Marc Lynch

Preparing for Assad’s Exit

Preparing for Assad’s Exit

Last week’s stunning assassination of several key Syrian security officials, the sudden spread of serious fighting into Damascus and Aleppo, and the Russian-Chinese veto of a Chapter VII resolution at the UN Security Council have ushered in a new phase in the Syrian crisis.  Five months ago, I wrote a policy report for the Center for a New American Security warning against U.S. military intervention or arming the opposition, and proposing a series of non-military steps which might help bring about a political transition. In April, I argued in a Congressional hearing for giving the Annan Plan a chance to work. 

In an essay published today on CNN.com, I suggest that diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis have failed — but that this is no cause for celebration.  Annan’s efforts, supported by the U.S., attempted to find some path to a "soft landing" which could avoid Syria’s descent into  sectarian civil war, insurgency and potential state collapse. For his pains, Annan was often treated as an enemy by Syrian opposition supporters anxious for external military intervention, outraged by the daily bloodshed or distrustful of any regime promises.   But the likely course of the struggle to come demonstrates painfully why this was an effort worth making. 

Today, we face the grim reality that the prospects for a negotiated transition have largely ended and Syria now likely faces a long, grinding insurgency with few foundations for a viable post-Assad scenario. Sadly, such an outcome of long-term violence would be acceptable to many whose primary interest is weakening Iran rather than protecting civilians or building a more democratic Syria.  At this point, it is vital to prepare for an end which won’t come soon, but when it happens will likely be sudden and surprising.

The CNN essay was meant to appear on Friday morning, but was pushed back due to the horrible Colorado shooting tragedy;  in the interim, several very good pieces have appeared making similar points, including this one by Fred Kaplan and this one by Martin ChulovIn the CNN article, I argue that Assad’s end really is nigh, as has been clear for some time, but that the way that his regime ends matters immensely for Syria’s short to medium range future:

The assassinations were more of an inflection than a turning point.

Diplomatically isolated, financially strapped and increasingly constrained by a wide range of international sanctions, Assad’s regime has been left with little room to maneuver. It resorts to indiscriminate military force and uses shabiha gangs and propaganda to inflict terror.

The government’s brutal violence against peaceful protestors and innocent civilians has been manifestly self-defeating.  Assad has failed to kill his way to victory. Day by day, through accumulating mistakes, the regime is losing legitimacy and control of Syria and its people.

Nonetheless, it’s premature to think the end is close. The opposition’s progress, reportedly with increasing external funding and training, has put greater pressure on Assad’s forces. But the opposition’s military success has exacerbated the fears of retribution attacks and a reign of chaos should the regime crumble…

Now, even if Assad’s regime collapses, violence may prove difficult to contain given that the country is deeply polarized and awash in weapons. Assad’s end could pave the way for an even more intense civil war. Making matters worse, the continuing fragmentation among the Syrian opposition groups raises deep fears about their ability to unite themselves or to establish authority. Few foundations exist for an inclusive and stable post-Assad political order.

This violent struggle ripping Syria apart is precisely the scenario which the U.N. political track had hoped to avoid, and which Assad’s brutality and the escalating insurgency has summoned forth.  The U.N.’s efforts never had a great chance of success, of course, but they were worth supporting given the alternatives which could so easily be foreseen and which are now manifesting.

At this point, unfortunately, it is difficult to see any real prospect for the "soft landing" envisioned in those efforts.  Diplomatic efforts, such as the Arab League’s offer of a safe exit for Assad if he leaves immediately, should still be tried. Perhaps the regime’s newfound sense of vulnerability and the opposition’s sobering recognition of the challenges it faces after the regime’s fall might even get the ideas a listen. 

But even if Assad and parts of the opposition can somehow be sobered by the inevitable end, the fragmentation, violence and anger are now likely too great to overcome.  Does Assad really see that he’s losing, and does he really believe that there is any safe passage out at this point (and could anyone truly stomach that)? And could a divided opposition smelling victory and suspiciously eyeing competitors for future power really settle for a pragmatic but unpopular deal… or trust any parts of Assad’s regime to honor it? The These are the challenges with which Kofi Annan has tried and failed to grapple, and which will bedevil all other such efforts. 

It has never been more clear that the Obama administration was right to reject calls for American military intervention, and should continue to do so.  The events of the last week show that those who believed that only American military action could put serious pressure on Assad were wrong.  And the likely downside of direct U.S. military involvement is as potent as ever. The new talking point that an earlier American intervention would have quickly ended the fighting is utterly divorced from Syrian reality.   American bombs were never likely to quickly end the conflict, and the open entry of the U.S. into the fray (particularly without U.N. authorization) would likely radically transform the dynamics of the conflict for the worse both inside of Syria and at the regional and global levels. And most Americans, who have not forgotten the experience of Iraq, wisely reject the enthusiasm of the op-ed pages for deeper American involvement. Military intervention by the U.S. has not been and still is not the answer, and the Obama administration deserves great credit for rejecting the drumbeat from the armchair hawks.

Nor should the U.S. be joining the dangerous game of arming the insurgency, which seems to be getting plenty of weapons from other sources.  All of the risks of the proliferation of weapons into a fragmented insurgency of uncertain identity and aspirations, so blithely dismissed by the op-ed hawks, remain as intense as ever.  There are still vanishingly few, if any, historical examples of such a strategy actually leading to a rapid resolution of a civil conflict, and all too many examples of it making conflicts longer and bloodier.  Nor is it likely that providing weapons will provide the U.S. with great influence over the groups they are.  I see no reason to believe that armed groups will stay bought, or stay loyal, just because they were given weapons, or that the U.S. would be able to credibly threaten to cut off the flow of weapons if groups deemed essential to the battle used them in undesirable ways.  As a general rule of thumb if you really think that a group might join al-Qaeda if you don’t give them guns, you’d best not give them guns. At this point, the flow of weapons may be as unstoppable as the descent into protracted insurgency and civil war, but that doesn’t mean that the U.S. should heedlessly throw more gasoline on the fire. At the most, it should continue its efforts to help shape some form of coherent political and strategic control over those newly armed groups. 

Instead, the U.S. should be focusing on supporting the Syrian opposition politically, mitigating the worst effects of the civil war and insurgency, pushing to bring Syrian war criminals to justice, and maintaining its pressure on Assad through sanctions and diplomatic isolation.  Several articles published after I wrote the CNN piece have begun to outline some current U.S. thinking and activities in this regard.  Above all it needs to work with the Syrian opposition to prepare it for the prospect of unifying the divided, fragmented, and anarchic Syria which it will inherit when Assad falls. That should include doing everything it can to convince the armed opposition of the urgent need to police its own ranks and thinking constantly about how it will need to relate to currently unfriendly communities in a future Syria. 

I’m hoping to write more soon about such political efforts, and about the UN mission, and about the regional politics of Syria. But those are beyond the scope of today’s short CNN article taking stock of this inflection point in Syria’s ongoing conflict.