Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Hezbollah Involvement in Syria Fans Flames of Sectarian War

Articles & Op-Eds

Also available in العربية
NOW Lebanon
April 1, 2014

The Party of God is not only hurting its domestic standing in Lebanon, but also inviting a wider regional conflict it cannot control.
Reports of heavy Hezbollah casualties trickling out of Syria's Qalamoun area are but the latest sign that the Party of God's involvement in Syria will continue to cost it dearly. But the real price for Hezbollah is being paid in Lebanon, where Hezbollah's support for the Assad regime has led to increased suicide car bombings, Sunni-Shiite tension, and armed clashes, not to mention recent concessions to the March 14 alliance in forming a caretaker Lebanese government. While spillover into Lebanon may seem a local issue, my interviews with Lebanese and Syrians during a recent visit to Lebanon indicate that such incidents, combined with a possible security vacuum caused by government bickering over the selection of Lebanon's next president, could fan the flames into a wider regional conflict that Hezbollah and Iran cannot put out and cannot afford. What is more, retaliating against Western targets is not the easy distraction it used to be and will only make things worse, not better, for the Iranian alliance.

In intervening in Syria to save the Assad regime, Hezbollah has made Lebanon a battleground for Syrians and Gulf-supported Salafist-jihadist groups. Fourteen different explosions targeting Hezbollah, Iran, or their affiliates have rocked Lebanon over the past year, including a blast in the Shiite village of Nabi Othman on March 17 that killed local Hezbollah leader Abdul Rahman al-Qadhi. A look at the details of each attack is telling: most have been suicide car bombs, the exception being a sniper killing Hezbollah weapons expert Hassan Lakkis. All have been in either in Beirut's southern suburbs or routes going into those areas, or in Hermel, Hezbollah's stronghold in the north Beqaa. The frequency of attacks has increased in tandem with the degree of Hezbollah's involvement in Syria, with the current rate now approaching four per month. The recent effort to bomb-proof stores, hospitals, and mosques in Dahiyeh has not stopped residents from fleeing to safer areas. One source told me up to 150,000 apartments are now up for rent in south Beirut alone.

But it is not just Salafist bombings in Lebanon against Hezbollah targets that could inadvertently lead to wider war. Starting with the detention of pro-Syrian politician Michel Samaha, Lebanese investigators have uncovered a number of plots sponsored by the Syrian regime against Lebanese citizens, including Sunnis in sectarian tinderbox areas such as Tripoli and Akkar. Lebanese military authorities recently issued arrest warrants in absentia for Lebanese Alawite leader Ali Eid, a staunch supporter of Assad, for smuggling a man involved in an August 23 bombing against Sunnis in Tripoli out of the country to Syria. The Assad regime, recently overconfident, could intensify assassinations in Lebanon (Tripoli in particular) that would only fuel further and more devastating attacks against Hezbollah.

Keeping conflicts in Lebanon from spreading elsewhere used to be easier, mostly as a result of backroom or tacit deals between Riyadh and Tehran. Indeed, many sources in Lebanon speculated to me that the recent government formation was evidence of such efforts. But while Arab and Persian leaders may agree to tamp it down in Lebanon, the increasingly sectarian nature of the fight in Syria has drawn both Iran and the Arab Gulf countries into a bloody battle that the porous Lebanese-Syria border, never clearly demarcated, will not contain. Ironically, Hezbollah's recent efforts to secure the Qalamoun area for the Assad regime could well push the Sunni-based Syrian opposition's central front into Lebanon, making it another theatre in an increasingly regional sectarian war.

Hitting Western targets in Lebanon or Iraq as retribution for jihadist attacks would not make the situation any better, either. Public opinion in the West is gathering against Iran, and Hezbollah opening this second front would only deepen skepticism that the Islamic Republic will cut the kind of deal with Washington that would protect Western interests in the Middle East and check counter proliferation concerns among its regional allies.

To head off further escalation, Hezbollah should scale down its involvement in Syria and return its troops home to Lebanon while a graceful exit is still possible. While reports indicate that Saudi Arabia has launched a campaign to support the Sunni opposition, Hezbollah and Iran should read such support for what it is: an attempt to squeeze out extremists and peel members of Al-Qaeda affiliates over to more moderate groups under control of regional Arab countries, and an attempt to push Bashar al-Assad to the bargaining table.

Andrew Tabler is a senior fellow at The Washington Institute and author of In the Lion's Den: An Eyewitness Account of Washington's Battle with Syria.

Friday, February 21, 2014

The Key to Pressuring Assad Is UNSCR 2118

PolicyWatch 2213

Also available in العربية
February 21, 2014
By focusing on the Syrian regime's faltering commitment to eliminate its chemical weapons, Washington can decisively push Damascus and Russia toward real progress on larger issues -- and also set the table for limited military strikes if they prove necessary.

The Syria peace talks in Geneva ended in deadlock on February 16, with the Assad regime seizing the personal assets of opposition negotiators and UN Special Representative Lakhdar Brahimi blaming Damascus for the failure to schedule the next round. Brahimi accused the regime of refusing to address the very basis of the talks: a negotiated political transition. It is now patently clear that President Bashar al-Assad feels no need to negotiate, be it a political solution to end the crisis or humanitarian access and evacuation from areas besieged by the regime. Similarly, his backers in Moscow refuse to pressure him into fulfilling his political obligations under the Geneva Communique of 2012. According to U.S. ambassador to the UN Samantha Power, nearly 5,000 Syrians were killed during the latest rounds of talks in what she described as "the most concentrated period of killing in the entire duration of the conflict."
To make matters far worse, the regime is dragging its feet on disposing of its chemical weapons (CW), with only 11 percent of only the first shipment transferred out of the country so far. And on January 30, U.S. authorities reported that the regime has "revised" its initial declarations to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), refusing to destroy its twelve declared weapons sites.
Taken together, these developments show that Assad is not only playing a ruthless game to hold on to power, but also escalating the crisis. By starving out the opposition and obstructing a political solution, he is ensuring that the country remains in a permanent state of partition, with terrorist havens on both sides. And by not following through on his commitments to the OPCW, he is threatening to supercharge the conflict -- the longer such weapons remain in the country, the more likely they are to be used by the regime again or fall into the hands of terrorist groups. In short, the situation presents a clear threat to regional and international security.
Accordingly, the United States should turn the tables on Assad, using Syria's September decision to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention as leverage to gain compliance on two other issues: a political transition as outlined in the Geneva Communique, and humanitarian access/evacuation. While the Security Council has shown little agreement on the humanitarian issue, compliance with the OPCW and the Geneva Communique are both enshrined in the same Security Council document: Resolution 2118, which is enforceable by Chapter VII measures such as sanctions and use of force following the passage of a subsequent Chapter VII resolution. Pushing now on 2118 would create a useful dilemma, forcing Moscow to reveal whether it is unable or simply unwilling to goad the Assad regime into eliminating its CW program and negotiating a political transition. This approach would also prepare the American public for a possible military showdown with Assad this summer over his refusal to dispose of chemical agents.


