While limited surgical strikes may restore US credibility, they fall far short of changing the balance of forces in Syria, and take us no closer to a resolution of this conflict. The baseline scenario for Syria, sans a major US intervention, is a prolonged sectarian war wherein many different groups fight it out to control territory and influence, with the country increasingly becoming a safe haven for a resurgent al Qaeda and a source of regional and global instability. When the conflict dies down, battle-hardened radical Islamist insurgents will emanate out to throughout the world spreading terror, in a repeat of what we saw in the aftermath of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
Instead of chasing al Qaeda fighters in twenty countries with drones a decade from today, they ought to be eliminated now, while they can still be located and identified with relative ease. The strategy outlined below offers a reasonable chance of obtaining a post-Assad Syria that the United States can tolerate, without putting boots on the grounds.
The principal source of the problem is that the rebellion is composed of scores of disparate groups ranging from moderate ones that form the core of the Free Syrian Army to Islamist extremists who increasingly identify ideologically with al Qaeda. Turkey, which has served as the principal conduit for arms, money, and training for the rebels has been indiscriminate in its support, mostly because the extremists are hard to distinguish from the salafis in the payroll of the Saudis. Qatar was directly arming the extremists until the Saudis forced them to hand over their ‘Syria file.’ Large amounts of private Gulf money has found its way to the extremists to such an extent that there has been significant inflation in the illicit arms market.
The demonstrated fighting prowess of the extremists also add to the trepidation of White House officials. The conundrum faced by the US is that striking Assad hard risks his ouster, with the attendant risk of significantly enhancing the influence and capabilities of al Qaeda affiliated insurgent groups like al Nusra. The surgical strikes proposed by the administration are, therefore, necessarily limited. The strikes are unlikely to resolve the contest in Syria either way or prevent the worst end-game scenarios from obtaining. So what’s to be done?
A diplomatic solution whereby the great powers along with regional actors – which will have to include Iran to have any possibility of success – persuade Assad to reach a political accommodation with the opposition is out of the realm of possibility at the present juncture. This is simply because Assad believes that he can stay in power indefinitely and that the threat of a large-scale US intervention is not credible. For a diplomatic initiative to succeed, the facts on the ground have to change first. In particular, Assad needs to be convinced that he faces a choice between getting killed in his palace and accepting asylum in Russia.
The United States should simultaneously do three things: destroy the regime’s air power and anti-air capabilities in a series of strikes with precision guided munitions, strike all al Qaeda affiliates that can be identified and located, and launch a massive campaign to heavily arm the core moderate groups in the FSA umbrella with airdrops if necessary. Then, instead of completely destroying Assad’s military power, the US should try to weaken it to the point of forcing it to the negotiating table. It is critical that the campaign should be allowed to unfold relatively slowly over a few months for the rebels to regroup, and for the effective marginalization of the extremists.
These three components – eliminating Assad’s air and anti-air capabilities, rebalancing the rebellion by crushing the extremists and heavily arming the moderates, and then punishing Assad till he seeks accommodation – complement each other and offer the only possible path to a tolerable outcome.
Neutralizing Assad’s air and anti-air capabilities will allow the insurgents breathing room and secure the air-space for the US to provide support to the moderate insurgents, strike the extremists, and weaken the regime’s military capacity. This would eliminate the need to supply anti-aircraft weapons to the rebels, something the administration is loath to do due to the risk that they might fall into the hands of extremists, who might later use them against commercial airplanes.
It is absolutely critical to ensure the supremacy of the moderates in the rebellion before weakening Assad too much, which is why they need to be armed with heavy weapons and why the extremist wing needs to be hit hard. It should be enough to provide heavy weapons to a small subset of carefully vetted groups to tip the military balance in their favor. The capitulation of the Assad regime before the marginalization of al Qaeda affiliates risks creating a safe haven for the latter.
The preferred end-game is to achieve a Lebanon-style accommodation that gives the different confessional groups a stake in the new order. Without a political accommodation acceptable to surviving armed groups, the peace will not hold and we may witness an even bigger humanitarian catastrophe, with the slaughter of the Alwaite community perhaps reaching genocidal proportions. If Assad refuses to budge, the CIA should be given time to prompt a coup by officers who would be willing to reach a political accommodation with the moderate opposition. If no such coup is forthcoming, the US should try to install General Idris, the commander of the FSA, as a client and ensure that he tries his utmost to stamp out sectarian killings. This last outcome is the least desirable but despite US efforts may obtain anyway. The administration should take comfort in the knowledge that the baseline scenario under non-intervention is even worse.
Lastly, the US should signal its commitment to this strategy to Russia and Iran. They can be persuaded to push Assad to sue for peace with a simple carrot and stick strategy. The US should offer to allow them to retain a degree of influence in Syria if they cooperate, with the promise of shutting them out if they don’t when the United States prevails without their help, as it surely will.