Today, as violence intensifies in Syria, external powers, including the United States, are openly debating direct intervention. Such intervention is justified as serving multiple goals at once: it is a means of securing chemical weapons caches; a mechanism to protect the civilian population; and a necessary measure to ensure that the successors to the Asad regime are adequately beholden to the United States and its regional allies. However, whether the intentions are humanitarian or strategic, policies of arming opposition groups, along with discussions of establishing “safe zones,” using Patriot missile batteries to enforce a “no-fly zone,” and more direct calls for military intervention, are counterproductive at best, and at worst embody goals that further undermine the interests of the local population. If anything, it is intervention, not its absence, that fuels the blood-letting in Syria.
In fact, there is likely no form of direct or indirect military involvement in the conflict that will spare civilians or advance either side towards a decisive victory. In short, there are too many interveners and too many strategic interests at stake for any side to allow too great a tipping of the balance. Some might argue that the ongoing destabilization of Syria serves its own strategic purposes. Aside from the deep moral bankruptcy of such a position, its logic of perpetual conflict threatens to engulf the region with spillover effects radiating beyond the control of potential interveners.
To appreciate why, one need only look at events in Syria. An authoritarian regime is engaged in brutal repression and large-scale human rights atrocities. Indeed, there is no doubt that the regime of President Bashar al-Asad carries the overwhelming responsibility for the unfolding tragedy. But since international assistance began flowing to armed opposition groups in late 2011, the death and displacement to which civilians have been subjected has skyrocketed. At the end of the first year of the Syrian conflict, in April 2012, the United Nations estimated that nine thousand civilians had been killed. According to the United Nations, the death toll a year later exceeds seventy thousand, with tens of thousands more wounded. The refugee count is set to top three million by the end of 2013.
Although a reflection of dynamics on the ground, the current stalemate is also crucially a product of an international standoff between the external and regional backers of the regime and its opponents. To date, external backers have focused on arming their local proxies rather than negotiating. Russia and Iran have reiterated their commitment to the Assad government, both diplomatically and through direct support. The United States has doubled down on supporting the rebels with military assistance in the form of “non-lethal” equipment (body armor, night vision goggles, armored vehicles and advanced communications systems), US training of Syrian insurgents in Jordan, and even the coordination of the flow of arms from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey to the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Recent reports suggest that the British and French are also contemplating sending weapons.
Problems with Intervention
The current confrontational approach is unsurprising, because toppling the Syrian regime would alter the regional balance of power against Iran and in favor of pro-Western governments. Until quite recently, the United States was prepared to partner with the Asad regime however repressive: the country played a well-documented role in the United States’ extraordinary rendition of terrorism suspects. But today, Syria presents a low-cost opportunity to shift regional alliances while appearing to intervene in support of popular demands for regime change. In fact, capitalizing on a perceived opportunity in Syria is the opposite of responsiveness to local demands, it is an attempt to control outcomes from outside and one that will be more costly in the long run than most analysts suppose. As for the short run, such policies centered on military assistance have contributed to a drawn-out and increasingly bloody civil war.
As the record from the second year of the Syrian conflict demonstrates, the rebels have begun to achieve parity with the military through indiscriminate armed attacks, often resulting in as many casualties among civilians as among the ostensible targets. Even with additional arms, opposition groups resisting Asad’s repression may fight the regime only to a standstill. Further, arguments for increased military assistance to the armed opposition miss political complexities within Syria. On one side, large sections of the country oppose President Assad, and a significant proportion back efforts of armed rebel groups to topple his government. In cities like Homs and Dara’a, regime brutality consolidated support for rebels from the outset. Elsewhere, in major cities like Damascus and Aleppo, and in the coastal towns of Latakia and Tartus, the picture has been more mixed. Some neighborhoods supported a network of anti-regime protest organizers known as the Local Coordination Committees; others backed militants.
