What was supposed to be the Syrian phase of the so-called “Arab Spring” has evolved into one of the greatest tragedies of the 21st century.
The once-peaceful opposition to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s deeply entrenched and powerful Ba’ath Party regime has escalated into armed resistance and, finally, a brutal civil war – one that has now claimed close to 100,000 lives. This escalation poses a serious threat, not just to Syria’s neighbors, but – given the existence of chemical weapons in Syria – to the international community as well.
The United States, like other nations supportive of the Syrian opposition, has chosen to act, but to do so primarily through diplomatic and economic means. Its hesitancy to take more direct action is understandable given the fractious nature of the opposition, but the cost of failing to influence the balance of power between the opposition and the Syrian regime could be high. I say this not only because of the horrific humanitarian toll that is being exacted, but also because the conflict is almost certain to spread to all of Syria’s neighbors. Meanwhile, Assad, confident of his military strength and with support from Iran and Hezbollah, continues to wage war on his own people in what has now become an overtly sectarian conflict.
“…assuming that a political solution proves impossible, we need to have a fallback strategy of containment that aims to build a buffer zone in and around Syria.” – Dennis Ross, The Washington Institute
At this stage, it might appear almost too late for the United States to have an influence on the Syrian crisis. To be sure, providing small amounts of lethal assistance will not have much impact on the situation. Iran and Hezbollah are determined to keep Assad in power, even to the point of using their own forces. As such, the U.S. will need to do more to make sure that the provision of lethal assistance can affect the balance of power. This will require actually assuming responsibility for managing the whole assistance effort to the opposition.
This will not be easy. It will require coordinating all the disparate sources of support on the outside – from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Britain, and France – and ensuring that all money, training, weapons, and non-lethal and humanitarian assistance are channeled in a complementary and cooperative fashion.
There should be no illusions: Should the U.S. take over the management of the assistance effort – something that will require a serious investment of time and political capital on the part of the administration – transforming the situation and the balance of power will take time, and is not a given at this point.
After all, the Syrian opposition remains fragmented despite the formation of a Syrian National Coalition last year. Moreover, the Jihadist elements, having received the most money and arms, retain the upper hand within the opposition, at least at this juncture. To help influence a positive outcome, then, the U.S. administration would need to ensure that all assistance is going only to those who are committed to a non-sectarian, inclusive Syria. These groups are at a disadvantage now, and, even if they are given the kind of assistance and training that they need, it will take time before they are able to exploit it.
The larger point here is that the U.S., and others that support the opposition, need to have a clear objective. Providing more material assistance, including weapons, in a more systematic and coordinated fashion is a means to altering the balance of power on the ground, and that is the only way a politically negotiated transition can become possible.
That is the hope, and it remains a long shot at the moment. Not only must the opposition become more credible and less divided, but the international coalition that supports the opposition must itself become more unified and provide determined and consistent support to those fighting the Assad regime. Even if some sort of political agreement became possible, it would need to be enforced by an international peacekeeping presence.
If a political resolution to the situation seems like an increasingly forlorn objective, how can the United States respond to the ever more probable outcome that Syria will simply fall apart? Assad, whatever he believes, is not going to succeed. He may continue to control certain areas within Syria for a while, but a fragmentation of the country is more likely. Such a deterioration would pose a threat to the international community as a whole: Not only might al-Qaida embed itself in what would effectively be a failed state, but the loss of control over Syria’s chemical weapons could have catastrophic implications for everyone. If the situation does worsen along these lines, Syria as we have known it for decades will cease to exist.
At a minimum, assuming that a political solution proves impossible, we need to have a fallback strategy of containment that aims to build a buffer zone in and around Syria. While this is not a very satisfactory approach, the fragmentation of Syria cannot be allowed to destabilize the whole region.
This post was originally published on WashingtonInstitute.org. ©2013 The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Reprinted with permission.
The views expressed in this Insight are the author’s own and are not endorsed by Middle East Voices or Voice of America. If you’d like to share your opinion on this post, you may use our democratic commenting system below. If you are a Middle East expert or analyst associated with an established academic institution, think tank or non-governmental organization, we invite you to contribute your perspectives on events and issues about or relevant to the region. Please email us through our Contact page with a short proposal for an Insight post or send us a link to an existing post already published on your institutional blog.
Ambassador Dennis Ross is counselor at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. From 2009 through 2011, he was was a special assistant to President Obama and senior director of the Central Region on the National Security Council staff.
September 9, 2013
Edward S. Marek
August 13, 2013
I agree with Samuel Prime. Syria is not our problem. I would go one step further and suggest the Mideast, however defined, is not our problem. These people love to fight each other and kill each other, and there is no need for the US to get entangled in it all. If you see this is an unrealistic view, okay, I would agree to an effort to contain Syria without getting involved in it. Turkey, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon, surround the bastards and hold them in. I cannot support a no fly zone because that requires we destroy Syria's air force and air defense systems, a monumental ground attack.
July 29, 2013
I am a Chinese, I am balanced to both sides. But after I read Dennis’s article, I feel he has the same stupid brain with G. W. Bush, always biased on one side of thinking. Let me ask two questions: 1 Who caused the situation, those rebels who cut people’s chest, and eat their heart? 2. Who is killing civilians. If Syrian government kills their own people, they could do so many years ago. Dennis, Go to High school, finish your diploma.
July 28, 2013
I agree with Naes, let them fight till the sun stops shining, this will weaken the peaceful ‘religion’ of Islam some more. At the end of it, Iran and Hezbollah will come out as strong as a boiled noodle, and the gulf states with some big holes in their wallets. What’s there not to gain from that? Meanwhile, the west moves on with their lives, while Muslims will have taken another step toward the seventh century they so cherish.
