Argument

So You’ve Bombed Syria. What Next?

So You’ve Bombed Syria. What Next?

For more than two years, impassioned advocates have called for U.S. military intervention in Syria in order to advance a peace settlement. Now, in the wake of last week’s horrific chemical weapons attack in a suburb of Damascus, military intervention finally looks imminent. But what of the prospects for peace?

At the moment, views are split within and outside the Obama administration over whether the United States should strike Bashar al-Assad merely to punish him for using chemical weapons — reasserting U.S. regional credibility in the process — or take sustained action to degrade the regime’s capacity to wage war and move the parties toward a peace deal. This is a false choice. No matter the intensity or duration of the strike package, U.S. missiles are likely to open the best window yet to catalyze negotiations, something the United States and Russia have failed to do in a series of abortive attempts to hold a peace conference in Geneva. It is therefore critical that the administration seize this fleeting opportunity to hasten the end of the war as it formulates its military plans.

Even the limited package of punitive strikes that Washington and its allies are reportedly readying to launch will temporarily throw the Assad regime and its Russian patrons off balance. The howls of protest already issuing from Damascus and Moscow are proof this is the case. Yes, Russian anger over U.S. strikes could complicate diplomacy. But months of earnest American appeals to Moscow on the basis of a common interest in resolving the conflict in Syria have failed miserably. A U.S.-led operation will remind President Vladimir Putin that Assad is a reckless, wholly dependent liability who imperils Russian interests as much as he preserves them. Despite his government’s outward condemnation of the strikes, the use of force along with diplomatic initiative from the United Nations just might convince the unsentimental Russian leader to finally apply decisive leverage on Damascus to negotiate seriously. 

Whatever force Washington applies will roil the political waters and create an opening for diplomacy that must not be squandered. To be sure, the deck is stacked against successful mediation. Unlike stalemated conflicts that see exhausted participants eventually turn up at the negotiating table, Syria has become a magnet for highly motivated extremists from around the region, whether Sunni jihadists or energized Hezbollah fighters. The longer the conflict drags on, the less of Syria there is to knit together — and the more fraying strands there are causing it to unravel. In the latest example of this destructive cycle, pro-regime militias have emerged as a major force in the civil war, mirroring the fractious state of the opposition. 

The conflict has likewise become more dangerous over time — and not only because of the use of chemical weapons. The long-predicted destabilization of neighboring Lebanon has finally started to play out, while sectarian violence continues to escalate in Iraq. In sum, the longer the Syrian war lasts, the worse the prospects become for ending it.

As they lay the groundwork for U.S. strikes, American policymakers also need to take steps that will boost the chances for a negotiated settlement — one that will eliminate the need for further, more forceful intervention down the road. So far, the hopes for diplomacy rest on an international peace conference planned since May that is supposed to end hostilities by producing an agreement for a "transitional government" in Syria. The parley, to be held under U.N. auspices, is built around general principles that are long on aspirations and short on practical details. As the joint United Nations and Arab League mediator for Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, acknowledged earlier this year, leaving it up to the bitterly divided parties to devise the actual powers of a transitional government "is certain to lead to a dead end." In other words, even if the United States and Russia were to work together and drag the parties to a peace conference, the likelihood is high that it would go nowhere.

Washington needs to prod the United Nations — the only actor that Russia will accept — to urgently produce a concrete proposal for a peace settlement that includes enumerated powers for the transitional government. The United Nations, Russia, and the United States have all held enough consultations with the parties and each other to know what the parameters of such a deal would look like. Instead of the high-minded blandishments for "inclusiveness,"  "pluralism,"  and "calm" that fill the current peace document, it is time to spell out to combatants exactly how they will obtain what they need most: real security during the transition period when negotiations on wider political, constitutional, and economic matters take place.

