Frederic C. Hof was special adviser to the Obama administration for the transition in Syria from March to September 2012. He is a senior fellow of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council and recently published a paper on sectarian mass violence in Syria for the Center for the Prevention of Genocide of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
To most Americans, Syria looks like a mess best left to Syrians and their neighbors to sort out. Yet the conflict that President Bashar al-Assad unleashed against his people threatens to produce a large, ungovernable space, with refugees racing for the borders; terrorists setting up shop; chemical and biological weapons unguarded and available for seizure; and many of Syria’s 22.5 million people targeted for detention, torture, forced displacement and even murder because of sectarian identification. Although there are no simple solutions to this sizable mess, something could be done, soon, to mitigate a bloodbath and perhaps avoid a Somalia-like failed state: The United States and its partners can support the mainstream Syrian opposition in establishing a legitimate, functioning government on liberated Syrian soil.
Syria’s descent into chaos began nearly two years ago. Millions of economically marginalized Syrians had long watched with sullen passivity as a young president promised reform while his avaricious relatives accumulated wealth under the protection of government security services. Peaceful protests broke out in 2011 after teenagers writing political graffiti were arrested, tortured and denied access to alarmed parents. When Assad responded by permitting police to shoot protesters, he tossed a lighted match on the dry tinder of economic grievance. The flames were fanned by social media, headlining the contempt the regime felt for ordinary Syrians.