The road to Syria’s salvation runs through Moscow

As Syria spirals downward into a sectarian civil war, a "soft landing" for Syria’s transition seems an increasingly distant prospect. Horrific YouTube scenes from the regime’s four-week long siege of Homs underscore the urgency to "do something" in the face of a gathering humanitarian catastrophe. Yet, international consensus on how to respond remains elusive amidst ...

LOUAI BESHARA/AFP/Getty Images
LOUAI BESHARA/AFP/Getty Images
LOUAI BESHARA/AFP/Getty Images

As Syria spirals downward into a sectarian civil war, a "soft landing" for Syria's transition seems an increasingly distant prospect. Horrific YouTube scenes from the regime's four-week long siege of Homs underscore the urgency to "do something" in the face of a gathering humanitarian catastrophe. Yet, international consensus on how to respond remains elusive amidst an ever-fragmenting Syrian opposition.

Calls for various military options are mounting, but the pitfalls of further arming Syria's disorganized, armed opposition in a highly fluid and chaotic environment have been well documented. (See also here, among many others.) A more frontal, international military intervention either for humanitarian purposes or to unseat the regime is currently not in the cards, and for good reason.

However, the window has not fully closed on a multi-pronged diplomatic strategy to hasten the demise of the regime of President Bashar al-Assad with the least amount of bloodshed. While intensifying efforts to squeeze and isolate Assad and doubling down on uniting the Syrian opposition, this strategy would also place high level U.S. and European engagement with Russia at its core.

As Syria spirals downward into a sectarian civil war, a "soft landing" for Syria’s transition seems an increasingly distant prospect. Horrific YouTube scenes from the regime’s four-week long siege of Homs underscore the urgency to "do something" in the face of a gathering humanitarian catastrophe. Yet, international consensus on how to respond remains elusive amidst an ever-fragmenting Syrian opposition.

Calls for various military options are mounting, but the pitfalls of further arming Syria’s disorganized, armed opposition in a highly fluid and chaotic environment have been well documented. (See also here, among many others.) A more frontal, international military intervention either for humanitarian purposes or to unseat the regime is currently not in the cards, and for good reason.

However, the window has not fully closed on a multi-pronged diplomatic strategy to hasten the demise of the regime of President Bashar al-Assad with the least amount of bloodshed. While intensifying efforts to squeeze and isolate Assad and doubling down on uniting the Syrian opposition, this strategy would also place high level U.S. and European engagement with Russia at its core.

In many ways, Moscow holds the key to unraveling the Syrian regime. Russia’s backing for the Assad government — including billions of dollars in weapons sales and economic investments — is crucial to its survival. A withdrawal of Russian support would deal a significant blow to Assad. Moreover, if Russia opted to pull away from Syria, a wavering China would likely follow, leaving the regime with Iran and North Korea as its two primary allies.

To date, the operating assumption appears to be that Russia is unwilling to budge on Syria, having thrown its lot in with the Assad regime to the bitter end. Some may point to previous failed attempts to seek Russian cooperation with efforts to isolate Syria as evidence to support this contention. Others will underscore Moscow’s current hardline position supporting Damascus and lashing out at the "Friends of Syria" initiative as a recipe for civil war.

Indeed, Russia has a lot to lose should Syria descend into all-out chaos as many fear likely. All those billions in investments would go up in smoke, and Moscow would witness the waning of its last major Arab ally. While the Russians are staking a hardline position publicly in support of the Syrian regime, surely they are monitoring the rapidly evolving situation in Syria closely and will alter their strategic calculus if they believe their strategic assets are threatened.

Central to this calculus is a critical distinction between the clannish group surrounding President Assad and the senior Alawite officers (active and retired) that form a significant circle of power that is separate from the regime’s family-based core. The projection of Russian power in Syria is best embodied by these senior military officers. Moscow may well be willing to jettison Assad, in the name of preserving this security structure. In short, for Russia, a military coup in Syria could represent the best possible outcome, allowing them to maintain their influence and investments, rather than witnessing decades of support vanish in the vortex of a bloody civil war.

For the "friends of Syria," a "Syrian SCAF" option, modeled after Egypt’s transitional military rule, is certainly a far cry from a peaceful, democratic transition and the Sunni-dominated government that would likely emerge. However, in a universe of very bad options, a transitional, military coup is better than the prospect of a protracted, sectarian civil war and whatever bloody endgame it would produce. While there should be no illusions about the difficulty of a democratic transition from military power (as Egypt amply illustrates), the orchestrated demise of Assad and his close cronies and their replacement with a transitional body (likely Alawite-led, but ideally with strong Sunni and Christian components) would preserve key structures (security, economic, social) inside Syria and ideally allow for a more ordered transition.

How would this strategy work? First, it would be essential to cease the vitriolic rhetoric targeting Russia. Recent emotionally-charged language, elicited from Western countries, such as "despicable," "disgusting," and "moral stain" have only deepened Russian defiance. (Indeed, beyond Syria, Russia is now threatening to make life difficult on multiple fronts including Iran and Afghanistan.) While there may be a certain satisfaction in adopting this moral high ground, it has done little to advance the prospects for a peaceful resolution to Syria’s crisis.

Instead, the United States and Europe need to reach out to Moscow, at the most senior levels, in a private, concerted effort to understand Russia’s bottom lines. Timing for this interaction may be ideal after the Russian presidential elections, slated for March 4 and likely to yield a Putin victory. This dialogue must be genuine in approach, seeking to understand how the Russians view the situation inside Syria, their strategic and security concerns, and opening a joint exploration of how those concerns can be addressed in a post-Assad Syria.

These discussions would then facilitate a Russian approach to the senior Alawite officer corps whose interests do not necessarily align directly with those of Bashar and his immediate family. Not all Alawites have benefitted from the past decade of corruption, and the past several months of unrelenting repression have surely injected an element of fatigue in the military. Anecdotal reporting has also pointed to growing disquiet among retired Alawite officers who fear the president is driving the country off a cliff.

The Syrian uprising is notable for the lack of senior level defections. Syria’s mukhabarat state has virtually assured against internal coups given the atmosphere of deep-seated suspicion and fear. However, Russia’s ties to the Syrian military may provide the necessary mechanism for facilitating what some have described as "brewing defections." At a minimum, the Russians can use their influence in these circles to explore possibilities of peeling away key elements in the military leadership.

In addition, international economic pressure and diplomatic isolation aimed at Syria must continue and intensify. The latest European Union sanctions freezing Syria’s central bank assets among other measures represent an excellent next step. The Arab League and Turkey should follow suit by implementing previously-promised sanctions and deepening Syria’s diplomatic isolation. Ideally, the cumulative effect of these and previous measures will shift the allegiances of the business elite — the other critical pillar of regime support.

It will also be crucial to unite the opposition, an increasingly tall but necessary order. Belated attempts to attract minorities, especially Alawites and Christians, must be accelerated and deepened.

While this proposed strategy is clearly a long shot that would bring about less than desirable results, it is perhaps the last, best hope for averting a protracted civil war in Syria.

Mona Yacoubian is a senior advisor on the Middle East at the Stimson Center.

Mona Yacoubian served as deputy assistant administrator in the Middle East bureau at USAID from 2014 to 2017.

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