As Brahimi noted, the peace talks broke down because of the Assad regime's refusal to discuss a "transitional governing body" as outlined under the Geneva Communique, the internationally accepted "Action Plan for Syria" agreed on by the United States and Russia and enshrined in Resolution 2118. Instead, the regime has put forward a forced political solution centered on Assad's "reelection" to a third seven-year term; his current terms expires July 7, but he is virtually guaranteed to win the rigged election slated for this spring. This is a nonstarter for the opposition. And given the regime's inability to reconquer and hold all the territory it has lost, this solution would make it impossible to reunite Syria under central leadership, leading to permanent partition along the lines of Somalia.
Meanwhile, the regime's efforts to remove "chemical agents and key precursor chemicals" have -- as U.S. ambassador to the OPCW Robert Mikulak put it on January 30 -- "seriously languished and stalled" in at least two respects. First, only a small percentage of the first scheduled shipment has been transported to the port of Latakia for transfer outside Syria and destruction. The shipment is supposed to include 500 tonnes of the most toxic chemicals, with another shipment of 700 tonnes due out thereafter. Mikulak's assessment was not surprising: reports indicated that shipments had been remarkably small for some time, leading Assad to blame the OPCW for the "slow" provision of equipment in a January interview with Agence France Press. This was in reference to Syrian requests for extra equipment due to "security concerns" in the Qalamoun area along the M-5 highway north of Damascus, through which CW shipments are transported. Mikulak branded such concerns as "without merit" and said they displayed a "bargaining mentality rather than a security mentality," since the regime and its Hezbollah allies were already known to have consolidated much of their position in that region.
Second, and much more worrisome, Damascus has sought to revise its initial declaration to the OPCW in order to keep its twelve declared CW weapons sites intact. The regime now wants to render these sites "inactivated" by "welding doors shut and constructing interior obstacles" -- measures that Washington has said are "readily reversible within days" and therefore well short of Syria's original commitment to "physically destroy" the sites "as provided for by the Convention and the precedents for implementing that requirement." The proposal followed Assad's statement in the AFP interview that Syria's only obligation was "preparing and collecting data and providing access to inspectors." "The rest," he said, "is up to other parties."
The site request indicated that Damascus was backtracking on its commitments under Resolution 2118 and the Convention on the Destruction of Chemical Weapons, which the regime acceded to last year under threat of U.S. military force. In response, Mikulak stated that the United States was willing to "explore an approach" where the roofs of seven hardened aircraft hangars used as chemical sites could be collapsed. The five remaining CW sites are underground; although Mikulak noted that they present a "more challenging destruction problem," he recommended collapsing the tunnel portals and compromising the "structural integrity" of the tunnels at "key junctures."


The best way to prevent Assad from escalating the crisis and domineering the transition is to pressure him into complying with the timetable for disposing of CW and destroying chemical sites. Increased shipments out of Syria would take away a strategic weapon that the regime has repeatedly has used and keep it from falling into the wrong hands. But there is another compelling reason to push Assad on 2118: the regime has made itself vulnerable on other fronts by dragging its feet on the OPCW. Focusing on the effort to rid Syria of CW would help Washington determine exactly where it stands not only with the Assad regime, but also with Moscow. The sequencing of this strategy could unfold as follows:
  1. Create diplomatic pressure around Resolution 2118 in terms of both CW destruction and the transitional governing body outlined by the Geneva Communique. The CW problem is the only Syrian issue on which there is clear Security Council agreement regarding the steps Assad must take, and the transition process outlined in the Geneva Communique has broad international acceptance. Emphasizing these two issues by focusing on compliance with Resolution 2118 would keep the regime on agenda and steer it away from attempting to justify its onslaught against civilians as a war on "terrorism." At the same time, the U.S. government should continue pushing on the current UN draft resolutions regarding humanitarian access and evacuation in response to the regime's recent uptick in violence and continued besieging of approximately 200,000 Syrians. Given the urgency of the matter, any such resolutions should have clear consequences in the event of noncompliance.
  2. Build public pressure against the regime based on its delays in implementing 2118. By increasingly highlighting the Assad regime's recent barrage against the opposition, Washington can build pressure not only on Damascus, but also on Moscow, determining once and for all whether Russia will convince Assad to meet his commitments on CW and political transition. In addition, such an approach would prod Moscow on the humanitarian front.
A campaign of diplomatic and public pressure could also build opposition support for the United States following its nadir last year, when the Obama administration decided to delay punitive airstrikes after the regime reportedly used CW against civilians. This goodwill could in turn be used to obtain guarantees from rebel elements along the Qalamoun-Latakia route not to attack or commandeer CW convoys. Such an approach would cement the good impression made by Washington's strong diplomatic stand at the latest peace talks, particularly in keeping Iran away from the table unless it accepted the Geneva Communique.


Thus far, the Assad regime has radically changed course only when confronted with the credible threat of U.S. military force last autumn. This is similar to Assad's shift in the face of Israeli military strikes against convoys attempting to transfer strategic weapons to Hezbollah. It is therefore important that Washington emphasize a point President Obama has already made: U.S. strikes on Syria were only delayed last year, not cancelled, while Washington explored the regime's willingness to deliver on its commitments under Resolution 2118. Taking this tack would not only instrumentalize the credible use of force and create pressure to move, it would also prepare the American public for the necessity of a limited strike in the increasingly likely event that Damascus misses the final June 30 deadline to eliminate its CW program.
This is not just a matter of American credibility being on the line: by escalating the violence, spurning real negotiations, and holding onto its chemical arsenal, the Assad regime has ensured that the Syria crisis will increasingly threaten the United States and its allies in Europe and the Middle East. The domestic political timing adds increased urgency: President Obama will likely face increased Republican criticism over his handling of a crisis to which there will be no easy answers any time soon, and such pressure is already emerging via tight congressional races that could end Democratic control of the Senate and, with it, the president's ability to govern assertively the next two years. At the same time, the relative economic and political cost of limited military intervention using offset assets (e.g., cruise missiles) is decreasing as Washington's financial and military commitments to curb humanitarian suffering in Syria grow. As the Syria crisis enters its fourth year next month, dealing effectively with the Assad regime's behavior now by pressing for implementation of Resolution 2118 -- and a potential new humanitarian resolution -- is the right move, both politically and morally.
Andrew J. Tabler is a senior fellow in The Washington Institute's Program on Arab Politics.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

An Assertive Plan of Action for Syria

Congressional Testimony

House of Commons, Canada
February 12, 2014

Washington Institute senior fellow Andrew Tabler addressed the Canadian parliament's Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development regarding the current situation in Syria. The following are his prepared remarks and policy recommendations.

Mr. Chairman and Ranking Members:
Thank you for the opportunity to testify. Following the outbreak of the Syrian uprising in March 2011, I have had multiple opportunities to speak with members of Canada's government, diplomatic corps, intelligence services, and military either in Ottawa, at the Halifax Security Forum, or in Washington on what now can only be described as Syria's meltdown. While a long-term resident in Damascus, I also had extensive contact with Canadian diplomats concerned with the Middle East and national security issues. As much as I appreciated those meetings, the real reason I am speaking with you here today is that Canada has remained a stalwart ally of the United States in a rapidly changing world in which easy answers to foreign policy dilemmas are no more. And I believe more than ever that we are in this together.

A Corrosive Conflict with No End In Sight

The rapidly deteriorating situation in Syria now represents not only the biggest humanitarian crisis in a generation but also the most complex in terms of short- and long-term security challenges. The effort by President Bashar al-Assad's regime to shoot its way out of what started as peaceful protests demanding reform has set off a bloody civil war in which more than 130,000 people have been killed, between a third and a half of Syria's population of 23 million has been displaced, and what remains on paper as the Syrian Arab Republic has been divided into three complex entities in which terrorist organizations are not only present but ascendant in each area.
In the western part of Syria, the minority-dominated Assad regime is holding on not only through using the full lethality of its military arsenal, including poison gas and ballistic missiles, but also through the direct aid and coordination with U.S.-designated terrorist organizations. These include the Iranian-backed Lebanese Hezbollah, Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and a number of Shiite militias from as far away as Iraq and Afghanistan. In the majority Sunni-dominated center, al-Qaeda affiliates such as Jabhat al-Nusra (the Support Front) and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) have grown in response to the regime's slaughter, the presence of Iranian-backed forces, perceived international inaction to stop the slaughter, and, particularly, the U.S. decision to put off punitive strikes against the Assad regime for its assessed use of chemical weapons against Syrian civilians. And last but not least, in Syria's northeast, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the Syrian affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), dominates Kurdish areas.
The longer the war has gone on, the more bloody and sectarian it has become, particularly between Alawites and other minority factions that dominate the regime and Sunnis that dominate the opposition. Extensive Sunni-Kurdish tension and violence have grown as well, particularly in tandem with the growth of al-Qaeda factions in Syria's center and northeast. Syria's Christian population has very much been caught in the middle, fearful of extremist elements among the Syrian Sunni-dominated opposition all the while knowing that seeking security from the brutal Assad regime is not in keeping with its long-term interests in the Middle East, let alone the teachings of Jesus Christ. As a student of his words and the values they inspired, I share their concerns and fully appreciate their dilemma.

