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Syria: Towards a Strategic Reappraisal

The closing session of the 2013 Atlantic Council Energy and Economic Summit in Istanbul featured a lively discussion of what to do about the mess that is Syria.

Written by News Deeply Contributor Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes

The four panelists included former national security advisors to Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, a member of the European Parliament, and a prominent Turkish journalist.

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Although they disagreed on several points, the net effect of the conversation was twofold: first, to endorse the observation of Turkish President Abdullah Gul earlier in the day that turning a blind eye to a crisis in a faraway place produces unintended but inevitable spillover consequences for those closest to it; and second, that resolving the Syrian crisis in a manner consistent with Western interests will require a coherent strategy on the part of the United States, along with American leadership.

The panelists agreed that the replacement of the Assad regime by an interim national unity government upholding inclusive, non-sectarian citizenship should be the principal aim of the West and its regional partners. That is the objective of President Barack Obama’s administration. Yet hoping that a Geneva conference will produce such a result in the face of regime military gains struck all of the panelists as inadequate and unrealistic in terms of a strategy.

All expressed alarm over the implantation of al-Qaeda affiliates in areas not controlled by the regime. One panelist asserted that Islamist extremists support by Saudi Arabia and others were responsible for most of the deaths in Syria. Although the independent international commission of inquiry has assigned the culpability for death and destruction in Syria overwhelmingly to Bashar al-Assad’s regime, the assertion itself reflected understandable, palpable, and growing alarm over the rise of sectarian extremism.

Those panelists who saw Assad’s removal as essential, one way or the other, expressed doubt that it would happen without supportive developments on the ground. Yet recent events seem to be working entirely to the advantage of the regime. As armed opposition nationalists get squeezed between the regime and radical Islamists, Assad and his apologists feel comfortable in claiming that the only real choice for the West is the regime or al-Qaeda: between a long-time state sponsor of terror and terror itself. The fabrication and marketing of this proposition has been at the heart of the regime’s survival strategy since day one of the Syrian uprising. It has found no shortage of eager, credulous customers, even in high places.

None of the panelists saw the possibility of a military solution to Syria’s travails. Yet none saw much hope for diplomacy either, with Assad and the extreme Islamists consolidating their uneasy partition of the country. Although critical time has been lost and much more time would be needed to train nationalist forces and to oversee their arming and equipping, three of the four favored a decisive American role in deciding which opposition elements get what in terms of lethal aid, regardless of the sources. Such a role could not be played from afar by remote control: the United States would have to be in the lethal assistance business in a meaningful way.

Those who favored such a course noted that there is no shortage of weaponry in Syria—but that nearly all of it is in the wrong hands. They also acknowledged that while strengthening those fighting for a civilized outcome for Syria might (and ideally would) facilitate a stable, negotiated outcome, it is equally likely that fighting would go on for years before conditions for fruitful peace talks could be established.

The subject of American military strikes did not arise, perhaps owing to the performance of the American commander-in-chief in the wake of the August 21, 2013 chemical atrocity. And no one argued that the war might usefully and humanely be shortened by starving nationalists of assistance and acceding to the division of Syria between the ruling clan and its al-Qaeda partners in partition. It is inconceivable that such an outcome would protect civilians, save lives, return refugees, or restore the economy. It would instead be a death sentence for Syria, freezing in place those for whom human life is nothing when it comes to preserving the power of a corrupt clan or imposing the barbarism of criminal, pagan rule in the stolen name of Islam. To resist such an outcome would indeed cost the lives of combatants and non-combatants alike. To accede to it would cost many more, perhaps for decades to come. And given enough time it would empty Syria of Syrians.

With political transition seeming to be a long-term proposition, the panelists supported a strong diplomatic effort to achieve full access for United Nations humanitarian assistance assets to all of Syria, consistent with the recent statement of the UN Security Council president. An audience member noted the absence of wealthy Gulf states from the leadership of international efforts aimed at saving and easing the lives of desperately needy Syrians, a field from which Russia, China, and Iran have notably absented themselves as well.

Indeed, as Russia works to keep the West addicted to the elixir of Geneva while it and Iran work for the regime’s survival, Moscow continues to deny that its client used chemicals on civilians or that it engages systematically in war crimes and crimes against humanity. If their client, using arms and ammunition it has lavishly provided, has by all credible accounts created a humanitarian catastrophe putting nearly half of Syria’s population at dire risk, it has eluded the notice of Russia. This is the Russia of Vladimir Putin; the Russia on which the administration is relying to make Geneva an exercise in political transition.

In a private conversation an administration official recently opined that the likely failure of Geneva and the rapid liquidation of regime chemical weapons could combine to bring about an administration strategic reappraisal of Syria. The basic choice, according to the official, would be one of either adjusting to the existence of the Assad regime in some or all of Syria, or working more diligently for its removal.

Geneva is seen by the official as a test of Russian intentions and capabilities with regard to the prospect of a stable, post-Assad Syria, one theoretically to be set in motion by the application of the June 2012 Geneva political transition principles. If Russia cannot or will not deliver the regime, then it’s back to the drawing board for Washington, but with the chemical agreement fully or nearly implemented and in the pocket. Apparently some in the administration believe Assad retains a feasible option of not cooperating on the chemical front, a belief that suggests it is the United States that feels constrained, no matter the outrage that may befall Syria and its people.

Although the possibility of such a reappraisal need not be dismissed, there is reason for doubt. The arguments for strong American support of those Syrians willing to resist the sectarian-driven terrorism of the Assad regime and the al-Qaeda affiliates it has spawned have long since been made and then rejected at the top. The credible threat of American military strikes, even when diluted by congressional opposition, forced Assad to accede to the loss of his chemical weapons. Yet the credible threat required nothing at all for the protection of Syrian civilians, and now it is gone—along with a slice of American credibility and perhaps a measure of American freedom of action as well.

If the administration is truly interested in a strategic reappraisal—or even strategy itself—it need not await a Geneva postmortem. If supporting Syrian nationalists at levels sufficient to fight on two fronts—against Assad and al-Qaeda—is remotely in the cards as a key facet of American and Western strategy, plans for its implementation should be ready to launch now, as the regime and al-Qaeda work feverishly in tandem to kill Syrian nationalism and the kind of political constitutionalism that best represents it. The only reappraisal that matters would be one that happens in the mind of President Obama. He alone knows whether or not there will be a strategy, and for what.

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