It may be important to begin by setting down a point of clarification for those who ask themselves “what could have been?” What could have happened if the west had accommodated the uprising in Syria earlier with lethal materials, when the conflict was “not sectarian”. To clarify, the ongoing struggle in Syria was always a sectarian conflict. Calling for the overthrow of an elite minority connected by tribe and interrelated through privileged networks that span the economy, military, and civil governance, is a factional sectarianism that from the beginning had the specter of a regional conflict divided by identity. From early on the conflict has been a revolt against the entirety of the existing institutional order that places the Assadi clan at the top of the pyramid. This political development did not build overnight, but can be seen as the culmination of a previous decade that saw two notable cycles of rebellion, the Damascus Spring in 2001 and the Damascus Declaration of 2005. The former sparked collective dialogue that activated new political consciousness. The latter declared the elites who governed them “authoritarian, totalitarian and cliquish.” The Declaration only called for “gradual” and “peaceful” reform. It was not until the new cycle of struggle that the physical threat against the elite order would occur. Indeed, The greatest solidarity comes from seeing ones friends and relatives die at the hands of the opposing force.
In contrast to the aforementioned cycles, the Assad regime is now fighting for its very existence. With 70,000 casualties, millions displaced, and regional third party groups splitting to one camp or the other, a stalemate is locked in place. The international community could arguably tip the balance towards the departure of the regime, but has until now been unwilling to commit for a multitude of reasons that include both questions of logistics and interests. The Assad regime, having powerful protectors and friends that include Russia, China, Iran, and Hezbollah, are likely to continue their aid in the UN security council and on the ground. Regional actors on the other side of the conflict; “Friends of Syria”, gulf monarchies, and Turkey, are also likely to continue their aid, and negotiate for more on behalf of the opposition.
The United States then faces a difficult decision. But before the decision to intervene or not could be adequately vetted, the conversation has already been had. The narrative has become numbingly robotic. Assad is a bad guy and must go. “Assad must go!” has been a rallying cry of this conflict, for those inside Syria and for those who seek his departure, but when exactly did the oppositions rallying cry become America’s foreign policy? When did the U.S. decide sending arms to Jihadists was more appropriate than sending drone missiles? We claim there are moderate elements in Syria we must strengthen, but when did the U.S. decide we know what kind of political terrain is likely to materialize in post-Assad Syria? We can’t predict the future, but we can interpret the present and ask better questions then we are right now. Instead of asking how and when we will finally muster the political will to oust Assad, we should begin by asking ourselves, what effect does a post-Assad Syria have on the United States Foreign Policy?
One year ago, with rebel advances in Aleppo, on the road between Homs and Damascus, and the expropriation of regime checkpoints and military bases in heavy conflict zones, the opposition’s victory had an air of inevitably. The conclusion would come to its end based on the dynamics already in place rendering the entrance of U.S. power unnecessary. However, the introduction of Hezbollah military forces from Lebanon, the increased support of Iran’s revolutionary guard, and Russia doubling down on its strongest Arab ally in the region have all complicated that calculus. The government and its allies have enough soldiers, firepower, and legitimacy with parts of the population to stalemate indefinitely and perhaps live through this cycle of struggle.
Even if the regime can regain control, they are likely to only live to fight another day. How long can the Assad family stay in power anyway? If there is an expiration date on this institutional arrangement in Syria, the U.S. runs the risk of standing by while any moderate elements of the opposition evaporate. There won’t be any moderate elements left to supply and aid in the next cycle of the struggle, leaving a vacuum for radical elements to fill. This should be of great concern to the U.S. because of its possible impact on Israel. Our concern is with the security of Israel and the stability of its long border with Syria. Neutralizing radical elements of the opposition to Assad, and dissuading those forces and regime forces (who may or may not be acting on the orders of their chain of command) from escalating tensions on the border is key to settling this concern whether the civil war continues or ends in one directions victory or the other.
A political solution brokered by Russia, the power with the most extensive diplomatic channels inside Syria, and regional players, continues to be a preferable endgame for the U.S. because it does not give outright victory to a shadowy and diffuse rebel force we know little about or allow the crisis to manifest into an even larger refugee nightmare or source of tension between the U.S. and Russia. Unfortunately, By not consulting with Russia from the beginning in regards to its foreign policy interests, the U.S. closed the door on diplomatic channels with Russia on the topic of Syria, a country the U.S. has scarce historical relations with or credibility in. That is not to say this channel couldn’t be reopened, and recent news of both sides pledge to convene an international conference aimed at ending the civil war may prove fruitful for just this sort of endgame. We should not adventure for outright victory by seeking democracy building, installing a Sunni regime, or in any way using Syria as a means towards pressuring Iran, another nation that Russia has interests in. From Aaron David Miller, distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center:
“This isn’t the conventional notion banging around Washington that the best way to weaken the mullahs is to push al-Assad out […] when the moment of decision comes on Iran, he’ll need Russian and Chinese support and as much flexibility as possible if he needs to launch military strikes. He knows he won’t get Russian support on Syria and Iran. And he doesn’t want to be engaged in military campaigns on two fronts (and in Afghanistan) if he’s going to war with the mullahs.”
The primary interest of the U.S. in Syria is stability, and though relying on Bashar and the Ba’ath party may no longer be feasible for that stability, the devil we know certainly has had its benefits in being part of decades of predictable relations. His departure runs risks. A vortex of conflict, in which the U.S. gets pulled into another war in the middle east, in favor of an opposition that’s sole unifying point is a negative attitude towards a brutish but predictable regime, is unlikely to achieve stability. It’s likely to incite further sectarian insurgency that leads to minority Christians persecuted and Alawites pushed back to the mountains in western Syria. Under these conditions, it’s not surprising that Bashar supporters are willing to fight on after two years of bloodshed. The vengeance would be terrible.
If Bashar al-Assad were to depart, it’s not clear the civil war would reach a conclusion. The fracturing of Syrian society and the influx of weapons and foreign fighters leave little prospect for a ceasefire even after a transitional period begins. Like we saw in Iraq after the dissolution of the republican guard, Saddam Hussein’s military forces, the fighting does not stop when the mission accomplished banner is thrown up. The Ba’ath party in Syria is unlikely to concede to an outright defeat, and rebel forces have made it clear nothing but outright victory will do. The margin for diplomacy is slim. If internationally brokering the conflict in a manner that assures both the opposition and the regimes allies proves impossible, we are then left two choices: lead the way and give the opposition the means to topple the regime, or take a page out of China’s foreign policy playbook, and allow Russia to quietly lead, to whatever conclusion that may be.