Spillover and the "Regionalization" of the Conflict

Sectarianism has grown with the help of each group's regional backers, with Shiite-dominated Iran supporting the Assad regime and Shiite-based forces on one side, and the Sunni Arab Gulf and North African countries standing on the side of the opposition. Assistance has included donations from governments as well as individuals in all of these countries, and the flow of assistance has been haphazard, which has helped fuel extremism on both sides. In many ways, the battle for the future of the Middle East between Iran and the Arab countries is being waged in the streets, mountains, and fields of Syria. But these are not the only regional interests at stake -- Turkey and the Kurds are also vying for power and influence in Syria. Globally, Russia continues to support the Assad regime with weapons, and the West supports moderate factions of the opposition overtly with nonlethal assistance and covertly with small weapons and training.
Las Vegas rules don't apply in Syria: what happens there doesn't stay there. Syria's primary importance to the West, as well as the Middle East region, remains its central geographic position in the regional security architecture -- that is, the Middle East's post-World War I boundaries. The Syrian war is now spilling west into Lebanon, which has seen multiple terrorist attacks in the last few months, and east into Iraq, where similar attacks are taking place. If the fighting in Syria continues apace and spreads south into Jordan, which hosts hundreds of thousands of refugees in and out of camps, and north into Turkey, the Syria crisis will directly threaten the security of key Canadian and U.S. allies, all the while eroding the current state boundaries in the Levant and the Middle East as a whole.

Assad's "Forced Solution" and the Possible Partition of Syria

Spillover into the West could happen directly as well. Recent reports citing U.S. intelligence sources indicate that some extreme Sunni factions in Syria could be planning attacks inside the United States and elsewhere in the West. Other reports indicate Iran, the Assad regime's ally and ostensible enemy of the Sunni extremist forces, could be supporting these elements as well. Others indicate the Assad regime is buying oil products from ISIS and refraining from targeting its forces, instead hitting more moderate rebels supported by Western countries -- a Machiavellian strategy that drives all sides to extremes. Syria is increasingly a Middle Eastern twilight zone: a place where none of the usual rules apply.
Making matters worse, efforts to foster a transition in Syria that would have a hope of reuniting the country remain dim. President Assad is now putting forward a forced solution masquerading as a reform plan centered on his "reelection" to a third term as president -- which he last won in 2007 by a laughable 97.62 percent of the vote. Given the level of Assad's brutality and the minority nature of his Alawite-dominated regime, not to mention the Assad regime's past manipulations of elections and referendums, this is a nonstarter for the Sunni-majority-dominated opposition. Since Assad's forces, even with Hezbollah and Iranian assistance, seem unable to reconquer and effectively hold all of what was the Syrian Arab Republic, implementation of Assad's plan would mean a prolonged de facto partition for the country. Such an outcome would perpetuate human misery, lawlessness, and havens for terrorist groups.

An Assertive Plan of Action

The days of easy foreign policy options in the Syria crisis are over. The matter is not just as simple as arming the rebels or reengaging with Assad, as the media often portrays it. But that does not mean the West is out of options. The war in Syria is likely to go on for years, and it is important that Canada and its allies explore multiple tracks to constrain, contain, and eventually bring the conflict to an end. I believe the best way to do so is by utilizing a more assertive, three-pronged approach, prioritized by tackling first threats first.
1. Rid Syria of chemical weapons and implement the Geneva Communique of 2012. Concern is growing in the U.S. government that the effort to destroy Syria's chemical stockpile "has seriously languished and stalled," not just because Syria is predictably behind schedule, but also because Damascus is now demanding its chemical weapons sites be "inactivated" instead of "physically destroyed" as outlined under the Convention for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. This development, especially following the regime's consolidation of control in the western half of Syria, indicates that the Assad regime is dragging its feet on fulfilling the country's obligations in order to achieve concessions from the United States and the London 11 countries concerning the formation of a transitional governing body in Syria.
In order to counter such pressure, the West should turn the tables on the Assad gambit and use Syria's compliance with the Chemical Weapons Convention as leverage to gain Assad's compliance with a transition in Syria as outlined under the Geneva Communique of 2012. Fortunately for the United States and Canada, both Syria's compliance with the rules set out by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and the Geneva Communique are enshrined in the same UN Security Council resolution -- 2118 -- which is enforceable by Chapter VII measures such as sanctions and the use of force following the passage of a subsequent Chapter VII resolution. In the likely event of a veto by Russia or China, the credible threat of additional sanctions and the use of force should be used to ensure Assad follows through on his obligations to give up Syria's chemical weapons arsenal. Successful follow through could also help foster a real long-term transition in Syria based on, but not limited to, the Geneva Communique.
2. Push humanitarian access and evacuation. The humanitarian situation in Syria is rapidly worsening, and the Assad regime continues to use starvation campaigns that violate not only the Geneva Conventions but international humanitarian law as well. Canada should therefore continue to support the current proposed Security Council resolution concerning humanitarian access in Syria (which also emphasizes implementation of the Geneva Communique).
3. Combat terrorism. Combating terrorism should occur on multiple levels, including a plan in conjunction with regional allies to back moderate opposition elements at the expense of extremists. But that is not going to be enough. Plans should also be developed using offset assets (e.g., missiles) and drones to hit all designated terrorist groups operating in Syria, no matter what side they are fighting on, that are deemed to be aiming at Canadian, U.S., or international targets.
Such an approach would contain and constrain Assad on the use of chemical weapons, the possibility of their leakage to non-state actors and terrorist groups, and the regime's use of starvation and siege as a form of warfare. It would also contain, alienate, and help eliminate terrorist groups operating in Syria among both the opposition and the constellation of forces helping to prop up Assad.
Doubtless, the priorities on this list will likely change multiple times before the Syria crisis is over. But the basic pillars for present and future courses of action are there. Thank you for consideration of this testimony, and I would be happy to answer any questions you may have.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Who’s to blame for failed Syrian peace talks, and what’s next?