July 26, 2013
Dennis, I say that the US should do nothing and leave them to their own devices. Let Assad focus his war machine against the jihadists who are our worse enemy – that would be a way to fight terrorism: letting terror regimes fight terrorists. The secular non-jihadists rebels in Syria are too weak to expect effective results from in a timely way in this crisis, which seems largely a war between jihadist Islamist and Assad. The one area in which we can be useful is establishing safe zones in Syria to prevent the proliferation of refugees – which is already a serious problem for neighboring states. This is one area where we could play a significant and useful role. But arming an ineffective rebel group would seem pointless.
July 22, 2013
american made a grate mistake by supporting the rebel at earlier stage of the conflict, islam is fighting against itself, any kingdom that fight against it’self cannot stand, let them put down their arms and follow our Jesus who is the prince of peace so that they may have peace
July 24, 2013
Islam and Christianity are not solution to today’s conflicts and killings. Both religions, in my view, are bogus. People who affect the conflict should come together, understand each others’ concern and find solution for their own good.
July 28, 2013
Perhaps you would like to tell that to the Muslims of the middle east, who routinely persecute Christians and other non Muslims. You sound like Albanian to me, European traitors who conveniently switched sides at a time when Europe was bleeding. One cannot negotiate with cancer, except extirpation or irradiation
July 20, 2013
Iran is wasting money it doesn’t have propping up a useless ally (now basically a vassal). Hezbollah is sending hundreds of its fighters home in body bags while Israel carefully ensures that it doesn’t get advanced weaponry through occasional airstrikes. Saudi money that would go toward building Whabbi mosques is being used in Syria. Money that the Qatari emir/sultan/king/whatever would be sending to strengthen the Muslim Brotherhood in various countries is being sent to Syria. Even if Assad, Hezbollah, and Iran “win” what have they actually won? A huge pile of rubble- A country that will not recover for at least 50 years. Hezbollah’s reputation is forever shattered in the Arab world (even though everyone who isn’t a raging antisemite has always recognized them as an Iranian puppet). Hamas no longer receives money from Iran because they chose different sides. The Sunni-Shia divide is the widest its been since the Ottoman-Persian Wars of the 1500s. As cynical as it sounds, the time these factions spend killing eachother is time they don’t spend killing Westerners.
Neither side is going to win all of the country. Assad controls 60-70% of the population. The rebels control 60-70% of the land. It would save everyone a lot of trouble if they just just split Syria into Kurdistan (in the north), Sunnistan (along the Eurphrates with Aleppo as the capital) and West Syria (of Allawites, Christians, Druze, and loyal Sunnis). There. Problem solved. It’s already happening de facto. Making it de jure might actually end the war… assuming we want to end it.
Right now, sitting back and doing nothing seems like an ideal policy for the US. Syria is a nasty little Iranian/Russian client and is reaping exactly what it has sown. Those Sunni al-Nusra-type rebels were supported by Assad when they went to Iraq to kill Americans. So long as the US doesn’t decide to absorb an extra million Syrian immigrants, it seems like a win for the West no matter what the eventual outcome is. As for the refugees, sorry but that’s life in the Middle East. 99% of them wouldn’t hesitate to do the same thing to the Allawites, Christians or the Israelis if given the chance so I would caution against abundant humanitarianism.
July 24, 2013
Why don’t you read a book on geography before going on with your fiction? This country is too small to divide and has embraced multi-culturalism for ages before Assad and his father seized power.
I agree with you that Qatar and Saudi Arabia have their own agenda, so any management of assistance should be done by the US directly. The Syrian people are cursed with both the regime, which used the country as a mansion as well as the weakling opposition which failed to live to the expectations of the Syrian people as well as international community.
The best way forward is to arm the rebels and deliver some cruise missiles to certain bases such as Baalbek and Beirut Dahia in Lebanon where Hezbellah is staging his forces and military airports and air defenses in Syria.
Only after a show of force that you could have sides on one table to agree to sign a truce. This is what happened in Lebanon during its civil war and in Iraq after the US invasion. As long there are fighters, weapons and ammunition with either side, they will fight to bitted end. If someone must be defeated, it is the regime that killed its own people just to protect the interests of the Assad family.
July 26, 2013
The “country” isn’t small it all, it’s huge and easily divisible. The Sykes-Picot borders are dead. Sunnistan runs from Homs in the west to the Sunni triangle in Iraq all the way to the Iranian border. Shiastan is the southern half of Iraq with most of the Iraqi population. Alawistan is a country the size of Lebanon in western Syria while Kurdistan is a fact – 95 years late. “Syria”, “Iraq” and “Transjordan/Jordan” were British and French fictions in the first place. None of them existed in history. And now the first two are finished.
July 27, 2013
Well said Naes and Astaris. I would say that both of you have an excellent grasp of history and geography.
July 27, 2013
July 29, 2013
“If someone must be defeated, it is the regime that killed its own people just to protect the interests of the Assad family.”
Really? And what about that “opposition” that is too lousy to talk and prefers to play cowboy? Not to mention those Islamist fanatics who believe they have the right to kill anyone who doesn’t agree with their idea of religion?
You are connecting two very different things. In Lebanon nobody was defeated. Hezbollah dominated – but only to a certain extent – and it has since then also spent a considerable time in the opposition. It is hard to see how you could achieve such a thing in Syria. If Assad is defeated it is more probable that many thousands will be killed, millions will end up as refugees and an Islamist dictatorship will be established.