But many sectors of society—including most minority groups like the Christians, Druze, and Alawites, along with much of the middle class and business owners—initially withheld support from the rebels. The most likely explanation was that they feared more instability and violence, as well as some possible outcomes, like rule by Islamist actors. The rebel incursion into Aleppo in July 2012 did little to quell these fears, with brutal fighting on all sides leaving emptied and battle-scarred neighborhoods. Caught between a military onslaught by the regime and rebel attacks, almost the entirety of Aleppo’s large Christian community has fled the city and the country.
The demographic makeup of Aleppo and many other mixed communities across the country is rapidly being transformed by the sectarianization of the conflict, driven as much by the regional supporters supplying both the government and the armed rebel forces as by internal dynamics. The intensification of the battle for Damascus will likely produce a similar result as the summer of 2013 sets in. Indeed, with urban areas, provincial towns, and even rural villages emptied of their populations, the fighting has accelerated and social fragmentation has been exacerbated. To underscore the point, even shifting dynamics on the ground marking rebel advances have not eased such fragmentation—a fact which belies the argument that nearly all segments of the civilian population would welcome direct external intervention on behalf of armed opposition groups.
Given these realities, repeated discussions of new, more coercive military options, especially against the backdrop of concerns about the use of chemical weapons by the regime, risk worsening the situation. Allegations of chemical weapons use, while horrifying, concern a tiny proportion of total civilian casualties in the conflict. Direct intervention to secure or destroy chemical weapons caches will do little to address the principal armed threat facing civilians. In order to defeat the regime militarily, the United States and its allies would have to dramatically heighten the magnitude of destruction wrought on the country, resulting in greater civilian casualties. It may set the stage for escalating internecine conflict not only pitting Sunni constituencies backed by Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar against opponents that they increasingly identify in sectarian or ethnic terms, but also consuming neighborhoods in inter-militia wars. The result would be a deeply destabilized Syria bordering on Israel, Turkey, Jordan, Iraq, and Lebanon, creating the potential for a long-term proxy war between regional Sunni and Shiite political forces. The eventual outcome would have no clear winner, but a multitude of losers—most crucially ordinary Syrian civilians.
Contours of a Diplomatic Approach
Still, there remains a chance for the international community to contribute to a transition process that ensures the security of all communities—including regime backers—ending violence in exchange for Asad’s departure. But pursuing regime decapitation through military escalation will not produce such a process. Ultimately, the best way for external actors to help reduce violence is to support negotiations for a political transition that would include rather than explicitly threaten elements of the regime. Given the existential fears of communities on each side of the conflict, the first goal has to be making clear that all groups have a future in a new Syria.
The United Nations might yet prove a useful intermediary. Though mediation efforts led by Kofi Annan failed, this was in large part because major powers were pursuing a militarization strategy rather than a negotiated solution. Lakhdar Brahimi, Annan’s successor, has sought to maintain the possibility of diplomatic engagement, though often expressing frustration that his mandate is undermined as parties continue to support an armed approach. Brahimi’s most recent call for a weapons embargo on all sides is an opportunity to end the double-speak, in which actors maintain their desire to engage in talks while nonetheless ramping up violence on the ground.
Still, for a political solution to be viable a weapons embargo would be a necessary but insufficient first step. Crucially, real negotiations would have to encompass not only all the internal parties but also all the external actors involved, including Iran and Russia. Both have stakes in the Asad regime and their participation in an inclusive mediation process could set the stage for concessions by the government.
For all of the problems with “managed transition” in Yemen, the removal of Ali Abdallah Saleh from power in 2012 highlighted just the kind of pressure that can be brought to bear on a regime by its principal supporters. This suggests that Iranian and Russian action may well succeed in removing Asad where force from hostile outsiders has so far failed. In Yemen, the regime’s supporters (including the United States) ultimately conceded to some of the protesters’ demands by enabling Saleh to step down only after assuring their interests were secure.