A serious, attention-getting peace proposal would contain at least two new components. First, it would specify the composition and control of state security forces, as well as the complimentary responsibilities of a U.N. peacekeeping force charged with separating factions and protecting vulnerable populations. Failing to answer the all-important question of control over the state security apparatus has already frustrated efforts to bring the parties to the negotiating table in Geneva. Introducing U.N. peacekeeping — completely absent from the general principles communiqué — is the time-honored, indispensable way to supply security in the absence of trust. And according the United Nations such a prominent role in negotiating and implementing peace will begin to assuage Russian fury over allied use of force without a Security Council resolution.

Second, given the amount of bloodshed and population displacement, guaranteeing security is going to require another bold step: a map that codifies to some degree the demographic separation that has taken place over more than two years of fighting.

Sadly, over the past six months, encouraging signs of local co-existence have fallen prey to growing revenge attacks by parties on both sides, leading to more sectarian consolidation. This has especially been the case in the previously mixed Sahel al-Ghab area, located between the coast and Idlib province, which has witnessed some of the worst sectarian massacres to date. Urban areas such as Damascus and Aleppo where significant mixed populations still reside (and where moderate opposition fighters are at the forefront) could remain integrated, perhaps with districts stipulating relative areas of control during the transitional period.

The aim of these measures isn’t to divide Syria permanently, but rather to rescue the country from its rapid descent into permanent disintegration. Neighboring Lebanon owes its own shaky stability in part to demographic separation, whether in Beirut or in the predominantly Christian swath of land that runs from the capital all the way to Tripoli, physically separating the country’s Sunni and Shiite populations. A map indicating relative areas of control would provide a tangible measure of clarity both to war-weary citizens and to wary peacekeepers.

All this still leaves unanswered the most pressing question of the day: What role does Assad play in these talks? U.S., Russian, and regional diplomats have already finessed this question, with both sides accepting the "no preconditions" formulation (meaning that Assad himself does not have to resign before talks begin). The stumbling block is behind the scenes: how to get Damascus not only to show up but to buy into a transitional process in which the regime’s monopoly over state power would be removed. This is where Russian pressure — augmented by the security assurances that are as meaningful for Alawites as they are for Sunnis and others — would come in. In essence, the Russians needs to finally hold that "come to Jesus" meeting with Assad, in which Moscow makes clear that it can and will find alternatives to the Syrian leader if he does not empower a team to negotiate along U.N.-proposed terms.

On the opposition side, Sunni extremists represent a growing obstacle to peace, which is why it is so urgent to launch serious talks now. The best hope for marginalizing these spoilers is to provide the Syrian national opposition, backed by the United States, with a credible path to a share of power through negotiations in Geneva. Extremist spoilers — and their regional supporters — would then risk isolating themselves from the entire transition process. Some of them will no doubt take that risk and continue to fight. It will then be up to transitional security forces and U.N. peacekeepers to deal with any rejectionists in the wake of a deal. This is neither an easy prospect nor an impossible one. In any event, it is surely better than the alternative: continued fighting that results in Syria’s disintegration and perpetual instability.

With security at the core of an international peace plan, the chances of luring a critical mass of Alawites, Christians, Kurds, Sunnis, and others into a ceasefire, then talks, and then ultimately peaceful interaction, would grow. In fact, multi-sectarian life in Syria has, against all odds, shown a surprising resilience in those areas where security has been restored. Conversely, without the promise of security, there will be no place in a dissolving Syria for minorities on any side, including the overlooked Sunnis who still enjoy economic privileges under Assad or those Alawites who oppose the regime and its brutality.

In short, it is time to revamp the diplomatic effort, putting security first. At this stage in the conflict, it is simply unrealistic to expect the parties to stop fighting and invest in a vague process that does not offer security as its core component. Indeed, with sectarian violence claiming a growing number of lives in Iraq and Lebanon — two neighbors that already have established constitutions and hold elections — why would Syrians of any stripe believe that mere talks about power sharing would keep their families safe? 

If the Obama administration really wants to avoid getting embroiled in Syria, it will have to match its limited use of force with unlimited diplomacy, beginning with a serious and specific U.N.-backed peace plan. Now is the time to launch.