Shaping a Meaningful Outcome to U.S. Strikes and Intervention in the Syrian Civil War

  • Accepting Risk on the Basis of Realism Rather than Idealism
    Photo Courtesy of  U.S. Army
    Sep 5, 2013

    If the pause in the run-up to U.S. strikes in Syria can accomplish anything at all, it should be to make the U.S. adopt a strategy that can do as much as is practical to shape a stable outcome to the Syrian civil war. This does not mean a narrow focus on some idealized “end state.” Wars may almost always end in influencing history, but they almost never control its course for even the first years following a conflict. The aftermath of most serious civil conflict has been sufficiently unstable so it never conforms to the expectations of even those who shaped the victory in the conflict, and the very terms “end state” and “conflict termination” usually prove to be little more than oxymorons as many forces that led to a conflict reassert themselves and as unexpected new forces emerge. 

    At the same time, the Obama Administration has begun to acknowledge there is little real point in striking the Assad regime simply to send a theoretical message about chemical weapons. Regimes that desperately seek a weapon of mass destruction will continue to do so.

    If anything, the message of a narrowly focused U.S. strike could be just the opposite of what the U.S. intends. Like the NATO action in Libya and the U.S. attacks on Iraq, the impact of such strikes on nations like North Korea and Libya may not deter them from using chemical weapons but inspire them to rely on nuclear weapons. To the world’s worst regimes, the unintended message of limited strikes that leave their governments intact may be that if you are going to use such weapons, use them decisively enough to make any international action worth the cost. Worse, such actions may lead regimes to question the utility of using weapons with limited value in deterring international intervention, like chemical weapons. Instead, they may be incentivized to go nuclear, go cyber, or support violent non-state actors.

    If the U.S. is to accomplish any lasting strategic result, it must carry out a truly major cruise missile strike and focus on changing the outcome of the Syrian civil war, rather than focus on Syria’s chemical weapons. In the short term, this means a focus on high value military targets that will have an impact on the civil war rather than a focus on chemical weapons stocks or production facilities – all of which present difficult targets for the limited payloads of cruise missiles, may already be dispersed, and can be reconstituted if the Assad regime survives. 

    Key targets will include high visibility facilities that are symbols of repression, like the headquarters of Syrian air force intelligence, the secret police, and other key headquarters. They include fixed command and control sights with lots of equipment and connectivity, and that serve the most active regime military and security forces. They include key delivery systems like Syria’s air and helicopter forces and facilities, and key air defense sites that will leave the regime vulnerable to follow on strikes.

    But making a limited, short-term tilt in the balance will not be enough. Pushing Assad into more shelling and bombing of civilians with “conventional” weapons, relying even more on the Hezbollah and Iranian support, and being even more repressive will make things even worse in human terms inside Syria. It will also be even more destabilizing in the region as Assad’s part of Syria produces more refugees, becomes more dependent on Iran and the Hezbollah, and Assad’s actions produce more Sunni anger in rebel held Syria and strengthen the extremist factions backed by groups like al Nusra and al Qa’ida.

    This is why the Obama Administration and the Congress need to act decisively on one key provision of the “Syria Joint Resolution for Mark Up” that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed on September 4th:

    “Not later than 30 days after the date of the enactment of this resolution, the President shall consult with Congress and submit to the Committee on Foreign Relations of the Senate and the  Committee on Foreign Affairs of the House of Representatives an integrated United States Government strategy for achieving a negotiated political settlement to the conflict in Syria,  including a comprehensive review of current  and planned  U.S. diplomatic, political, economic,  and military policy towards Syria, including:
    (1) the provision of  all forms of assistance to the  Syrian Supreme Military Council and other Syrian entities opposed to the government of Bashar Al-Assad that have been properly and fully vetted and share common values and interests with the United States;
    (2) the provision of all forms of assistance to the Syrian political opposition, including the Syrian Opposition Coalition;
    (3) efforts to isolate extremist and terrorist groups in Syria to prevent their influence on the future transitional and permanent Syrian governments;
    (4) coordination with allies and partners; and
    (5) efforts to limit support from the Government of Iran and others for the Syrian regime.”

    The U.S. must not simply back some undefined mix of rebels, or see any kind of rebel victory as an “end state” or desirable form of “conflict termination.”  The irony of the Syrian civil war is that the best outcome for Syria, the region, and the U.S. remains the same outcome that a far wiser Assad might have achieved before he turned to violence, repression, and regression. 

    Syria needs some negotiated form of national unity, an end to Alawite domination without punishment of the Alawites as a minority, greater rights for its Kurds, religious tolerance and full rights for its Sunnis, and protection of its Druze and Christian minorities. It needs economic reform, investment in civil infrastructure and development rather than arms, policies that can cope with its “youth explosion,” a rule of law rather than a rule of repression, and an evolution towards democracy.