PBS Newshour
January 31, 2014 at 6:25 PM EST


JEFFREY BROWN: And so with no deal achieved and without a firm agreement to meet again, what are the prospects for ending a civil war that has claimed an estimated 130,000 lives and displaced millions?
We turn again to Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Oklahoma, and Andrew Tabler, a senior fellow in the Program on Arab politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Joshua Landis, let me start with you. What do you take from this first round of talks?
JOSHUA LANDIS, University of Oklahoma: Well, I think many people were expecting — were expecting that the United States would be willing to take half a loaf, that it would be willing to compromise to the point of not asking for regime change in Syria in order to get, perhaps, some access to starving people, to victims inside Syria, and perhaps the beginnings of a cease-fire, in order to alleviate the suffering of the Syrians and the big outflow of refugees that risks to bring down and trouble neighboring states.
But the U.S. stuck to its guns and said that there has to be regime change in Syria. As soon as the Assad regime sensed this and heard the opening speech, it began to take away offers of cease-fire access to humanitarian agencies. And the conversation became one of accusation, counteraccusation, very heated.
And we haven’t seen any progress. And we have seen stalling on chemical weapons. I think that the regime went to Geneva, I believe — the Syrian regime — believing that it could — that the United States was beginning to get worried about the jihadist problem and wouldn’t — would stake a deal somehow with the Assad regime. And that didn’t happen.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Andrew, what do you take from it? And the very fact of meeting, even symbolically, does that have any importance?
ANDREW TABLER, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy: Yes, it does. It got the diplomatic ball rolling.
Many people predicted that the opposition would collapse. That didn’t happen. They didn’t end up with getting access. And the reason why I think the U.S. stuck to its guns is because this conference was about transition. It was never going to be about — a conference about why the Assad regime should be doing what it’s obligated to do under international humanitarian law and the Geneva Convention.
Access of humanitarian goods and evacuation of civilians are required there. It’s about a transition. Russia is on board with that. And so, actually, at the end of the week, I think the opposition, it’s a tactical victory, at least in the short-term.
JEFFREY BROWN: But in addition to transition, there’s the humanitarian crisis going on. We mentioned Homs, for example. What is the holdup there with getting something?
ANDREW TABLER: The regime will not allow supplies through their lines into Homs.
Now, in Homs, the rebels there are actually more reliable. There is better command-and-control. The long siege there has pushed them together and they are also better connected with the Syrian National Coalition.
So, it was a golden opportunity. Unfortunately, it was missed. And we will have to see if the regime comes back to the negotiating table on February 10.
JEFFREY BROWN: Joshua Landis, do you — are things like humanitarian — the humanitarian crisis, was that on the table there? Did it make any headway?
JOSHUA LANDIS: It didn’t make any headway. It was on the able, but the regime is trying to make a deal. And it didn’t sense that there was a deal, and so it took its offer of aid off the table.
And we’re back to a war of attrition here. And I have talked to a number of people in Washington and Paris about this. And they feel that Assad is at his acme, his greatest, strongest point here, because he has had a number of successes militarily. The rebels are in chaos.
But they believe that with time the rebels will get a new command structure that they are getting together, they are going to get more help, and that the minority regime behind Assad, the Alawites, Christians, other minorities, are only about 20 percent of the Syrian population.
They can be attrited. And their young men will be killed off eventually, and that in a year’s time or perhaps even two, the balance of power will be very different and this regime will begin to collapse. And then the conversation will change.
JEFFREY BROWN: Andrew Tabler, what about the reports that Syria is so far behind on the timetable to give up its poison gas stocks?
ANDREW TABLER: Right. It has only handed over about 4 percent of initial shipment of 500 tons, but not only that. Syria is now refusing to physically destroy its chemical weapons facilities and said they wanted to make it inaccessible, meaning like lock up the front doors, weld it, which is easily reversed.
The U.S. has come out very strongly. And remember that the Geneva communique on which the talks had been going on be there, the only place that is enshrined inside the United Nations is in the U.N. Security Council 2118 that deals with the chemical weapons issue. So they’re actually linked in there.
And so I think now we’re going to be going back to the Security Council concerning chemical weapons and to the humanitarian access.
JEFFREY BROWN: Is this tied to what Joshua Landis was talking about, that Assad feeling himself still very powerful?
ANDREW TABLER: Assad feels very powerful, particularly in the Western part of the country.
But what is interesting is Assad, despite being so powerful, is saying, I’m not strong enough to allow these convoys of these chemical weapons and these chemical agents through the Qalamoun area out to the coast. He’s demanding more and more equipment, which is interesting. If he is so strong in the west, why demand so much equipment?
Actually, the international community believes they have provided sufficient equipment. So does the OPCW. And that led to the statements we have seen from the United States the last two days.
JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so, Joshua Landis, do you expect the Syrian government to go back to the table on February 10? Are there some areas, even limited, where there might be some progress?
JOSHUA LANDIS: I don’t think they want to talk about regime change.
And, you know, the message from Geneva was, the most important thing is that Assad has to step down, we need regime changes here. Assad is not going to step down. And this is going to be done over his dead body. And that’s — that’s the — you know, this is what this civil war is about. And that is where we are once again.
He thought there was an opening for — that the West was falling out of love with the Syrian opposition, they’re worried about the jihadists, they’re willing to talk about Assad remaining. As you remember, the ex-head of CIA Hayden had said, well, maybe Assad is better than the opposition.
And Ryan Crocker, important ambassador and spokesperson for the State Department, now retired, had said the same thing roughly, that he expects Assad to win. So Assad I think had begun to feel that perhaps there was a changing mood in the West. He discovered in Geneva there is no change in the West. Kerry was very dramatic. This is about regime change. He said that Assad is the reason for the jihadists there, he is the magnet, and until he goes, jihadists will not go.
JOSHUA LANDIS: And that was his assertion.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right, let me ask very briefly, Andrew, are you as pessimistic?
ANDREW TABLER: I’m pessimistic in terms of — for relieving the suffering on the ground. But I think it’s no mistake President Obama talked about Syria three times in the State of the Union speech. He talked about — surprisingly, about supporting the moderate rebels.
Dealing with extremism in Syria is not just as simple as flipping back the Assad regime. It has to involve working with the opposition as well, particularly the moderate parts of it that we can work with.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Andrew Tabler, Joshua Landis, thanks again.

Friday, January 31, 2014

Conflict in Syria: Geneva II and the Road Ahead

PolicyWatch 2202

January 29, 2014

On January 27, 2014, Andrew Tabler, Jeffrey White, and Aaron Zelin addressed a Policy Forum at The Washington Institute. Tabler is a senior fellow in the Institute's Program on Arab Politics and author of In the Lion's Den: An Eyewitness Account of Washington's Battle with Syria. White is a Defense Fellow at the Institute and a former senior defense intelligence officer. Zelin is the Institute's Richard Borow Fellow and founder of the website Jihadology.net. The following is a rapporteur's summary of their remarks.


Last week's talks in Montreux were a tactical diplomatic victory for the Syrian opposition. While the regime's foreign minister Walid Mouallem had a tense exchange with UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon, forcing the regime delegation to take a more conciliatory tone ahead of subsequent talks in Geneva, the opposition's tone was much more measured. Early signs show that the talks have also restored some credibility to the United States and the UN.
In terms of content, the regime focused overwhelmingly on its fight against "terrorism." Opposition leader Ahmed Jarba similarly addressed the "slaughter" and other atrocities occurring in his country, but he blamed the regime for the creation of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), a major al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria.
In Geneva, the parties have attempted to address the humanitarian situation in Homs, one of the hardest hit, most besieged areas. The opposition Syrian National Coalition has better relationships with armed groups in that area, and the militias themselves have better command-and-control there. The regime has agreed to allow humanitarian deliveries, which are enshrined under international humanitarian law, but only if armed fighters depart assisted areas. In terms of evacuating Syrians from besieged areas, the regime has agreed to let women and children exit but is demanding that all male evacuees give their names before leaving -- a nonstarter for all other parties.
The talks have reached an impasse on the issue of transferring power to a transitional government. The regime's negotiating team reportedly presented a "declaration of principles" that did not mention a power transfer, and the opposition summarily rejected it. The regime's untenable position at Geneva is essentially a forced settlement masquerading as a democratic process. President Bashar al-Assad maintains that the political mechanism for settling the crisis centers on this spring's presidential "election." Following the February 2012 constitutional referendum, presidential elections in Syria must now be multicandidate, multiparty contests. Yet candidates must still be approved by the Assad-appointed Supreme Constitutional Court. This fact, coupled with other manipulations, mean that Assad will assuredly win.
Regarding the controversy over Iran's attendance at the talks, the United States has wisely insisted that Tehran cannot participate until it accepts a central tenet of the 2012 Geneva Communique: the formation of a "transitional governing body" (TGB) with "full executive powers" that will create a "neutral environment in which a transition can take place." Yet Assad has rendered this provision meaningless by insisting that the TGB be formed "on the basis of mutual consent." This loophole has allowed Russia to permit Assad's inclusion in the TGB while claiming to remain committed to the communique. Assad is also unwilling to work with the Syrian National Coalition and other opposition groups, which he dismisses as proxies of regional and Western states. Moreover, anything decided during the Geneva process would need to be confirmed by a national referendum administered by the regime.
Going forward, the opposition and its international supporters should pursue a three-part strategy. First, they should focus on a transition that involves the departure of the regime's core, including members of the Assad and Makhlouf families (who have privileged relationships with the elite 4th Armored Division) and the shabbiha militias. Second, they should avoid a forced settlement centered on the reelection of Assad, whose term expires on July 7. And third, they should prevent the regime from dragging its feet on implementation of the chemical weapons deal. Assad knows his usefulness to Russia and the United States will significantly diminish after he turns over all of those weapons, so he will attempt to tie any progress in Geneva to the chemical schedule.

Download Tabler's Who's Who in the Assad Regime chart (PDF).


The ongoing negotiations are another front in the struggle between the regime and the opposition. In the end, though, military events will have a much bigger impact on the conflict's course than the Geneva process.
After the talks, the war will likely go back to business as usual: a triangular conflict characterized by unfinished operations and a battlefield situation that favors the regime, albeit not decisively. Casualties will increase, including among foreign fighters and irregulars on both sides. And the rebels may lose ground in important areas such as Homs, the southern suburbs of Damascus, and the southern approaches to Aleppo.
Currently, the opposition is undergoing two contradictory internal processes -- in some cases rebel factions are fighting each other, while in other cases they have sought to consolidate their forces against the regime. It remains unclear which process will prevail. Either way, the regime does not feel militarily threatened enough to treat the current talks seriously. Knowing that it will continue to benefit from inter-rebel fighting, the regime prefers a slow victory or stalemate over negotiations. The regime also sees no connection between the opposition delegation in Geneva and the armed rebels on the ground. For their part, the rebels have little bargaining power other than threatening to continue the fight.
There are four potential scenarios for how the conflict will unfold after Geneva, listed in descending order of probability, with the first two being equally likely:
  1. Hardening of the current stalemate. Neither side demonstrates an interest in serious negotiations, preferring to continue the war of attrition in the hope of gaining a better bargaining position.
  2. The regime continues to weaken the rebels. With the opposition increasingly divided, the regime becomes even less interested in negotiations over time, opting instead to slowly inflict attrition on the rebels.
  3. The regime's success accelerates. Assad is only interested in discussing terms of surrender, and the rebels are divided over whether to capitulate or fight to the bitter end.
  4. Rebels regain momentum. Battlefield gains by rebel forces increase the prospect for real negotiations with the regime, but the opposition remains divided.
To be sure, the creation of the Islamic Front umbrella group has improved the opposition's use of military resources. Yet the regime still holds the advantage in linking political and diplomatic strategy to military operations, and its position will likely improve in the short term. To remain effective, the rebels will have to resolve their internal divisions, limit their loss of territorial and strategic positions, better coordinate their use of military resources, and prevent the regime from exploiting mistrust among their ranks.
Despite reluctance in U.S. policymaking circles, tipping the military balance in the rebels' favor would require increased military assistance beyond guns and ammunition. Intelligence sharing, medical assistance, and battlefield expertise could also help the more moderate rebel factions in their fight against the al-Qaeda affiliate ISIS. At the same time, the international community could move negotiations forward by putting diplomatic and economic pressure on the regime's indispensable allies, Hezbollah, Iran, and Russia. This includes exposing the details of their financial and military support to the regime. Such an approach would test the willingness of these allies to up the ante. In any case, the current military situation in Syria means that Geneva is not where one should look to size up the country's future.


The Islamic Front's number-one goal is toppling the Assad regime, including its military and security institutions. Accordingly, six of the seven rebel groups within the IF signed a joint statement in late October that declared settlement talks a "conspiracy" and warned that any rebel participants would be tried for treason. And on January 20, the IF and Jaish al-Mujahedin issued a joint statement further rejecting the Geneva process.
Even so, some have argued that the United States and the West should back the IF because it is fighting ISIS. Yet it would be imprudent for Washington to work with the IF given its actions and statements thus far. For example, Hassan Aboud -- the head of the IF's political bureau and leader of its most extremist faction, Ahrar al-Sham -- has said that there is no contradiction between the interests of the United States and Iran. More important, an August Human Rights Watch report concluded that the hostage taking, killings, and other systemic abuses committed by rebel forces against civilians in the Latakia area "rise to the level of war crimes and crimes against humanity." The organization specifically implicated Ahrar al-Sham as a major player in these abuses. In addition, Zahran Aloush, the IF's military commander and head of Jaish al-Islam, has said that "the mujahedin...will wash the filth of the Rafida [derogatory term for Shiites] from the Levant, they will wash it forever." If the United States backs the IF and the regime is defeated, certain rebel factions could launch a campaign of genocide against Assad's Alawite Shiite constituents.
The group's core ideology also pits it against U.S. interests. The IF's charter calls for an Islamic state and the implementation of sharia -- the group is squarely against human legislation, believing that all laws come from God rather than civil government. IF leader Abu Issa al-Sheikh has stated that there is no place for secularism in Syria, while Aloush has ruled out democracy as an acceptable form of government.
The IF presents a military liability for Washington as well. Its role in fighting ISIS has overshadowed the fact that it hosts foreign fighters from the Netherlands, Turkey, Egypt, Kuwait, Russia, and Uzbekistan, among other countries. Even more alarming is the connection between senior Ahrar al-Sham figure Abu Khalid al-Suri and al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. As Zawahiri's emissary in Syria, Suri has been a mediator in dealings between ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra (JN), another al-Qaeda affiliate.
The ongoing fighting between IF units and ISIS is a lot more complex than commonly reported. While IF groups have been portrayed as fighting jihadists, they are in reality responding to specific abuses perpetrated by ISIS. Many within the jihadist camp have framed the IF-ISIS clashes as mere fitna (discord) to be resolved through mediation, potentially with JN as a broker. Meanwhile, ISIS has branded the opposition Syrian Military Council and its civilian arm as its real enemy, declaring that its war is not against the IF, but rather against Jamal Marouf, the leader of the nationalist Syrian Revolutionary Front (SRF).
ISIS has also been able to recover from the recent surprise offensive by the SRF, Jaish al-Mujahedin, and the IF, in part because some IF battalions have refused to fight the group. Additionally, the two sides have signed several agreements, including one handing the city of Saraqeb over to JN and the SRF. As a result, ISIS has not only recaptured its lost clout, it has also retaken Jarabulus, Manbij, and al-Bab. In addition, it has secured pledges of loyalty from a number of tribes and former IF battalions since the fighting started.
Yet even as Ahrar al-Sham has toned down its clashes with ISIS, other IF groups are less keen on mending relations. Jaish al-Islam leader Aloush has consistently been anti-ISIS, calling it an agent of the Iranian government. Liwa al-Tawhid and Suqur al-Sham have made similar calls for finishing the job against ISIS. Thus, more inter-rebel fighting should be expected, though ISIS will remain a player whether it is ostracized or not.
This rapporteur's summary was prepared by Adam Heffez.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Avoiding Assad's Forced Solution to the Syria Crisis

PolicyWatch 2195

Also available in العربية
January 21, 2014

Given that Assad and his backers want to gut the transition process called for in the Geneva Communique, Washington should plan to take other steps in parallel to the Geneva process.

The UN retraction of Iran's invitation to this week's Syria peace talks in Montreux, Switzerland, does little if anything to change the Assad regime's approach to those talks. President Bashar al-Assad's statements in recent days indicate that he and his backers are attempting to pressure the United States and the rest of the "London 11" countries supporting the opposition at the conference -- Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Turkey, Egypt, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. In particular, Damascus hopes to change the framework of the talks from arranging a genuine transition to accepting a forced settlement centered on Assad's upcoming "reelection" for a third seven-year term, which will not take place for at least four months (his current term ends on July 7). Since little is likely to be accomplished at this week's talks, Washington should concentrate on steps the United States and its allies can take regardless of how the talks go, especially in terms of delivering humanitarian assistance to besieged areas and strengthening the moderate Syrian opposition through promotion of local elections.

In remarks made over the past few days -- first during a meeting with Russian politicians visiting Damascus, and then in an interview with Agence France Press (AFP) -- Assad reiterated the regime's longstanding mantra that it is fighting an international conspiracy waged by terrorist factions against Syria. More important, he outlined how the political mechanism for settling the crisis centers on his reelection.
On January 19, Russia's Interfax news agency reported that Assad had told a delegation of visiting Russian parliamentarians that the issue of him giving up power is "not up for discussion." Although the statement was later denied by Syrian state television, Assad told AFP the following day that the "chances of my [presidential] candidacy are significant," and "I must be at the forefront of those defending this country." He also noted that the process of measuring public opinion on his leadership would commence in "four months' time," when the election date will be announced.
Under the Assad family, Syrian elections have been regarded as among the most manipulated in the Arab world. During the last election in 2007, the Baath-dominated parliament rubberstamped Bashar's nomination as the sole candidate, and in the subsequent public referendum to confirm whether he should be president, he received a laughable 97.62 percent of the vote. In order to show devotion to Assad, many voters were forced to mark the "yes" column by pricking their finger and voting in blood.
Following changes to the constitution approved by referendum in February 2012, presidential elections in Syria must now be multicandidate, multiparty contests. Although this may sound like progress, the changes mean little for this year's election. For one thing, candidates must first be approved by the Supreme Constitutional Court, which is appointed by Assad. This fact, coupled with the ongoing state of war, the vast number of displaced citizens, and the heavy role of regime security services in regime-controlled areas, means that the chances of anyone other than Assad winning the next election are zero.
As for which factions Assad would be willing to work with in the future, he told AFP that he would only accept parties with a "national agenda" to help "govern the Syrian state," dismissing those in the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) and other opposition groups as proxies of regional and Western states participating in the plot against Syria. In his view, anything decided as part of the Geneva process or his own coalition-building efforts would also need to be confirmed by a national referendum run by the regime. Overall, Assad's account of how the next president will be selected and which "opposition parties" will be included is the basis of a forced solution to the Syria crisis masquerading as a democratic process.
The United States has insisted that Iran cannot attend this week's Syria talks until it accepts a central tenet of the Geneva Communique negotiated between Russian and American officials in June 2012. Section II, paragraph two of the communique states that a "key step" to "any settlement" of the Syria crisis is the formation of a "transitional governing body" (TGB) with "full executive powers" that will create a "neutral environment in which a transition can take place."
Yet Assad and his backers have interpreted this nominally tough provision in a way that guts it of any meaning, emphasizing the portion of Section II that reads, "[The TGB] could include members of the present government and the opposition and other groups...formed on the basis of mutual consent." This loophole has allowed Russia to permit, and the United States to resist, Assad's inclusion in the TGB while remaining committed to the Geneva Communique. Although Moscow and Washington have held up the mutual-consent clause as guaranteeing each side's "veto" over a settlement, the lack of specific wording as to which party represents the opposition means that the "present government" (i.e., the Assad regime) need only ally with part of the opposition to move toward a negotiated solution.
Given how these loopholes tactically and strategically benefit the Syrian regime and its supporters in Moscow and Beijing, it remains unclear why Iran backtracked on Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif's verbal commitments to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in support of the Geneva Communique as a basis for settlement. Perhaps Tehran is concerned that if it accepts the communique, Washington would then highlight the other reason why Iran's presence at the Syria talks is inappropriate -- namely, that it is the only country in the region to have deployed forces on the ground in Syria, most notably personnel from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' elite Qods Force, who have been advising and supporting the Assad regime. Zarif and Syrian foreign minister Walid Mouallem's recent collective visits to Moscow indicate that Tehran's diplomatic maneuver was a coordinated attempt to change the framework of the Geneva Communique and test American mettle regarding a forced settlement.
Whatever the case, the attempt to include Iran in the talks should come as no surprise -- for months, UN Special Representative for Syria Lakhdar Brahimi has privately and publicly lobbied Western and Arab countries to allow Iran into the Geneva process. While Secretary of State John Kerry has said that Tehran could play some role in settling the Syria crisis, it is unrealistic to expect Iran's leaders to be a positive force when they refuse to acknowledge the international responsibility to help with transition. Tehran has instead clung to the fiction that such decisions are best left to the Syrian people, even as it dispatches Iranian forces to Syria, sends arms to the Assad regime in violation of UN Security Council resolutions, and orchestrates the presence of thousands of pro-regime fighters in Syria.


The mechanism for channeling the Syrian people's aspirations toward a settlement that ends the war will not be an election under Assad's rule. Washington and its allies must not indulge Assad's fantasy that his phony election process can yield a "political solution" that will reunite Syria and avoid protracted partition and likely spillover that would threaten regional stability. If the regime and its backers continue to insist on that as the only path, the United States should focus on a mix of short- and long-term tactical and strategic steps -- both at the negotiating table and after -- to improve the chances of a workable settlement.
At the Montreux talks, Washington should emphasize unconditional limited ceasefires for the provision of humanitarian aid to besieged areas. Thus far, the regime has proposed that rebels evacuate areas where aid is to be distributed and hand them over to regime control -- in other words, if the opposition chooses to give up, the regime will graciously accept the offer. A strong U.S. stance calling not for surrender, but for true ceasefires that allow the provision of aid, would strengthen the opposition factions attending Geneva II in the eyes of fellow Syrians desperate for food and medical care. This should be accompanied by increased U.S. humanitarian support for opposition-controlled areas via nonregime channels; to date, the vast bulk of U.S. aid has gone through regime-linked institutions.
Washington should also encourage local elections in rebel-controlled areas to help the opposition choose a clear set of leaders and consolidate its ranks. As outlined above, the loopholes inherent in the Geneva Communique give Assad room to force a political settlement on his terms. The only way for the opposition to avoid that trap is to make sure the party sitting across the negotiating table from the regime is authoritative, insofar as it represents a majority of those opposed to Assad.
Andrew J. Tabler is a senior fellow at The Washington Institute and author of In the Lion's Den: An Eyewitness Account of Washington's Battle with Syria.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Syria's Collapse: And How Washington Can Stop It - Foreign Affairs July/August 2013

Syria's Collapse

And How Washington Can Stop It
A Free Syrian Army fighter takes cover during clashes with the Syrian Army in central Aleppo, 2012. (Goran Tomasevic / Courtesy Reuters)

Syria is melting down. The ruling regime’s attempt to shoot its way out of the largest uprising it has ever faced has killed over 80,000 people and displaced roughly half of Syria’s population of 22 million. If the current monthly death tolls of around 6,000 keep up, Syria will by August hit a grim milestone: 100,000 killed, a number that it took almost twice as long to reach in Bosnia in the early 1990s. This a full two years after U.S. President Barack Obama pronounced that President Bashar al-Assad needed to “step aside.”
Comparisons to the Balkans do not suffice to describe the crisis in Syria, however. The real danger is that the country could soon end up looking more like Somalia, where a bloody two-decade-long civil war has torn apart the state and created a sanctuary for criminals and terrorists. Syria has already effectively fractured into three barely contiguous areas. In each, U.S.-designated terrorist organizations are now ascendant. The regime still holds sway in western Syria, the part of the country dominated by the Alawite minority, to which the Assad family belongs; and fighters from Hezbollah, a Shiite Islamist group backed by Iran, regularly cross the increasingly meaningless Lebanese border to join Assad’s forces there. Meanwhile, a heavily Sunni Arab north-central region has come under the control of a diverse assortment of armed opposition groups. These include Jabhat al-Nusra (also known as the al-Nusra Front), an al Qaeda affiliate, which recently hoisted its black flag over Syria’s largest dam on the Euphrates. In the Kurdish north, a local offshoot of the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which has fought a long guerrilla war against the Turkish government, operates freely.
Look closer, and the picture gets worse. The conflict, whose daily death toll is now above those at the height of the Iraq war, in 2007, is rapidly spilling over into neighboring countries. The Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan has become that country’s fourth-largest city (population: 180,000), stretching the Hashemite kingdom’s resources and threatening the stability of its northern provinces. Lebanese Sunnis and Shiites, no strangers to sectarian tensions, are fighting each other across the Bekaa Valley in Syria, and Syria-related altercations occasionally break out within Lebanon. The fact that Lebanon, a country where Palestinian refugee camps are synonymous with misery and militancy, is even contemplating building camps for Syrian refugees is itself a sign of how bad things have gotten. And lest it be unclear how this affects the United States, al Qaeda in Iraq, a terrorist organ­ization that Washington sacrificed an enormous amount of blood and money trying to defeat, has found a welcome home in Syria, announcing in April that it was joining forces with Jabhat al-Nusra to form the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
The fact that the Assad regime has reportedly dipped into its stockpile of chemical weapons -- the region’s largest -- has moved the crisis up several spots on the White House’s list of urgent problems. Although public opinion polls suggest that Americans are wary of intervention, avoiding the problem looks less and less feasible, as the situation in Syria shifts from a mostly contained humanitarian catastrophe to a strategic disaster for the United States and its regional allies. A country in a region that is home to 65 percent of the world’s proven oil reserves and 40 percent of its natural gas is on the verge of becoming a lawless haven for terrorists where dangerous weapons are on the loose.
Like it or not, the question the Obama administration now faces is not whether to do more to help resolve the conflict but when, how, and at what cost. Las Vegas rules do not apply to Syria: what happens there will not stay there. The massive refugee crisis and the threat that dangerous weapons could fall into the hands of terrorists -- jihadists and Kurdish separatists alike -- directly threaten the security of Washington’s allies in Iraq, Israel, Jordan, and Turkey. The meltdown of the Syrian state is empowering terrorist groups and could ultimately give them the freedom to plan international attacks, as the chaos of Afghanistan in the 1990s did for al Qaeda. As complex as the Syrian crisis has become, one thing is clear: the longer it lasts, the greater the threat it poses and the harder it becomes for the United States to do anything about it.
To stop Syria’s meltdown and contain its mushrooming threats, the United States needs a new approach, one that starts with a partial military intervention aimed at pushing all sides to the negotiating table. The only way Washington can resolve the crisis is by working with the people “within Syria,” as the Obama administration refers to the domestic opposition, instead of without them, that is, at the UN Security Council.


