Militarily, the administration’s decision to provide only non-lethal assistance to the Syrian opposition is prolonging unfavorable trends on the battlefield. While opposition gains have precluded the possibility of President Bashar al-Assad shooting his way to victory, the opposition is too weak to bring the conflict to an end. Beyond exacerbating the human toll, a long civil war increases the likelihood that state institutions will fragment, that weapons of mass destruction will be used or fall into the wrong hands, that extremists — such as fundamentalist Salafi Islamists and al-Qaeda — will make headway, and that ethnic and sectarian bloodletting will go on after the Assad regime falls.
To facilitate an orderly transition without deploying force, the United States must do five things:
First, galvanize a “coalition of the relevant”: a select group of like-minded countries that have significant leverage and influence in Syria. While continuing to engage the United Nations, the Friends of Syria and NATO, Washington should focus on integrating efforts with Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Qatar and other Gulf states, as well as Britain and France.
Second, President Obama should appoint a special envoy to work with the coalition in organizing the Syrian opposition into a broad-based front that provides a vehicle for a stable transition, attracts support from Syrians fearful of regime change, and co-opts elements of the Assad regime. Chaos and an Iraq-style bloodbath — in which Syria’s Alawite minority, embittered at the loss of their privileged position, turns to insurgency while Sunnis, empowered after decades of repression, seek revenge — are possible.
Regional powers have been unable to unify the opposition or identify credible leaders who enjoy broad national support. The Syrian National Council is disproportionately composed of exiles and members of the Muslim Brotherhood whose following among Syrians and stated commitments to an inclusive Syria are untested. The Free Syrian Army is more in tune with realities on the ground, but it remains unclear how unified that group is and whether the paramilitary force can govern responsibly once the fighting ends. The Kurds’ loyalty to the Syrian state is fraying. And the Alawite-dominated military is tainted by long-standing loyalties to the Assad dynasty.
While democratic consolidation should be the guiding objective, Washington may face unpalatable options in the short term, such as an ethnic and sectarian war or a coup by military officers willing to come to terms with the opposition and reform the state. To reduce the risk of civil war, the administration should work with moderate elements of the opposition to appeal to Syria’s Alawites, Christians, Kurds and other minorities, which would further fracture the regime’s support. It should seek to rally these forces around the principles of democracy, pluralism, decentralized rule and respect for universal rights. Working with the opposition, the United States should encourage a military coup that would be a way station to full democratization while preserving key state institutions. Should such a coup occur, Washington should insist that defectors commit to reforming key ministries and facilitating the transition to democracy.