There Is no Hollywood Ending for Syria
Maybe the U.S.-Russian cease-fire will hold in Syria, or at least tamp down the level of violence in that country. But whether it does or not, there are a few American assumptions about the U.S. approach to the Syrian civil war that need to be seriously revisited. Maybe Washington policymakers don't really believe in these assumptions. I suspect that's the case; after all, those assumptions are not holding true. And here's why.
Must Bashar Assad go? The logic is certainly compelling. He's a war criminal responsible for the deaths of scores of thousands of innocents. Without his departure, ISIS will continue to feed on Sunni disaffection and alienation; Sunni opponents will never give up the fight; and Russia and Iran will have won. The only problem is that in reality, Assad is not going, and there is no constellation of forces that appear willing or able right now to make that happen. Unless the Iranians and Russian President Vladimir Putin are willing to sacrifice him -- and for what, you might ask -- it seems Assad is here to stay. That's hard to accept if you argue that there can be no definitive solution with Assad around. But perhaps that is precisely the point. There will be no determinative end state; perhaps just a stalemate locked in with a predictable level of accepted violence. Which leads us to the next point.
The notion of a unified, cohesive Syria is dead, and that begs a related and broader question: Is there an end game in Syria? Perhaps, but not one that provides the stable, inclusive, non-sectarian future envisioned by the International Syrian Support Group. Once the authoritarians in Iraq, Syria, and Libya went the way of the dodo, the odds that the polities in these countries could hold together were long indeed. Tribes with flags, one observer said of the Arab states -- excepting Egypt.
This doesn't mean the redrawing of these countries' borders. But it does mean that what happens within those borders is likely to be quite different than what we've seen for the past half century or so. It's hard to imagine -- and Iraq is no great precedent -- that in Syria, Alawite and Kurds would agree to surrender power to a centralized Syrian state on the assumption that it would protect their interests to do so, and certainly not after five years of bloody civil war. The age of Alawite dominance in Syria, furthermore, is over, and in that context you can count on Iran to ensure a decentralized Syria so that Tehran's Alawite allies remain relevant. On the other side, the country's Sunni majority and its Saudi backers wield predominant influence in Damascus.
The exact nature of the new Syria is unclear. But it will be based on some kind of a confederal structure where various confessional groups will maintain control of autonomous areas. Syria will continue to be messy, with areas that include a mix of Sunnis and Alawite. But it's hard to envision a workable alternative.
Arabs and Turks will not come to the rescue: They will all continue to meddle, but their goal will not be to save Syria so much as to protect their own, narrow interests. And the elusive notion of a regional Sunni army will not rescue Syria. The Saudis are overstretched in Yemen and talk a bigger game than they're willing to play. Their real goal in Syria is to check Iran's growing influence, but Riyadh is simply unwilling to commit sufficient resources to do so -- a reticence not shared by Tehran. As for Turkey, if Ankara did send in ground forces, it would be to check the Kurds, not to fight the Islamic State or overthrow Assad.
So will the U.S. cavalry? We need to be honest about what the United States has been and will be willing to risk in Syria. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry made clear in his Congressional testimony this week that the United States has a Plan B should the cessation of hostilities fail. That seems to imply a more concerted effort to support the Syrian opposition, and perhaps consideration of some kind of no fly zone or safe area that would put more U.S. assets on the ground and in the air. Is this a bluff, or a real contingency? And more important, what would it accomplish? Is Washington prepared to challenge the Russians and Iran and trigger a hotter proxy war by upping the level of U.S. assistance, or even intervening directly? Would that produce the kind of painful stalemate that would compel Russia to negotiate a transition without Assad? There really are no good options, let alone choices free of risk, in pursuit of such a goal. And nothing indicates that U.S. President Barack Obama is prepared to risk more than the Russians are in Syria in order to force them to the table.
The shadow of Iraq and Afghanistan still looms large, and there's no will in Washington to own Syria, or to engage in nation-building. Listening to the Republican and Democratic candidates only suggests that none of them has ideas that are compelling, new, or workable -- from John Kasich's Sunni army, to Ted Cruz's carpet bombing campaign, to Hillary Clinton's no fly zone -- an idea in search of a strategy.
If there ever were really good options in Syria, there aren't anymore. Iran and even Russia are willing to sacrifice quite a lot to protect what they believe are their vital interests. The United States is not, and that should be clear by now. Whatever is done in Syria can be coordinated by Washington, but the United States isn't going to pay the estimated $100 billion required to rebuild the country, nor to provide the peacekeepers needed to oversee the process.
Syria is only part of the problem: If Syria's were the only crisis in the region, or neatly cut off from the interests of a range of regional actors, perhaps the problem would be more tractable. But Syria is part and parcel of a turbulent region that is on the whole in crisis. No regional party or set of parties is prepared to co-own a Syria solution, and neither are the big outside powers. Russia has its own agenda, and the U.S. administration seems determined to avoid confronting Moscow and being drawn deeper into conflict. A U.S.-Russian agreement on the core issues, including Assad's future, might be the first step in imagining a transition to a more stable future. If you're looking for Hollywood endings you won't find one in the blood and tragedy of Syria. I suggest you go to the movies instead.