The White House’s approach to the Syrian crisis so far has been top-down, relying on diplomacy to get Assad out of the way and create the space for a peaceful transition to democracy. But simply pushing the sides to reach a viable political settlement has become less and less likely to succeed. International diplomatic mediation has failed mostly because Washington and Moscow disagree about what the transition should look like. Whereas the Americans demand that Assad and his cronies must leave Syria, Russia insists that he, or at least the regime, stay in place. To this end, Moscow has vetoed three Security Council resolutions on Syria that were sponsored by the United States or its allies and watered down or stymied countless others. Although the two countries recently announced plans to hold an international conference to deal with the crisis, the chances that it will bear fruit are exceeding low given the ambiguity over what the end result of any negotiations among the warring parties would be, the lack of urgency on the part of both the regime and the opposition to come to a power-sharing agreement, and Moscow’s and Washington’s inability to bring the sides to the table.
In the meantime, Washington has sought Damascus’ diplomatic isolation; imposed a raft of oil, trade, and financial sanctions targeting the regime; helped organize a number of hopelessly divided and exiled political opposition groups into the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces; reached out to civilian activists in Syria; and offered $760 million in humanitarian assistance to Syrian civilians. Fearing that American weapons could find their way into the hands of extremists, the United States has more or less ignored the armed opposition, which effectively replaced the civilian activists at the vanguard of the effort to topple Assad more than a year and a half ago and already controls large swaths of territory in the country. Washington’s hesitation has led many armed groups to seek support elsewhere -- including from private Salafi and jihadist funders in Kuwait, Libya, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia.
The Obama administration has sent a trickle of nonlethal assistance, such as medicine and nearly expired ready-to-eat meals, to the rebel Supreme Military Council, an armed partner of the National Coalition. But this paltry aid will neither force the downfall of the regime nor earn Washington the loyalty of the opposition. Although the White House announced in April, with great fanfare, that it would send bulletproof vests and night-vision goggles to certain vetted armed groups, it appears that this will be too little, too late to win over most of those fighting to oust Assad. Each week, protesters in certain areas regularly berate the United States, and Obama in particular, for doing little for the Syrians in their hour of need. One such demonstration, in Kafr Nabl last April, featured a protest banner asking Obama whether he needed a third term to decide what to do about Syria, and if so, if any Syrians would still be alive then. Since those now aiming shots at the regime will soon call the shots where regime forces give way, Washington should take their growing resentment seriously.
The one thing that Obama has indicated might lead the United States to step in militarily, of course, is Assad’s use of chemical weapons. But even here, Washington has vacillated, betraying a deep aversion to getting involved. Obama’s redline on chemical weapons has shifted over time. At first, it included any “movement or use” of such weapons. Then, last November, it narrowed to include only their use, after U.S. intelligence detected that the regime had loaded sarin gas into bombs. Then, in late April, the administration seemed to suggest it would act only to stop the “systematic use” of chemical weapons and only when their use could be verified beyond a shadow of a doubt (a tall order, given that Washington cannot itself directly gather the samples needed for such certainty).
The U.S. government says it wants to force Assad from power and check the rise of the extremists in the opposition. But its current approach is furthering neither objective. If Washington keeps pursuing a UN-mediated settlement with Russia while allowing the conflict to deteriorate, Moscow will lose its ability to bring the regime to the table for talks on a real transition of power. As the bitter sectarian war continues, the regime’s supporters and the Alawites will have more reasons to fear one day living under Sunni rule and will see a carved-out ministate as preferable to a political settlement -- and thus resist any negotiations. Meanwhile, the United States will have lost whatever diplomatic leverage it might once have had over the opposition forces, who increasingly feel that the Americans abandoned them in their hour of need.