    None of these things can now be achieved through negotiation without some form of major rebel gains or victory and without the departure of Assad and the key figures around him who supported repression and violence. Assad saw to that long before he used chemical weapons. They also cannot be achieved from the outside or through some form of occupation, even if the U.S. or other nations were willing to commit such levels of force. Afghanistan and Iraq are simply the latest examples that reform takes time, must win popular acceptance, and must come largely from within. Assad must go, along with the worst elements of his support, and he will only go through the use of force.

    What this means in practice, is very much what it meant when Syrian protests first turned into civil war. Properly targeted cruise missile strikes can help, but they cannot possibly be enough to really matter. Any effective U.S. action that could give Syria some credible chance for future stability and unity requires sustained backing of the more moderate rebel factions with the arms, funds, and training they need. It requires a continuing effort to offset Assad’s advantages in using the remnants of his massive military machine. It means making it clear that he cannot win by attacking a large bloc of civilians with any form of weaponry without added reprisals.

    It is important to note that such a strategy involves serious risks, and there is deep disagreement among “experts” as to the strength of the moderate rebel faction, how moderate they really are, and how moderate they will remain if they win. Like every other state involved in the “Arab spring,” Syria’s post-civil war will be uncertain and if its new leaders make serious mistakes, it will be an unstable and sometimes vicious failure.

    At a minimum, this means making U.S. aid to the rebels openly conditional. It should be clear to every rebel faction and to the world that the U.S. will halt all support if they move towards extremism. It should also be clear that the U.S. will not support any rebels that repeat the excesses of the Iraqi exile movements that used their access to power to create new source of sectarian and ethnic conflict, purge the innocent and competent on the grounds they were Ba’athists to cripple the existing structure of government and military forces, and ignore key provisions of Iraq’s new constitution and laws to gain and retain power and serve their own advantage. The U.S. should act now to make it known that all future aid and support to the rebels depends on the capability to assume all major burdens of the fighting and to prove their moderation is real. Moreover, the U.S. should ruthlessly pull the plug on all support to the rebels if they do not.

    At the same time, this is the moment to create a package of post-civil war incentives and disincentives – on an international and Arab basis as possible – that will influence the civil war’s all too uncertain outcome. The Syrian civil war will still end in an uncertain mess, but the U.S. needs to act within the all too real limits to the art of the possible.

    The U.S. should also press hard for some form of negotiated outcome and not simply for a rebel victory. Syria does not have a core structure of experienced opposition leaders who know how to compromise, govern, and accept political defeat. If the war does not end in some form of compromise, the results may be all too grim.

    Real and stable representative government with a rule of law and workable checks and balances – something Americans perpetually misname as “democracy” – will take a long, long time to become real. Syria will not move faster than the French revolution, the Russian revolution, or political reform throughout Europe after 1848. Opposition in most of the Middle East – and certainly in Syria – has meant conspiring to gain power, not establish real democracy. Legislatures are bodies to fight out power struggles, gain money and influence, and please the leader or fight him.

    A post-civil war Syria will also have to deal with a corrupt, regime-dominated, structure of civil government. It will have to deal with a Star Chamber legal and security system. As in Iraq and Afghanistan, new constitutions and legislation will initially be largely scraps of paper in a political environment where they are used for political maneuvering and personal gain. Syria’s entire structure of governance and state-dominated economy, its state-driven and grossly underfunded education and medical systems will need reform that can only come slowly and then with some degree of national consensus and equity.

    If the U.S. is to influence this mix of post-civil war opportunities and deep structural internal challenges, it cannot do this by simply backing the rebels during the fighting and hoping for the best. It needs to make its support clearly conditional. It needs to tie all support firmly to moderate rebel leaders and factions, and openly cutoff that support if money, arms, and training flows to extremists. The U.S. needs to work with the Saudis, UAE, and Qatar to make sure there are no end-runs to support rebel extremists. 

    Moreover, the U.S. needs to act now to make an open commitment to tying all support during and after the civil war to a rebel commitment to negotiating with Assad’s supporters to great a new government and political system. The U.S. needs to try to make the UN a focus of such a post-civil war effort, get the support of other Arab nations, and make it clear to Russia and China that the U.S. will not try to dominate the outcome.

    At the same time, the United States' demands and pressure do need to be realistic. They also need to accept the fact that any real world outcome will still be messy, filled with problems and mistakes, and have to be done by Syrians on Syrian terms and in ways that reflect Syrian values. The U.S. will need to accept the fact it will take years of patient diplomatic effort to influence the upheavals that follow, and there will be unpleasant events and moment in the process.

    Realism, however, does not mean tolerance of the rise of a new form of post civil war authoritarianism, persecution of the defeated, persecution or exclusion of sectarian and ethic minorities, any form of religious extremism, a political climate of corruption that misuses aid, or a new wave of militarism when development is such a key priority. The U.S. will again need to show Syrians and the world it sets firm but realistic conditions for the support of stable political change. The U.S. should do what it can, and try again with each new window of opportunity, but breaking with the rebels or a post-civil war Syrian government may sometimes prove necessary. The U.S. should do so in a way that sends a clear and unambiguous message to the world while offering any more legitimate future government the incentive of renewed U.S. support.

    Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

    Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

    © 2013 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.


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Anthony H. Cordesman