There is no reason to expect that the Asad regime’s principal sponsors would participate in an international strategy that results in dispatching their ally unless they are also convinced that their interest in a regional sphere of influence will not thereby be harmed (or at any event that the costs to them of the internationally sanctioned plan are no higher than the best alternatives from their perspective). The principal obstacle to engagement with Iran and Russia has long been US opposition. In the case of Russia, the United States may ultimately be more willing to explore options to bring Moscow to the table through side payments and assurances, including continued access to warmwater ports on Syria’s Mediterranean coast. In Iran’s case, however, the United States has persisted in treating the Syria conflict as an opportunity to reinforce the US-led isolation of Tehran. Attempting to split Syria’s primary allies by engaging Russia while continuing to isolate Iran is not the kind of creative diplomacy that is likely to provide a path forward. Instead, such an approach will only result in Iran redoubling its commitments to the Asad regime, undermining any chance for a political solution. Yet opportunities for engaging both Syria’s primary allies, particularly Iran, exist. For instance, inducements to gain Iranian support for negotiations may take the form of concessions related to sanctions and the current P5+1 talks on the nuclear file.
Some will argue that the United States or the international community should not negotiate seriously with the Syrian regime or its backers. Others will advocate pursuing talks with Russia while shutting out Iran. But the practical effect of relying on coercion through arming opposition groups and excluding regime backers like Iran has been to squeeze out an actual political resolution and to make a proxy war (with local and international players on both sides) the only remaining possibility. Such strategies have produced more war, more civilian death, and more refugees, but in over two years they have not sufficiently shifted the balance of forces on the ground to enable either side to establish a decisive military advantage.
The Challenge Ahead
We appreciate the difficulties of a peaceful resolution. It ultimately may be the case that the various forces on the ground are unwilling to negotiate a compromise that avoids still greater bloodshed. In particular, some opposition groups may find it unacceptable to enter into a bargain with elements of the Asad regime. But that choice is not one that should be pre-determined in advance by outside actors, especially through externally-produced incentives to pursue military victory at all costs. Due to the civilian cost to date, and the likely consequences of more violence, we believe it is incumbent on the international community to pursue all available diplomatic options, including real engagement with Iran.
But the failure to take diplomacy seriously underscores a profound moral hazard generated by the international community’s prevailing framework. While basic international commitments to provide humanitarian assistance to Syrian refugees and internally displaced populations have been honored in the breach, external actors fulfill and exceed their pledges of military support. It is not credible to suggest that the international community is animated by humanitarian concerns and supports an end to the conflict at the same time that major powers are sustaining the current stalemate by arming and financing military factions on all sides.
In a sense, there is a tautology at work in current international approaches. Through covert and overt forms of military assistance all parties are employing strategies that underscore that war is the only potentially winning option. And then, precisely because of the effects of these strategies, both international and local actors either reject a diplomatic solution out of hand or at best pursue tactical forms of engagement that fall short of an inclusive process. Most troubling, external policies lead domestic factions to imagine that victory remains on the horizon when circumstances suggest otherwise.
Indeed, as the violence continues to escalate, the real likelihood exists of ongoing bloody urban combat. The regime’s cohesiveness may fray, but regime elements will not simply disappear. Rather, the military and security apparatus may fragment into their own large militias, possibly retrenching around rump territory. With Damascus on the brink of destruction, a protracted military stalemate rather than a clean overthrow of the regime is a foreseeable medium-term scenario. But despite the absence of a clear means for ending the conflict militarily, pledges of armed support reinforce the illusion that complete victory–by reaching an internal “tipping point” –might be possible without any compromises or accommodations.
In resigning as special envoy to Syria, Kofi Annan drew attention to the urgent need for diplomacy, not clandestine intervention. Because this warning has gone unheeded, Annan’s replacement, Lakhdar Brahimi, has yet to find any other way out of a lengthy civil war of devastating proportions, both for the Syrian people and for the Middle East as a whole. If the international community is interested in protecting the civilian population the benefits of a negotiated transition are clear. Diplomatic engagement may not have the allure of humanitarian rescue or serve the strategic goal of flipping regional alliances. But it is far more likely than any of the current options on the table to actually safeguard ordinary Syrians and to create the political space that might facilitate a locally-directed outcome.