The United States and Europe may eventually have to draw a red line for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his regime.
The U.S. government should tell Assad that he must launch serious negotiations for a transition government. If he does not, Western governments should consider threatening to supply opposition militias with ground-to-air missiles in sufficient numbers to bring down the Syrian air force. Circumstantial evidence suggests that U.S. officials in Libya may already have been working to facilitate the transfer of portable heat-seeking missiles – the bulk of them SA-7s – from Libya to Syria.
As soon as the elections are over in the U.S., Washington should redouble its efforts at changing the balance of power in Syria, if Assad does not begin to form a transitional government in earnest. He must come to terms with the most powerful rebel leaders or see his air force neutralized.
Arab League-U.N. special envoy for Syria Lakhdar Brahimi should be empowered to monitor and report on these negotiations, judging if they are sincere.
Assad should be encouraged to work toward some sort of agreement comparable to the Taif Agreement – or National Reconciliation Accord – that ended the Lebanese civil war. It may be impossible to get the Sunni militias to accept such a solution, particularly as they remain so divided. All the same, it is worth trying.
“Assad has no chance of regaining control of Syria… [b]ut he insists on using his air force to destroy what remains of rebel-held towns. This is senseless destruction.” – Joshua Landis, University of Oklahoma
It makes sense to force Assad to fall back to the Alawite Mountains, where he can protect Alawites from potential slaughter and uncontrolled retribution, but where his capacity to do damage to the rest of Syria is severely limited.
Assad has no chance of regaining control of Syria. He does not have enough soldiers to retake lost cities. But he insists on using his air force to destroy what remains of rebel-held towns. This is senseless destruction. He has no hope of recapturing them. It should be stopped. He has been carrying out a scorched earth policy that is killing thousands of Syrians and leaving hundreds of thousands homeless.
I have long resisted supporting U.S. intervention, believing that the U.S. should refuse to get sucked into Syria. It cannot determine what is fair. No one truly understands the “real” Syria today, as Syrians are only beginning to emerge from 40 years of severe authoritarianism that stopped politics in its tracks. Most importantly, the opposition has been too fragmented to replace the Syrian Army as a source of stability and security. Syrians need to find their own way forward and create a new balance among the sects and regions. Decapitating the regime too suddenly, I believe, would likely result in a number of unhappy endings: a massacre of the Alawites, a civil war among militias that could bring even greater suffering, or a meltdown of security as happened in Iraq.
I believed that the various Syrian factions have to find a new equilibrium, which would not happen with an overpowering U.S. intervention. Even one limited to the use of American air power, such as that carried out in Libya, could be too much force used too quickly.
The supply of portable heat-seeking missiles, however, seems to be increasingly justified. U.S. politicians fear that elements of the Syrian opposition may misuse ground-to-air missiles, but surely they cannot be misused more than the Assad’s jets and helicopters. Assad’s air superiority combined with his inability to rule Syria, is causing endless misery. Air power is so destructive that if it should be denied to both sides; surely fewer people would be killed.
Assad and his increasingly Alawite-manned army can no longer control Aleppo and Damascus, which are overwhelmingly Sunni. It is not clear that Assad will be able to defend even the Alawite Mountians from the growing strength of Sunni militias. That is a fight that the U.S. should stay out of, however. Who knows how Syria will look when the fighting is over. I change my views almost every day, but it seems clear that the Syrian air force has become an instrument of needless destruction that is only delaying the day of reckoning for the Alawites.
This post was originally published under a similar headline on Syria Comment.
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Joshua Landis is director of the Center for Middle East Studies and associate professor at the University of Oklahoma. He is also the author of Syria Comment, a blog on Syrian politics, history and religion.