading for. The nuances of the administration’s slice-and-dice foreign-policy decisions are complicated to follow, and they raise a number of questions: do we hold back from more robust steps (sanctuaries, no-fly zones, antitank weapons) because our favored rebels aren’t yet ready to compete with the jihadists, as David Ignatius suggests in the Washington Post? Or because we are trying to wedge the Russians by raising the stakes incrementally while signaling that we could do a lot more? Are we making a serious effort to signal how much of the existing state machinery could survive in a transitional deal, or are we leaving this critically important question to the fractious rebel coalition? Are we using our broader relationships with the major Arab and Turkish neighbors to lead the way toward a unified strategy? Are we exploring the hard transition issues with the Russians in diplomatic channels, or confining ourselves to the sort of public statements made at the G-8 meeting in Northern Ireland a few days ago?
The G-8 communiqué language includes some interesting formulations: “[Syria’s] public services must be preserved or restored. This includes the military forces and security services. However all governmental institutions and state offices must perform according to professional and human rights standards, operating under a top leadership that inspires public confidence, under the control of the transitional governing body.” In a direct reference to the risk that Syria’s transition could be hijacked by Sunni jihadists—a point on which there is striking agreement between Russia and Western nations—the communiqué went on: “We will support UN planning for Syria's transition, recovery, and reconstruction needs, in particular by maintaining continuity of state institutions during transition and helping to ensure that the security forces are effective, accountable and able to deal with the threat of terrorism and extremism.”
However, the real risk is that Syria effectively fragments or collapses before these sporadic, incremental diplomatic and military efforts to create top-down pressures for a negotiated deal have any real effect. The conflict needs to be ripened, both militarily and politically using all the tools available so that the framework of a deal emerges. That deal must meet the minimal requirements of Syrians, the neighbors, and key external powers. As the communiqué puts it: “Syria must belong to all Syrians, including its minorities and all religious groups.” An acceptable deal is not going to come from diplomacy alone; nor will one come from military action and arms-supplies alone. Both will be needed. Above all, the administration will require a hands-on, round-the-clock integrated policy apparatus enjoying determined presidential commitment.
Critics who worry that Washington is now expanding the war in yet another Arab land should remember that we did not internationalize this struggle; that was the work of Assad’s patrons and several of Syria’s Sunni-led neighbors. With the United States now sending signals backed by some limited, tangible action, an already internationalized proxy war now has a slightly greater degree of balance. Critics who argue that we should go “all in” for a rebel victory ignore the risks of Syria’s sectarian morass. We do not want direct ownership of Syria’s fate. There are important reasons why a negotiated transition deal is the least bad option:
● It may be the only way to constrain jihadist influence in a future Syria;
● It could provide the foundation for a future constitutional regime;
● It may be the only way to get Assad and his clique out of power;
● It may be the best way to break Assad’s personal alliance with the Russians while getting their support in the UN and with the Iranians.
On the surface, we have taken sides with a Sunni-dominated regional alliance against a Shia axis running from Tehran to Beirut. But it is to be hoped that we can do better than simply adding fuel to sectarian fires. This would ironically reverse the effect of our actions ten years ago in overthrowing the Sunni minority regime of Saddam Hussein, handing the Iranian mullahs the strategic gift of Shia domination in Baghdad. In the end, though, consistency is not the point. The real point is the need to stem an explosive sectarian dynamic that could raise Middle East dangers to the highest level in many years. If we fail to do that in Syria, this juncture will go down as the worst episode of American policy during the Arab awakening.
Chester Crocker is the James R. Schlesinger Professor of Strategic Studies at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service.