What Are the Syrian Options?
With the arrival of Russian forces on the scene the Syrian situation has now grown unbearably complicated. Among the totality of players on the scene, Washington hates them all.
The U.S. has long detested Assad father and son; for years it has attempted to weaken and even dislodge them through various strategems, especially in the George W. Bush years. They have been a leading symbol of resistance to American domination in the Middle East and to expansion of Israeli power; they have been leading supporters of the Palestinians, and maintained the longest standing alliance of any in the Middle East in their ties with Iran — for over 35 years.
And ever since the Iranian Revolution the U.S. has equally vigorously fought Iranian influence anywhere in the Middle East. For Washington, the fall of Assad was actually more about Iran than it was about Syria.
But now, for far more compelling reasons, the U.S. has come to perceive ISIS, (the “Islamic State”) as the single biggest regional threat and supporter of jihadi violence. Yet ISIS is also fighting Assad. Washington reluctantly concluded that an ISIS victory in Syria — and its attendant chaos — would be far worse than Assad. Same goes for al-Nusra Front, a major jihadi force battling Assad; it just happens to be closely affiliated with Al Qaeda.
And now Russia is weighing in with significant new military presence in Syria, first and foremost to prevent the collapse of the Assad regime against its fundamentalist enemies. Moscow will now take on almost all opposition to Assad; as such it also strongly seeks to weaken ISIS, which it has greater reason to fear than does the U.S., given Russia’s large and restive Muslim population. But Washington doesn’t want to see Russia in Syria either, and would prefer to prevent any significant Russian presence in the area.
Other “allies” on Syria include Turkey whose Syrian policies under Erdogan have gone off the rails, as Ankara is now more intent on checkmating the Kurds (even the broad-based moderate liberal Kurdish HDP party at home) than on checking radical jihadi forces in Syria.
And then there is Saudi Arabia whose obsession to overthrow Assad and check Iran has driven it to exploit the scourge of ugly sectarianism in the region to the detriment of nearly everyone. Riyadh has also launched a brutal and unwinnable war in Yemen; indeed, Washington is one of the long-term losers through association with indiscriminate Saudi bombing campaigns in that country — whose refugees will predictably soon also turn up on the refugee screen.
In short, Washington hates everybody involved, except a near-mythical paper force of “moderates” fighting against Assad. While those small groups include individuals who could be desirable in a future post-Assad Syrian regime — more moderate, tolerant, secular and democratic — the “moderates” sadly are negligible military players, as Washington has now been compelled to admit.
What to Do?
Washington has no good choices. Neocon and liberal hawks want the U.S. to weigh in in Syria, deny it to Russia and Iran (and would end up stuck in another quagmire to rival the Iraq and Afghan debacles they created.) But short of taking over all of Syria for a very long time, Washington cannot fix what ails the country and its deepening fissures.
Can Russia and Iran find a way out of war to forge some new compromise regime? Just possibly. The greatest advantage they possess is their good ties with the Assad regime. Both therefore possess far better intelligence and influence on the politics of Damascus that does the U.S.
Assad is deeply beholden to Russia and Iran for his survival. He may indeed resist leaving office, but if any foreign powers are capable of arranging some kind of palace coup even by arrangement, it is Moscow and Tehran. But can they do it? Will they do it?
The status quo in Syria is actually undesirable for both Russia and Iran as well since it feeds regional jihadism and breeds instability. Assad’s military collapse to jihadi-dominated forces would cost them their position in Syria. But it would hurt the West as well and would not guarantee an end to civil war.
Both Iran and Russia have publicly stated that they bear no particular love for Bashar al-Assad as such. Indeed, Assad must nurture suspicions about their ultimate intentions as well, but he has nowhere else to turn. But whatever happens, preserving the state structure, with or without Assad, is essential. Otherwise the rampant anarchy of a collapsed state looms.
So we end up back with the same old calculus: that the Assad regime is perhaps the least of all evils, especially since U.S. invasion and long-term occupation of Syria is unthinkable. Indeed, the Russian presence is in part designed to block just another such U.S. exercise in regime change leading to chaos.
Moscow perceives that as yet another U.S. effort to plant its strategic flag in the region — as in Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, or even Ukraine. Meanwhile Iran finds the conflict a dangerous source of sectarian conflict as well. (Ironically, Tehran’s position may be slightly sidelined now with the arrival of far superior Russian forces.)
There simply is no good option for Washington. But reestablishment of central government and order in Syria is the first priority. I doubt that military overthrow of the whole regime, even were it possible, could bring genuine order in any foreseeable timeframe.
As distasteful as it might be in Washington, a dominant role for Russia and Iran at least acknowledges that they bring more to the political and military table than anyone else. Our interests in Syria are simply not that divergent from theirs — except for those policy-makers who believe that we can still “have it all” and keep Russia and Iran out.
But even if one accepts a Russian and Iranian role, the hard work of hammering out some vision of a future Syria will be tough. Partition is utterly unrealistic; it would only plant the seeds of future conflicts over turf to come. Russia may well end up in its own quagmire, but I don’t see that as a foregone conclusion. Nor would it be good for the U.S.
But how to move from the present country-wide civil war to some kind of negotiations? And who will be included in negotiations? Certainly not ISIS or Al Qaeda. Are some kind of external UN-linked peacekeepers an option? Pakistani or Moroccan troops? Any plan would at least have to start with freezing fighting as it stands.
Complex diplomatic issues are unavoidable. Given the state of American politics — in virtual perpetual election mode of extravagant posturing — the necessary dispassionate examination of these alternatives seems unlikely. But we can’t get to even that stage without acknowledging that simply hating everyone involved isn’t a policy either.