Will U.S. President Barack Obama be content if the Free Syrian Army is able to keep the north of Syria and finish taking Aleppo?
Will he decide that the rebels should take Damascus as well, pushing the regime and the Alawite religious group, which predominates within the regime, back toward the western coast-land, where Alawites constitute the majority of the population?
Or will Obama decide to back the rebels with enough firepower to destroy the regime altogether, occupying both the predominantly Alawite and Kurdish regions of Syria?
The obvious options that Obama must choose from are three:
1. The one-state solution: Preserving Syria as a unitary state by keeping the country one. This means supporting the Sunni Arab opposition with enough weapons and backing to conquer Hama, Homs and Damascus, as well as occupy both the Alawite and Kurdish regions. The same result could be reached by a political compromise (Geneva), but a negotiated solution seems unlikely. Without a foreign occupation of Syria to impose a solution on all sides, no incentive exists for either the Assad regime or opposition militias to make painful concessions that could diminish their authority.
The Taif Accords that ended the Lebanese Civil War, and are often pointed to as a model for Geneva, were agreed to by the disputing Lebanese parties largely because Syria occupied Lebanon and disarmed the various militias – that is all except for Hezbollah, which continues to defy central authority today. Without Syrian boots on the ground, the Lebanese militias would have been unlikely to lay down their arms or agreed to living under a common government, even one as weak and dysfunctional as the present Lebanese government.
2. The two-state solution: Divide the country into two states, which corresponds to the present reality. This means simply giving the rebels enough backing to stop the Syrian Army’s offensive in the north and empowering them to fully capture Aleppo, Deir al-Zur and their surrounding countryside. Of course, the rebel forces are made up of over 1,000 militias. This means that the rebel held north is anything but stable and offers only a rough patchwork security for those who live there. What is more, big hunks of the north are presently ruled by al-Qaida affiliated groups. Thus, Obama has set the U.S. up for a two front war. One against Assad in the South and another against Jabhat al-Nusra and its allies in the east.
3. The three-state solution: Divide the country into three, following the ethnic lines of the major combatant groups. This is the Balkan solution, pursued by President Clinton when he cut Yugoslavia into seven states. This would mean creating an Alawite, Sunni Arab, and Kurdish state. Such a solution would be opposed by the rebels and much of the international community, but it would recognize the difficulties in putting Syria back together again.
If the U.S. decides to help the Sunni Arab rebels go for a total victory, it must take responsibility for ensuring that ethnic cleansing of Syria’s minorities is not carried out by the empowered Sunni Arab majority. Only an international peacekeeping force can guarantee against unnecessary bloodshed if Obama hopes to arm the Sunni militias for a clean sweep. Many of the militiamen make no bones about their desire for vengeance or their belief that Shi’ites no longer have a place in their country. This is to be expected after the brutal beating they have taken at the hands of the Alawite-dominated Syrian Army.
For those who dismiss the dangers of ethnic cleansing, it is worth remembering that after the defeat of the Third Reich in WWII, over 12 million Germans were driven out of Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and other Eastern European states, where they had lived for hundreds of years. So too were the Armenians and Greek Orthodox driven from Anatolia by Ottoman and Turkish troops during the terrible fighting that swept over the region from 1914 to 1922. Anatolia was close to 20 percent Christian in 1914. By 1922, less than one percent remained, as over three million Christians were cleansed or forced into a population exchange with Greece, which expelled some half a million of its own Muslims. More recently, Palestinians have been driven from their lands, destabilizing the region for decades. Iraqi Christians took flight from their native land as anti-Christian violence grew to a crescendo with the attack on Saydet al-Najat Church in 2010. Their numbers fell by over half. Ethnic cleansing is only one of the dangers that President Obama must protect against as he builds up the rebels into a more lethal fighting force.
If Obama wants rebels to take Damascus, he must guarantee that that fighting does not destroy the city, as happened to Aleppo. If he provides only howitzers, simple rockets and lighter forms of weapons, stalemate and fierce street by street fighting will ensure that Syria’s capital of some 5 million people is leveled. Another major wave of refugees will stream out of Syria.
President Obama is arguing that his new policy of supplying weapons in not really a change of policy at all, but rather a continuation of his previous policy of pushing for a political solution. But this doesn’t correspond to the Syria I know. I doubt that either the rebels or the Assad regime are willing or able to make the painful compromises needed to keep the country unified. This is a recipe for dividing the country along the present battle lines, give or take a bit.
Obama owes both the American and Syrian people a clear statement about what he sees as Syria’s future borders and how he plans to help Syria’s rebels build what he called a “stable, non-sectarian representative Syrian government that is addressing the needs of its people through peaceful processes.”
This post was originally published 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.