Obama’s options for Syria
On Saturday the United Nations Security Council demanded that Syria’s government and its armed opponents end attacks on civilians, allow the delivery of humanitarian aid across borders and battle lines, and protect minorities. The Security Council also called for the lifting of sieges against civilians and said that it would take additional measures if the two parties did not comply.
Even if fully implemented, this welcome push on humanitarian issues will not end the violence in Syria, or resolve a conflict that has left over 120,000 people dead and one-third of the population displaced. More action is needed if a political solution is to be found and a serious peace process initiated. The American people won’t support deployment of U.S. troops. Russia will veto any new U.N. Security Council resolution with teeth. But Washington should consider other diplomatic, assistance, financial and military options.
Diplomatic options now include formally terminating the U.N. negotiating effort, which has so far failed to reach any kind of agreement, even on an agenda. The U.S., a prime mover behind the talks, could announce that it would reopen them only if President Assad agrees to discuss concrete steps towards a democratic transition, which he has so far failed to do.
Another option is for the United States to formally recognize the Syrian Opposition Coalition (SOC) — a disparate group representing the more moderate factions of the political and military opposition to Assad — as the legitimate government of Syria. The SOC could then take over the Syrian embassy in Washington, expel any embassy personnel still supporting the regime, and challenge the credentials of the Damascus government in the United Nations.
Today the SOC lacks authority inside Syria because it can provide only the spottiest of government services in limited areas. Washington could change that by providing funding, through the SOC, for local administrations in liberated areas of Syria, conditional on their willingness to allow broad participation in government — including secularists, Islamists, women, and minority religions and sects. This would help the SOC to gain legitimacy with the Syrian people.
To gain legitimacy abroad, the SOC should consult with the U.N., the Arab League, Turkey, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon about planning for post-war Syria. By positioning itself as a moderate force in the post-Assad era, the SOC would begin to re-establish international ties that Assad’s regime has severed.
Assad is pinched financially because Syria’s main oil facilities have fallen into rebel hands. The U.S. and European Union could weaken Assad further by introducing additional sanctions in response to the regime’s failure to comply with the September agreement to remove all chemical weapons. Sanctions would prevent the regime from receiving any international financial transfers, by blocking their flow through American and European banks.
Russian political, financial and military support has emboldened Assad, and contributed to his recalcitrance. But Moscow has yet to offer Syria any meaningful humanitarian aid. Washington could tell Moscow it expects Russia to contribute at least $1 billion this year to relief efforts in Syria and in neighboring countries. It could also ask Russia to halt arms shipments and finances going to the Syrian regime, or face the prospect of sanctions against the banks involved, and ultimately a naval embargo of Syrian ports.
Diplomacy, aid and sanctions are more likely to work if the military balance on the ground inside Syria changes in favor of the SOC. The U.S., or its Saudi and United Arab Emirates allies, could increase the supply of military equipment and training to moderate Syrian rebels. Threatening U.S. drone strikes, Washington could demand the withdrawal of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and Lebanese Hezbollah forces, which are fighting on behalf of Assad’s regime. The U.S. could issue a similar threat against al Qaeda and other extremist forces fighting against the regime.
Force, if used judiciously, could weaken Assad without dragging the U.S. into another conflict. The Syrian government uses indirect fire — bombs, missiles or shelling — to disrupt governance efforts in liberated areas and displace civilian populations. According to the U.N.’s Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, the regime’s efforts constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity. The U.S. and other partners could strike Syria’s air force and artillery, destroying as much of it and its supporting infrastructure as they can find.
There are problems with all of these options; otherwise they would have been pursued long ago. The biggest obstacle is Russia, which under Putin has often defied the United States in order to re-establish its great power status. A more aggressive U.S. stance on Syria could make the Russians redouble their assistance efforts to the regime, or harm U.S. interests elsewhere. Moscow could, for example, hinder the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan by blocking the northern route, which passes through Russia and several former Soviet republics whose cooperation Russia could discourage.
None of these options can be used as a bluff. The Russians, Iranians and Syrians are far too experienced with American feints to be fooled. The virtue of these options — or more likely, a combination of several of them — is that they would tilt the battlefield in the opposition’s direction, enabling a transition to begin.
In the absence of a concerted effort to strengthen the opposition or weaken the regime, nothing is likely to work. The war will continue, Syria will be increasingly partitioned into sectarian and ethnic enclaves, and the risk of both state collapse — of Syria and its neighbors — and extremist victories will increase.
President Obama has wanted Syria to go away, because it does not pose a direct and vital threat to U.S. national security. But it is becoming an indirect and more serious threat with every passing day, as extremists join the fight and it spills over into the region. Continuation of the war is costly, in terms of human suffering, in outlays for humanitarian and military assistance, and in lost confidence among America’s Arab allies and friends.
If the president wants to recalibrate, he has his choice of options.
PHOTOS: A boy holds his baby sister saved from under rubble, who survived what activists say was an airstrike by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Masaken Hanano in Aleppo February 14, 2014. REUTERS/Hosam Katan
A Syrian rebel shouts the Islamic phrase, Allahu Akbar or “God is Great”, before the group attacks a government controlled army checkpoint in the Ain Tarma neighborhood of Damascus January 30, 2013. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic