The conventional wisdom about Syria is that nothing can be done. It is said that military action would be either perverse — bringing the jihadists in the opposition to power — or futile, failing to tip the balance against the government of President Bashar al-Assad. Using force, it is argued, would also jeopardise other strategic objectives, like securing a lasting nuclear deal with Syria’s supporter Iran.
The trouble is that the conventional wisdom may be fatalism parading as realism and resignation masquerading as prudence. Any realist needs to face two facts. First, absent the credible application of force against the Syrian regime, a negotiated transition leading to Assad’s departure is not going to happen. Despite the efforts of the United Nations envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, the peace talks in Geneva between the Syrian government and the opposition coalition have become a waste of time. The opposition forces have been weakened by military defeats, and Assad’s strategic advantage gives him no incentive to concede anything.
Second, if Assad is allowed to prevail in this conflict, he will reimpose his tyranny, and his forces will surely exterminate the remaining Sunni insurgents who make up most of the opposition. Obliterating his enemies, however, will not bring lasting peace. It will only further inflame hatreds. Sooner or later blood will flow again. Though nominally committed to Assad’s overthrow, the United States, in doing so little to bring it about, is becoming complicit in his survival. Is there a realistic alternative?
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Arming the rebels is not the answer. Providing weapons, as nations like Saudi Arabia and Qatar have done with their fundamentalist proxies in Syria, appears to have only increased civilian suffering without shifting the conflict in favor of the insurgents. Neither is the solution to create humanitarian corridors or safe zones to protect civilians. Doing so will not succeed unless Western governments commit ground forces, and that won’t happen.
The only remaining option is to use force to deny Assad air superiority. Planes, drones and cyber operations could prevent his forces from using barrel bombs, cluster munitions and phosphorus weapons on civilian targets. An air campaign should not be used to provide support for rebel groups whose goals the West does not share. The aim would be to relieve the unrelenting pressure on the civilian population and force Assad to return to Geneva to negotiate a ceasefire.
Last year, the threat of force persuaded Assad to get rid of his chemical weapons. Applying force now could deny him the chance to bomb his way to victory. Assad can endure only if he crushes the insurgents. If he is denied victory, his eventual departure into exile becomes a matter of time. A ceasefire in Syria would likely unleash a chaotic struggle for power, but it is better than slaughter. Syria is bound to look like Libya. International peacekeepers will be needed to prevent revenge killing by the opposition and former Assad allies alike.
The conventional wisdom holds that there are no “good guys” in the opposition, no one we actually want to win. There weren’t many good guys among the Balkan politicians in the late 1990s, either, but by working with them as a special presidential envoy, Richard C. Holbrooke did help bring a stop to the killing. If force were applied to leverage diplomacy in Syria, as the US did in Bosnia, the dying could stop, refugees could return and negotiations could eventually lead either to partition or to a constitutional transition.
Given the near certainty that Russia would veto any UN Security Council authorisation of air power, and that the US Congress, if asked to authorise force, would likely turn President Obama down, stopping the war in Syria will stretch domestic and international legality. But if legality is not stretched, the killing will go on indefinitely. Every piece of this proposal — using air power, forcing a ceasefire, putting in international peacekeepers — would be a test of presidential nerve and resolve. Military action risks confrontation with the Russians and is unpopular with a recession-weary public in the US.
Above all, using force would make the president “own” the Syrian tragedy. So far he has tried to pretend he doesn’t have to. The fact is he owns it already. American inaction has strengthened Russia, Hezbollah and Iran. It has turned Syria into the next front in the war with Islamic extremism. And it has put in jeopardy the stability of Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey and risks leaving a failed state next door to Israel. If the president already owns the deadly consequences of inaction, it is only prudent now to back diplomacy with force so that the consequences do not become deadlier still.
The writer is a professor of practice at the Harvard Kennedy School The New York Times