Just prior to ending my tour in Syria as U.S. Ambassador in August 2003, I sent off an analysis of what de-stabilizing the Assad regime could mean for U.S. regional interests. It was chosen as my valedictory because some Administration officials with a neocon bent were leaking stories that Syria “should be next” after our invasion of Iraq. Entitled, “Be Careful What You Wish For,” this analysis predicted that substantially weakening the Assad regime would likely ignite a civil war. That war in turn could result in a failed state or an Islamist dictatorship led by the types that had already begun attacking coalition forces in Iraq.
Major events in the Mideast region rarely go according to script, but the Syrian people are indeed suffering a merciless and increasingly sectarian civil war that has shattered the country’s physical infrastructure and rent its social fabric. Over 40,000 are dead. The human suffering is immeasurable. Let’s hope that the remainder of my long-ago analysis proves wrong. In any case, Bashar Al-Assad may soon be little more than the warlord of the best equipped militia in Syria whose forces control only parts of Damascus and some contiguous territory between it, Homs, and the Alawite/Christian heartland in the coastal mountains to the west. The armed opposition as currently constituted will find it difficult, if not impossible, to coalesce around a platform for the country’s future. As territory is secured and victory seems at hand, these groups will start to fight one another for power in earnest. In contrast with Egypt and Tunisia where the armed forces quickly abandoned the dictator, the Alawite core of the Syrian armed forces and regime’s institutions of repression identify with the President’s family. A formerly downtrodden and despised minority, most Alawites understandably fear that unmerciful revenge will exacted against them and their families. The Christians and Druze communities, while not culpable, know what al-Qaida did to minorities in Iraq and elsewhere.
The best hope to avoid Syria becoming a failed or radical Islamist state is for the U.S. and Russia to cooperate. Together, and in concert with NATO, regional states, and U.N. bodies, they can help shape a more hopeful future for people whose forbears established some of the earliest human civilizations. The Obama Administration has already worked effectively behind the scenes to help birth a new, more representative coalition of the Syrian opposition in Doha, Qatar, last month. That some of the most radical and violent Jihadi groups denounced its formation is a good sign. This new umbrella group should be an improvement over the ineffective, Muslim Brotherhood-dominated Syrian National Council that was absorbed into it.
Meanwhile, the Soviet Union and then Russia have long been the major arms supplier and trainer of the Syrian armed forces. The Russians know some of the key Alawite flag rank officers in the military quite well. With the feared Syrian G-2 (military intelligence bureau) preoccupied, they presumably have the ability to contact some senior officers on whether sticking with the Assad regime serves the best interests of the country and their community. It should be noted that, while calling for Assad’s ouster, the Obama Administration repeatedly has made clear that is does not seek to disband the Syrian armed forces, as was done in Iraq.
The main obstacle to any U.S.-Russian cooperation has been Vladimir Putin’s deep-seated suspicions of U.S. policy in the region. Stung by Qaddafi’s demise and what he views as NATO’s exceeding its U.N. Security Council mandate to protect the civilian population there, Putin is determined to safeguard Russia’s interests and great power status. He fears another precedent of foreign intervention in the “internal” affairs of sovereign states (think Chechnaya) and believes that the U.S., in cahoots with Saudi Arabia, is intent on establishing radical Islamic regimes on Russia’s borders (delusional). Until now, some U.S. officials have concluded that Putin is willing to let Syria go down in flames rather than permit a U.S.-led international community to broker a transition away from the Assads’ 42-year rule.
With the Assad regime reeling from its loss of territory and military bases, it’s time to test Russian intent once more. Is Putin beginning to believe that his country is playing a losing hand in Syria, while alienating much of the Islamic world? Russian officials are publicly striking a new, more conciliatory tone. It may be too much to hope that they will allow immediately a UNSC resolution under Chapter VII that calls upon Assad to hand over power to a transitional government or face the consequences. It is not too much to ask that, in cooperation with the U.S., the Russians try to persuade Syria’s military professionals to break with Assad in return for strong guarantees that they will have an honorable role to play and that their families will be protected in the wake of the regime’s fall. I never believed that the Assad regime could be quickly or easily brought down. But I certainly do believe that Bashar, if facing defeat, prefers guaranteed safe-passage into exile rather than an ignoble death.
The U.S. and Turkey, meanwhile, are best positioned to prevail upon the moderates, whether secular or religious, within the opposition to forego revenge and seek a new accommodation with elements of the armed forces. Both sides must accept that the worst of the war criminals will be brought to justice. Yet, it is unrealistic, just as it was in Iraq, to bring to account everyone with the blood of innocents on his or her hands.
The stakes are enormous. Similarly divisive identity politics prevail across an arc stretching from Lebanon, through Syria and Iraq, down to Bahrain and the oil-rich eastern province of Saudi Arabia. If Syria experiences prolonged de facto partition among warring Alawites, Sunnis, and Kurds, what happens in Syria will not stay in Syria. Already Shiite powers, Hizballah and Iran, are aiding the regime, while Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar are providing funds and materiel to the largely Sunni revolutionaries. Some Iraqi Sunnis and Kurds are making common cause with their Syrian compatriots.
Yes, it will be satisfying to see Assad’s regime fall and to cut the Iran-Hizballah supply line through Syria. However, if that is all that isaccomplished, it will be a Pyrrhic victory.