How should the United States, and the international community, respond to the escalating bloodbath in Syria? Over the last two months, the overwhelming weight of editorial and op-ed commentary has been in the direction of calling for military action of some sort – especially to arm a Free Syrian Army. The calls for military action span the spectrum: from John McCain and Lindsey Graham and the FPRI-FDD group of conservative hawks to liberal interventionists. For people desperate to do something to help the Syrian people, and at the same time for people keen to deal a blow to Iran or bring down a long-hated regime in Damascus, the time seems right for some form of military intervention.
I was a strong supporter of the intervention in Libya. But the diversion of the debate about Syria towards military options has been counterproductive. None of the military options, including arming the Free Syrian Army, are likely to significantly help the Syrian people and most risk making things far worse.
But the recent display of a broad-based international consensus, including the 137-12 vote in the United Nations General Assembly condemning the regime’s violence, and the first meeting of the “Friends of Syria” group Friday in Tunisia make this a crucial time to seriously explore nonmilitary options that have a more realistic chance to be adopted ... and to succeed.
In a new report released last week by the Center for a New American Security (cnas.org/pressurenotwar), I argue that if the goal is to help the Syrian people and not just to hurt an Iranian ally, then the international response to the Syrian crisis must focus less on whether to use military options than on ways to improve the prospects for a “soft landing” after the fall of the Assad regime. The report lays out a number of concrete suggestions for mobilizing diplomatic pressure and breaking the intensifying polarization between two Syrian communities in order to push for a political transition.
I can’t offer any guarantees that this strategy will work quickly or cleanly ... but neither can those now recklessly calling for poorly conceived military action.
The first half of the report assesses each of the major military options that have been put on the table: no-fly zones, tactical air strikes, safe areas, armed observers and arming the opposition.
For each of the first four, I argue that the military means would not respond effectively to the violence, would be far more complicated than advocates acknowledge and would likely soon pave the way to further escalation upon failure.
I spend the most time arguing against the currently fashionable idea of arming the Syrian opposition (about whom, as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Martin Dempsey has noted, little is really known). It is unlikely that arms from the outside would come close to evening the balance of power and would only invite escalations from Syrian regime forces.
While advocates assume that a better-armed opposition would encourage a wave of defections from the Syrian army, it is just as plausible that growing militarization will harden the polarization in Syrian society and the resolve of Syrian troops. Those currently on the fence, disgusted with President Bashar Assad but afraid of the future, could well be frightened back onto the side of the regime and move even further away from any kind of realistic political solution.
Finally, there is the reality of the deeply divided, fragmented nature of the Syrian opposition. Most enthusiasts for arming the Free Syrian Army preface their call by insisting that it is necessary that the Syrian opposition first unify.
But it hasn’t, and shows no signs of unifying politically any time soon. There is quite simply no prospect that the Syrian opposition will unify politically in the time frame envisioned by those who hope to rush weapons to the front lines to protect civilians in besieged areas like Homs.
The report also tries to lay out a political and diplomatic strategy to increase the pressure on the Assad regime while building the conditions for a political transition. Those grappling with the Syria crisis too often do not take seriously enough that Syrians remain sharply divided over the crisis.
Many Syrians continue to support the regime, some out of genuine fear of the future, some out of true commitment, some out of sectarian solidarity, some because they believe the narrative that the regime has crafted about foreign conspiracies.
Ignoring or scoffing at their beliefs, or lobbing propaganda across a hostile divide, isn’t going to help. No post-Assad Syria is going to be stable if it can’t include and command the loyalty of that sizable portion of its population – and so a political strategy must be designed to engage them in a plan for transition.
That does not mean engaging Assad or accepting his farcical reform proposals. The time for negotiations with the top levels of the Assad regime has passed, and if they refuse to engage immediately then they should be moved towards indictment at the International Criminal Court.
A real choice should be given to lower level state officials, who should understand that their window is rapidly closing to defect or be indicted. Targeted sanctions should increase the pressure on the top of the regime. The Friends of Syria group should coordinate international activity, and every possible international forum should be mobilized to isolate and shame the Syrian regime.
But pressure is not enough. Efforts should be stepped up to reach out to the broad base of the regime’s remaining political support and to persuade them to take a frightening, risky leap into the unknown of a transition. The international community should work to bring credible information about regime atrocities to those Syrians who doubt their reality and to reassure them about their place in a post-Assad Syria.
To the latter end, I lay out some proposals for drafting a political pact with international guarantees to which the Syrian opposition would commit itself as a way of reassuring those key parts of the Syrian fabric. This may still be possible, but not if military options are chosen or major arms flow in to the various groups fighting under the banner of the Free Syrian Army.
The choice is not between political options that won’t work and military options that will work. The hard truth is that the available military options have little chance of quickly or decisively turning the tide against Assad’s regime. They are more likely to simply ratchet the violence up to a higher level, while badly harming the chances of any kind of political transition that could create a stable, inclusive Syria.
I hope that this political proposal will be given a chance, even if its success if far from assured.