The Syria conference underway in Geneva to transition from the rule of President Assad will fail, and the Obama team knows it. There is no incentive now in the Assad or rebel camps for diplomatic compromise, and the U.S. knows that. Nothing the U.S. and its allies are doing or planning on the military front will compel President Assad to step aside, and the White House understands that full well. The reality on the ground today is that American-helped moderate rebels continue to flounder, while Assad’s forces and those of the jihadi extremists prosper. Obama officials see this as well and realize that nothing they are doing or are likely to do will alter those facts.
So, if President Obama understands what he is doing will fail, why is he doing it? The answer is that the Obama administration sees no viable alternative. Obama officials simply can’t bear the thought of joining hands with Assad, even if temporarily and even in the right anti-jihadi cause. And they simply don’t see any way to push the moderate rebels into harness with Assad, even against the dreaded extremists.
But there is an alternative that may be viable. It starts not just with understanding the current course is failing, but that the costs of failure to U.S. power in a still critical area of the world are too high. It begins with realizing that Washington must pressure moderate rebels and Assad (with Russian help) to set aside their mutual hatreds and focus on what they both see as the much larger long-term danger to them both – the jihadis.
Step one is for the Obama team to redefine U.S. objectives sharply and publicly. The first and key goal must be to devise and support collaboration between the Assad regime and the moderate rebels against jihadi extremism, the overriding threat to almost all Syrians and their neighbors. There must be a working arrangement between Syria’s moderates and the Assad government, even if it includes Assad, at least for the time being. This new goal would also serve the already emerging second U.S. priority of establishing humanitarian zones in Syria to relieve the awful suffering of the Syrian people. Neither objective – and this must be stressed – entails or requires highly premature political compromises in Geneva on an interim or future government.
Neither Assad nor the moderate rebels are close to taking this political plunge. But Washington can help them to see that they must be ready – for their own survival – to join forces against the jihadis and to pull their fellow Syrians from the madness of starvation, homelessness, and refugee status.
These objectives run consistently with realities in Syria and the region, unlike Obama’s current course. They accord with the worst fears of both the Alawites and the moderate Sunni rebels inside Syria and of most nations in the region and beyond. These objectives postpone Assad’s fate and make it more likely that some kind of peaceful transition to a new government can be arranged in the future. What the U.S. is doing now can only prolong Syrian and regional agonies. Zeroing in on the jihadis, while relieving the suffering of millions of Syrians, has a chance of working.
This is not a pleasant policy choice. Indeed, it’s an ugly one, given Assad’s sins. But it is based on the facts on the ground in Syria and its jihadi-threatened neighbors. On Tuesday, Secretary of State John Kerry blurred these realities. On the one hand, he correctly stressed that “we need to deal with reality here.” Then, however, he escaped from reality by insisting that there is “no way possible in the imagination” to work with Assad. This consistent unrealistic Kerry line may not be shared by the White House. Officials there, including the president, have not been in recent months nearly as categorical as Kerry in rejecting the possibility of some working relationship between Assad’s Alawite/Shiite regime and the American-backed, moderate Sunni rebels. Perhaps the White House now realizes that it was too quick off the mark and too absolute when the Syrian uprising first began. At that time, it stated its main goal as Assad’s removal from power. Perhaps now, administration officials are prepared to entertain a transitional working arrangement with Assad.
That end can be joined with realities inside Syria. Certainly, all parties hate one another. But a good case can be made that Assad and the moderates fear or should fear the jihadis more than they hate each other. The Alawites, Syria’s Christians, and other religious ethnic minorities know the Islamic radicals would target them most brutally and end any hope for a tolerant, secular society. Moderate Sunnis, the majority of Syrians, realize they would not fare much better. The extremists would Islamize and tyrannize their mostly moderate and secular country. Life under Assad was nasty, but life under extremist command would be worse. Obama officials have to do a far better job of helping all Syrians see that this nightmarish future could surpass the Assad past. Of course Syrian moderates can’t forget or simply set aside past Assad horrors, but they have to be made to contemplate future ones as well.
Meantime and to help move matters in this anti-jihadist direction, the Obama administration also has to pursue harder a second track, one already on their platter – to push Alawites and Sunni moderates toward effective humanitarian cease-fire zones to provide food and medical relief. Assad’s ghouls have undermined a few such meager efforts to date. Their tactic has been to use these arrangements to expand Damascus’ control. Both Russia and the U.S. must make Assad aware that it will be impossible to make working arrangements with his government against extremists under such circumstances. And there’s considerable evidence that Moscow would back this approach. At the same time, Washington has to pressure moderate rebels to buy into such humanitarian cooperation with Assad. It’s their people, their supporters who are suffering most and who would profit most from humanitarian zones. Another benefit would be to shine the spotlight on Assad’s cruelty if he did not truly cooperate with humanitarian zones. It’s not a big stick, but Russian pressure could help.
The U.S. can’t expect help in this new reality-based course from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states like Qatar. These Gulfies are so blindly anti-Shiite and anti-Assad that they have been backing the Islamic extremists. To them, any Assad survival for any length of time means victory for Shiite Iran, their ultimate devil. Obama should do some tough talking to Riyadh just to make the point. It should not expect much, however, until it convinces Riyadh that it can put together successful policies in the region. Sure, fashioning an anti-jihadist policy in Syria would be easier with Riyadh, but it can be done without the Saudis and others. And Israeli leaders, who despise both Assad and the jihadis, won’t interfere unduly.
Most other key countries would welcome a U.S.-led effort that had a decent chance of tamping down the Syrian conflict and its spread. Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon, whose very survival is in question, desperately want an end to the flood of refugees pouring into their countries and to the potential Islamic upheavals. Key European nations are already beginning to work with Assad, especially on joint intelligence operations against European-based Islamist fighters. Iran might be willing to associate with any plan that protected the Alawites in the future. Most critically, Russia could and should be made a partner in this plan. Moscow is quite clear-eyed about the links between the Syrian jihadis and its own Muslim terrorists. Indeed, fashioning a working arrangement between Assad and the moderate Sunnis should be a joint Russo-American initiative.
With such a coalition of outside powers to back up the working arrangement between Assad and the moderates would come another benefit – a basis for a coherent military and diplomatic strategy. There would be a greater willingness among the U.S. and its allies to provide more and better arms for the moderates. This effort would also send a salubrious message to Assad’s camp. The working relationship also would provide the groundwork for a future power-sharing arrangement between the Alawites and the Sunnis. In the beginning, nothing need be said about Assad’s fate. The Russians, Iranians, and Alawites could say that there is no agreement to dump the dictator. The moderates could paint the arrangement as the path to his departure. Indeed, his exit would be made easier if Alawites felt more assured that a bloodbath did not await them. Meantime, if they cooperated, both Alawites and moderate Sunnis would be doing something, finally, for the Syrian people’s humanitarian catastrophe.
The prerequisite for this is for the U.S. to postpone current efforts for some kind of political transition among Syrians. That’s a bridge much too far for now. The prerequisite is for the U.S. to forge a working relationship between moderates and the Assad government to fight the greater jihadi threat. The prerequisite is for the parties in Syria to show some basic decency and save their own people.
Frank G. Wisner is a former Under Secretary of State and of Defense and a former Ambassador to Zambia, Egypt, the Philippines, and India. Leslie H. Gelb, a former New York Times columnist and senior government official, is author of Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy (HarperCollins, 2009), a book that shows how to think about and use power in the 21st century. He is president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations.