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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?
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 continued…