It should be clear after four bloody years in Syria that if we are to make any progress moving forward, it is necessary to shed illusions and fantasies that have shaped too much of the discussion about the conflict.
From the beginning, it was inevitable that this conflict, however it began, would morph into a proxy war between Iran and those who were deeply concerned by Iran's hegemonic ambitions.
Despite its pretense of being the "beating heart of Arabism," Assad's regime had, for decades, operated as a key partner in Iran's regional axis. As such they alienated not only Arab Gulf countries, but stoked sectarian flames at home and in neighboring Lebanon. It was, therefore, a foregone conclusion that the Arab Gulf countries and Iran would ultimately become embroiled in a face-off in Syria--with both sides seeing the fighting as posing an existential threat to their interests. This being the case, arguments suggesting that "all would have been different if only the US had supported the opposition earlier" ring hollow.
Calls for early U.S. engagement ignored several realities. Those who assumed that the US merely had to supply more weapons to the opposition and that this, by itself, would have tipped the scales, are mistaken. The Russians, who had been burned by the US-led effort in Libya, were unwilling to lose another strategic asset to the West. As a result, any increase in the capacity of the opposition to wage war against the regime, would only have accelerated Iranian and Russian support for their ally in Damascus.
Nor would more support for the Free Syrian Army have dissuaded others from taking the fight into an increasingly sectarian direction--the brutality of the Assad regime took care of that. Once this conflict began, it was preordained to become a sectarian, regional proxy war with a US-Russian overlay.
Those who called for the US to become an active combatant, either through the use of US airpower to establish "no fly zones" or manpower to establish "humanitarian corridors", also ignored political realities. Nearing the end of an eight year failed war in Iraq, the American public and military were war-weary and wary of any new engagements in the Middle East. In that setting, the President, Congress (despite the calls of a few "hawks"), and the public were loathe to commit to a new open-ended conflict. While advocates of U.S. military action could propose tactics, they could not demonstrate how these added up to a winning strategy, or how engagement, at any level, would not end up dragging the US deeper into the conflict.
Also ignored were the negative perceptions of the U.S. in the Arab World. Our polling has consistently shown that US favorable ratings are extremely low in every country in the region (in many instances, lower than those of Iran). Syria's opposition and US allies may have wanted us to militarily engage, but strong majorities, even among our closest Arab allies have expressed opposition to any U.S.-led military intervention in Syria. As we have seen in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, whatever our intentions, the US operates on an extremely short leash in the region.
From the outset, it should have been clear that once this conflict began, it would not easily end. Despite that, fantasies remained that one side could or must vanquish the other. The Assad regime's demonization of all of their opposition as "terrorists" who must, at all costs, be defeated; and the opposition's equally absolute insistence that there could be no negotiations with the regime - set up this conflict as a "zero sum" game. The U.S. helped to fuel this mind-set by declaring early on that "Assad must go".
Now it is true that Assad has lost legitimacy with many Syrians (although, it could be argued that he most likely had never been seen by them as "legitimate") and that his brutal behavior has only sealed his fate with these constituencies. At the same time, there remains a substantial body of Syrians, including urban elites, Christians, Alawites, and other minority communities, who continue to see Assad as defending their security against an opposition whom they fear more than they fear the Ba'ath regime.
Assad's Ba'ath party is an ossified and corrupt clique and his regime operates more like a military junta than a government. For its part, the opposition is dispersed and dysfunctional and includes too many armed elements--and not just the groups who are listed as "terrorists" - that are decidedly dangerous sectarians.
It is important to recognize, what should have been clear from the beginning, that Syrians are a deeply divided polity. With both sides painting their situation in stark Armageddon-like terms, there could be no military solution that would have forced unity. As the Lebanese learned after a decade and a half of bloody civil war (which also was a sectarian/proxy war), the only solution was one that had "no victor and no vanquished". In the end, hard compromises had to made as sworn enemies begrudgingly reconciled to accepting a new governing formula.
Given this, it is imperative that we put aside fantasies about any side winning or, worse still, the notion that should they win peace and justice and democracy will reign over the land. The Syria of old is forever gone and a democracy will not easily emerge from the breakdown of the old order.
The best we can hope for, four years into this conflict, is that efforts be made to tamp down the killing on all sides. As brutal as the regime has been, the Syrian Observatory records that the regime and the opposition can take near even credit for the deaths of their countrymen. Defenders of the regime who point the finger of blame solely on the "terrorists", while ignoring their use of chemical weapons, barrel bombs, and mass starvation are as wrong-headed as oppositionists who ignore the horrors inflicted not only by ISIS and al Qaeda, but by countless other out-of-control armed gangs.
Since this conflict includes elements of a civil war, a struggle to end dictatorial rule, a regional proxy war, and now a campaign against terrorist groups who have seized control of parts of the country, the way forward must address all of these while recognizing that in the end the solution must be political.
While it is right for the U.S. to lead a coalition effort against the IS, this bombing campaign can not, by itself, defeat the terrorist's "entity" and absent a political strategy could end up exacerbating the problem. For example, should the U.S. be seen as allying itself with the regime in Damascus or the still unreformed government in Baghdad or, worse still, with Iran, U.S. actions will not allay the fears of those Arabs who already fear that they may pay the price for U.S. negotiations with Iran.
In addition to continuing to work with its coalition partners to degrade ISIS, the U.S. should make a renewed diplomatic effort working with Russia and through its Arab allies to convene an all-party regional security conference. We must focus attention on the need to arrest the slide into sectarianism, rein in Iranian behavior, control externally funded Sunni extremist groups, and create a forum where a new formula for governance in Syria can be addressed.
Interestingly, hesitant steps being taken in Lebanon by Saudi Arabia, Iran, and their allies to confront ISIS and al Qaeda may point to the way forward. Long scoffed at as a dysfunctional sectarian system, Lebanon recovered from its civil war and despite continued internal pressures has displayed remarkable resilience. What Syria and Iraq need are new governing formulas that will enfranchise and insure the security of all communities, creating a united front against terrorists and sectarian division. It will not be a perfect democracy, but it may be the best we can hope for at this time.
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