Neither the war-weary American public nor the Syrian opposition wants to see a full-scale U.S. land invasion to topple Assad and install a U.S.-backed government; both fear that a massive intervention would mean a repeat of Iraq. But that doesn’t mean the United States lacks options. Washington should pursue a measured but assertive course, one aimed at preventing Assad from freely using his most lethal weapons, establishing safe areas for civilians on Syria’s borders, and supporting vetted elements of the armed and civilian opposition with weapons, intelligence, humanitarian aid, and reconstruction assistance. The end goal (as opposed to the starting point, as the Obama administration now favors) should be negotiations, led by the UN or another party, that lead to the departure of Assad and his entourage and the reunification of the country. If the United States wants a Syria that is united, stable, and eventually more democratic -- and perhaps no longer allied with Iran -- this is the least bad way to get there.
The United States should start by deterring the regime from using its most lethal tools, namely surface-to-surface missiles and chemical weapons. Such deterrence will require taking out the bombs filled with sarin gas that, according to The New York Times, were placed last year “near or on” Syrian air bases. Destroying those bombs would allow Washington to signal to Assad that preparing to use his advanced weapons will carry a cost. This would likely reduce the death toll and give Syrian civilians caught up in the fighting fewer reasons to flee their homes, thus helping stem the refugee crisis. If Assad nonetheless decided to up the ante, Washington should launch pinpoint air, missile, or, possibly, drone strikes to destroy or render useless his remaining stockpiles of chemical weapons and the missiles that could deliver them. (Of course, the U.S. military would have to take extra care to avoid harming civilians with nearby chemical explosions.) Should the U.S. military fail to locate or destroy Assad’s most dangerous weapons, or deem it too risky to try, it could instead hit Syrian command-and-control facilities.
Second, to protect Syrians in opposition-controlled territory from attacks by the regime’s Scud missiles and fixed-wing aircraft, the United States should establish 50- to 80-mile-deep safe areas within Syria along its borders with Jordan and Turkey. Critics of intervention often cast the idea of creating a no-fly zone in Syria as too risky for the U.S. pilots and planes that would be involved. But a limited approach focused on border regions would be less perilous, since the regime’s planes and missiles could be shot down using Patriot missile batteries based in Jordan and Turkey or by aircraft flying there. And the safe areas would still allow civilians to take shelter from Assad’s onslaught, keep refugees from flooding into neighboring countries, and enable the international community to funnel in humanitarian aid on a scale that local nongovernmental organizations cannot match.
Carving out these safe areas would also necessitate U.S. air or missile strikes on nearby artillery -- Assad’s tool of choice for killing civilians and a possible method of delivering chemical weapons -- and air defense systems. But these, too, could be conducted from over the border.
To be sure, the United States could not protect the safe areas from ground assaults by Assad’s forces. But by eliminating the threat of death from above, whether from missiles or aircraft, a remote no-fly zone could give the rebels in these areas a fighting chance and the space they needed to safeguard civilians on the ground. Similarly, this over-the-border approach would not be as effective in preventing civilian casualties as sending U.S. aircraft over Syria, but it would carry substantially fewer risks of U.S. planes being shot down by Syrian antiaircraft batteries. If the conflict markedly worsened or the regime began using its chemical weapons wholesale against the opposition, Washington would also be able to expand the safe areas toward the center of the country and create a larger no-fly zone. But both the limited, remote option and an expanded no-fly zone could be constrained by the introduction of sophisticated Russian S-300 antiaircraft missile systems, which reportedly could be operational in Syria as early as August -- another reminder of the costs of waiting.
Third, Washington needs to work directly with opposition forces on the ground in Syria (as opposed to just those outside it) to push back the government’s forces, deliver humanitarian assistance, and, most important, check the growing influence of Islamic extremists. This should include the provision of arms to vetted armed groups on a trial-and-error basis, with Washington monitoring how the battalions use the intelligence, supplies, and arms they receive. The initial aid should be funneled through non-Salafi figures in the Supreme Military Council, such as Colonel Abdul-Jabbar Akidi, head of Aleppo’s Revolutionary Military Council and of the armaments committee of the Supreme Military Council’s Northern Front. (It was through Akidi that the United States recently channeled its nonlethal assistance, including the bulletproof vests.) At the same time, Washington should encourage members of the National Coalition to enter liberated areas and work together with the armed groups and local councils to build a new viable political leadership on the ground based on local elections.
None of this work would require American boots on the ground in an offensive capacity, but it could involve Americans wearing other types of footwear. The United States should immediately establish secure offices in southern Turkey and northern Jordan as centers devoted to working with the Syrian opposition, adding to the discussions that are currently taking place between Washington and some rebels via Skype and through periodic visits of U.S. officials to the border. As soon as their safety can be reasonably well assured, U.S. diplomats and intelligence officers should be sent into the safe areas that the United States has established in Syria, with protection, to meet directly with civilian and armed opposition members, activists, and relief workers. Establishing close relationships with players in Syria would free the United States from having to work through Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, which have in the past directed assistance into the wrong hands; Saudi-purchased Croatian arms, for example, were seen earlier this year in the possession of Jabhat al-Nusra. A more direct approach would, admittedly, put some American lives at risk, so every possible security precaution would need to be taken to avoid an attack along the lines of the 2012 assault in Benghazi that killed Christopher Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya.
Still, establishing a presence on the ground would be worth the risks, allowing the United States to work directly with Syrian armed groups to contain the Assad regime and ultimately influence the character of the opposition. One way to exert such influence would be to condition assistance on the opposition groups’ political orientations and their respect for civilian leadership and human rights. The United States should also try to influence Syrian politics on the local level to prevent the total collapse of governance in rebel-held territories. Once the opposition fully liberates an area, Washington should require elections to select a civilian leadership. This process would help avoid chaos as the regime crumbles and expose local attitudes and sympathies, allowing U.S. officials to assess the influence of various extremist groups.
Those who oppose increasing U.S. aid to the opposition tend to point to its uglier elements, particularly to fighters affiliated with al Qaeda. But only by getting involved can the United States shape the opposition and support its moderate forces. Although anti-Americanism is growing among the rebels, there is still time for a ground-up strategy to win back their trust. This could be achieved through backing the more liberal, secular, and nationalist battalions and isolating -- and possibly launching drone strikes against -- those extremist forces that refuse to accept civilian authority during the transition.
With U.S. help, there are good reasons to believe that moderates within the opposition can prevail. At its core, the Syrian revolution is a nationalist one. Of the three main currents in the opposition -- secularists, moderate Islamists (including those in the Muslim Brotherhood), and Salafists -- the first two are more nationalist in orientation; their goals are more political than religious, and their agendas do not extend beyond Syria. Several Salafi and extremist groups, such as Jabhat al-Nusra, have transnational goals, such as the creation of an Islamic state or caliphate beyond Syria’s current borders. The main reason such groups have come to play such a big role in the opposition is that the anti-Assad forces have had to turn to the Gulf states for weapons and money -- and the sources there have favored the Salafists, which according to some estimates account for up to a quarter of all the opposition fighters. The United States could earn the influence it seeks by providing intelligence, military training, and weapons of its own.
Another factor that will likely check the influence of radicals in the opposition is the diversity of Syria’s Sunni community and the country’s historic tolerance of minorities. Syria’s Sunnis, who make up the majority of the opposition, have long identified with their region or tribe rather than their religion. Whereas Salafists have been able to win some support in the religiously conservative northwest, Damascene Sunnis are more moderate, in keeping with their city’s mercantile culture. In the south and the east, affiliations with large families and tribes, even those that stretch into Iraq, tend to matter the most. What this means is that religiously motivated atrocities against minorities throughout Syria are not inevitable and that the Sunnis will need to learn to work with one another as much as with non-Sunnis. To be sure, the prominent role of the Alawites in the regime’s campaign could lead to retribution in areas where Assad’s forces retreat. But so far, there have been remarkably few cases of opposition forces killing minority civilians en masse. A more active United States could help keep it this way, including by insisting that the opposition follow certain rules of conduct in order to receive U.S. assistance.
Finally, after stepping up its involvement, Washington should seek talks between the regime and moderate opposition forces, sponsored by either the UN or, given the UN’s poor track record, another party, such as Switzerland or Norway. The timing of such talks, which would need to come on the heels of a cease-fire, would largely be dependent on the course of the war and on when Russia and the United States could arrive at a common vision for the transition and an understanding of how to get to that point. Only by raising the costs of diplomatic intransigence for both the Syrian government and Russia, with a clear show of U.S. support for the opposition, is Washington likely to persuade the Kremlin to play a constructive role in the conflict’s endgame. By tipping the balance on the ground toward the opposition, Washington could convince the regime -- or at least its patrons in Moscow -- that the conflict will not end by force alone. What is more, such increased U.S. support for the opposition would give the Americans more leverage to bring the rebels to the negotiating table.
At first, any talks would have to focus on getting Assad, his security chiefs, and his top generals to step down and leave the country. The ultimate goal would be the reunification of the country within a democratic and decentralized structure that recognized regional differences. Ideally, Syria’s current division into 14 provinces would be maintained. But in areas of the country that are less ethnically homogeneous, such as the province of Homs, the provinces might have to be split along the lines of manatiq (counties) or nahawi (townships). Despite such changes, maintaining the provinces as the building blocks of a democratic system would emphasize regionalism over sectarian identities, encouraging all Syrians to work together toward regional and, eventually, national reconciliation.
Solidifying this order would require Washington to get Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey to cut off support to their clients in Syria, such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi groups, in favor of local and regional elected representatives. These countries will no doubt be tempted to continue backing their preferred political fronts in Syria, but Washington should push them to recognize that this approach has failed to bring about Assad’s downfall and has allowed for the proliferation of dangerous nonstate actors. The United States now has an opportunity to play the role that these countries have asked it to play from day one of the crisis: to lead a coalition to get rid of the Assad regime and take Syria out of Iran’s orbit. In return, Washington should make clear that it expects their cooperation.


Taking these steps would help Washington constrain Assad’s behavior, address a pressing humanitarian crisis, shape the fragmented Syrian opposition, and keep the conflict from spilling out of Syria’s borders. It would also give the United States an opportunity to prevent the division of Syria -- a short-term inevitability -- from becoming a permanent reality. Keeping Syria whole is necessary to prevent its dangerous weapons and its problems, which will no doubt persist for some time, from affecting neighboring countries. A prolonged sectarian civil war risks becoming a broader proxy fight between Iran and the Sunni powers, which would devastate the region as a whole.
Much of what Washington envisages in Syria may not go according to plan. American bullets could find their way into Salafi Kalashnikovs, and American radios could fall into the hands of those preaching hatred. Violence and massacres could delay or prevent elections in some areas. And the conflict could remain a stalemate for years to come, with no side gaining the decisive upper hand. The United States’ commitment to any one facet of this plan should not be open ended, and Washington will need to continually evaluate how well it is meeting its objectives.
Despite the many risks, it is important that the United States continue to help parts of the Syrian opposition on the ground take power -- and not attempt to give power to those in exile who promise much but can in fact deliver little. Given the degree of Syria’s meltdown and the country’s strategic importance, standing idly by is the worst option. Establishing a stronger relationship with the opposition is what will best allow the United States to shape an outcome among the warring parties that suits its interests and those of its allies and provides a better future for the Syrian people.
Andrew J. Tabler is a Senior Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and the author of In the Lion’s Den: An Eyewitness Account of Washington’s Battle With Syria. Follow him on Twitter @Andrewtabler.