During the last 18 months, Syria’s leadership class has made almost every mistake in the book. The regime has no respect for or indeed understanding of basic governing concepts except those defined by the use of force. Its heavy hand transformed disparate, limited, local acts of disobedience energized by economic discontent into a national, sectarian revolt against the ruling Ba’ath Party and increasingly against the minority Alawite community at the Party’s center. In this context, the regime’s efforts at political reform, while unprecedented, have been overwhelmed by an exploding but still manageable challenge to the regime itself, which now must reap the fruits of its own grievous shortcomings.
The shortcomings of the regime have been more than matched by those defining the opposition. Syria’s political class has failed to cast off the burdens of its own history. The serial coups of the 40s and 50s and 60s highlighted the inability of Syria’s political leadership to rule effectively. Today’s "opposition" — a description that suggests a clarity and unity of purpose that is all but entirely absent — remains a factionalized, personality-driven, almost apolitical assembly of aspiring Peróns operating outside the growing circle of conflict in the country itself. They have learned nothing and forgotten nothing of their sorry history.
The limitations of Syria’s political leaders across the spectrum have been exacerbated by the decisions of the international community. The first error was to see Syria through the lens of an idealized Arab Spring — inaccurately branded as a twitter-fueled democratic revolution against autocracy. The second was to frame the rules of the game as a zero-sum military contest between Assad and his opponents. The third error was to sabotage through faint support the option of international support for a political transition. By doing so, both the regime and its opponents were encouraged to embrace what each does best. By acting in this manner, what began as a limited revolt against the center now threatens the very viability of state itself.
The regime and its opponents are locked into a race to the bottom. The international community, driven by its own competing interests, is feasting off of this grisly spectacle.
There is no deluxe transition, where the costs are manageable and the democratic outcome all but certain, but that is the option embraced by Washington. The Obama White House and political echelons at State elevated their own misconceptions about the Arab Spring into policy. Washington is mortified by Assad’s methods, and it has been seduced by the prospect of an easy proxy victory over Teheran. Condemning Assad as an outlier and manufacturing the illusion of a political opposition have failed. The White House has created an environment where the prime U.S. architects of the strategic debacle in Iraq, like Paul Wolfowitz, rear their heads yet again. If Syria is to emerge whole, and its destruction today is more probable than not, Washington must lead and choose among a new series of unpalatable choices.
For starters, should the nation state of Syria be preserved? The answer today appears to be a belated yes. In order to accomplish this objective, it is necessary to frame policies that, however unpalatable, maintain the basic institutions of the state – both in the security realm and its domestic governing, education and welfare institutions. In other words, to do the opposite of everything done in Iraq after the conquest of Baghdad and everything that has motivated Washington’s efforts towards Syria until now. The Obama administration has at long last apparently begun to understand this critical requirement. However, in order to implement policies based upon this commitment, Washington will have to "walk back" its oft-declared preference for a zero-sum deluxe solution that removes Assad, the Ba’ath Party and the state institutions tied to the regime. This will not be easy for an administration that has all too often viewed the Syrian crisis as a morality play.
Saudi Arabia and Qatar foremost among others, will resist such a policy pivot. They too are determined not to revisit the debacle that is Baghdad. Only for them, this has meant getting out in front of Washington in support of Syria’s Sunni and Jihadi opposition. By leading from behind, the Obama administration has put the Gulf paymasters in the driver’s seat. But their definition of victory is not so much a Syria-at-peace as is it the destruction of the Damascus regime and the opportunity costs exacted upon Iran for its defense of the Alawis.
So too for the opposition, especially those fighting and dying inside the country: They will have to be weaned away from Washington’s absolutist proclamations, an all but impossible task given their own history and composition. They may deserve better, but if Syria is to remain whole, the opposition’s battle against the regime, as a prelude to even bloodier internecine battles now being anticipated, must be contained and an effective dialogue with regime elements initiated.
The choices made by Washington and the Arab League have had the effect of empowering Iran and Russia. There is precious little for show for an American policy aimed at shaming or threatening Russia into abandoning an ally, and the complementary vision of a cold war-style defeat of Damascus and its Shia allies Hezbollah and Teheran.
The Obama administration must decide if its prime policy objective is to succeed in its vision of a post-Assad Syria, intact and on a rocky path to consensual politics. It may well be too late for such an outcome no matter what Washington’s preference. But absent such a commitment, energetically pursued, Syria is doomed.
Geoffrey Aronson is director of research and publications at the Foundation for Middle East Peace and organized the "Swiss Track" negotiations between Israelis and Syrians in 2007. The views expressed in this article are his own.