The crisis in Syria—the chemical weapons attack by President
forces, followed by the limited U.S.-U.K.-France military response—creates an opportunity to develop the broader Syria strategy the West now lacks.
The first element of such a strategy is to help local allies in Syria hold their ground. It would be folly to cede even more influence to Mr. Assad’s murderous regime, Iran, Hezbollah or a prospective ISIS 2.0. This objective may require small deployments of U.S. forces to certain sectors of the country—not for “presence,” but for specific purposes like being able to call in airstrikes if partners are threatened, or protecting aid workers who are helping reconstruct these areas so refugees can start to return.
The second element of a new strategy is to take advantage of the threat of further U.S. military operations. After striking chemical targets in Syria,
credibility to act has been partly restored. That does not mean there’s a simple way to win the war. But Mr. Assad should be told that any attack by his forces, or by Iranian-controlled militias, on U.S. and allied forces in the sectors of Syria where they operate will be met with swift, unannounced retribution. Next time the U.S. could up the ante, going after military command and control, political leadership and perhaps even Mr. Assad himself. The U.S. could also pledge to take out much of his air force. Targets within Iran should not be off limits, depending on the provocation.
The goal of such threats is deterrence. Actually carrying them out would entail major dangers to the West. Weakening Mr. Assad militarily to that degree would likely reignite an all-out civil war, risk a showdown with Russia, and set the stage for massive sectarian bloodletting.
The third element of a new strategy is a more realistic political vision for the country—one that no longer seeks Mr. Assad’s immediate removal. To be sure, he is a monster and at some point he must go. But the West has no way to make him leave at present. That means the U.S. and the international community need to redefine the United Nations process in Geneva, which currently seeks to create a new leadership to replace Mr. Assad. For him, that would be tantamount to conceding defeat at a moment when he feels he is winning on the battlefield. Since Mr. Assad comes from the Alawite minority group in Syria, any national government based on majority rule, whether chosen through negotiations or elections, would almost surely displace his closest allies and raise the risks of retaliation against them.
The West must accept that Mr. Assad would insist on a major hand in choosing his successor through a managed transition. The international community has some leverage in shaping the choice, including by ensuring that viable Kurds and other Sunnis are in a future cabinet, but it would be his choice. For now, the Geneva talks should focus less on political transition and more on technical issues like distributing relief and reviving agriculture.
Fourth, in order to secure Turkey’s cooperation, the Kurdish question needs a better answer—one that addresses Ankara’s security concerns while also preventing Kurdish positions in Syria’s north from being overrun. In addition to promoting a cease-fire between Turkey and the Kurdish PKK, the U.S. and its allies should condition most aid to Kurds in Syria on a return of the heavier weapons given to them to fight ISIS, once that battle is truly over. Washington should declare that it will never support an independent Kurdish state in Syria (or elsewhere) and that it opposes a single, formal Kurdish autonomous region within Syria. To access aid, Syrian Kurds should also be required to allow non-Kurdish towns within their areas of control a degree of additional local autonomy.
In all of this, as we have written previously with Russia expert
America and its international partners have a major advantage: money. Most of the $100 billion or so in financing that Syria will ultimately need to rebuild can only be delivered by the U.S. and its allies. That provides some leverage—not enough to push Mr. Assad out of power, but perhaps enough to coax him into forming a successor government with broader representation down the road, and to persuade Moscow to help in the effort. Western funds should not flow to Mr. Assad or the regions he controls until he steps down. The only exception would be limited amounts of food and medicine for humanitarian purposes, once he starts respecting cease-fires and stops massacring innocents.
Even with these improvements, stabilizing Syria through an “ink spot” strategy of working first with local actors will take many months. Rebuilding Syria’s physical and political infrastructure will take years. But our core goals of stability, recovery and safety for Syria’s displaced, limits on Mr. Assad’s and Iran’s influence, and prevention of the emergence of an ISIS successor could be brought at least partly within reach with a coherent and comprehensive strategy.
Mr. Crocker, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria, is a diplomat in residence at Princeton. Mr. O’Hanlon is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.