The objective of US policy toward Syria is to end the Assad regime by means of negotiations conducted in accordance with the provisions of the June 2012 Geneva agreement of the P-5 under the chairmanship of the then UN and Arab League Special Representative, Kofi Annan. Those negotiations would involve the existing Syrian government and the Syrian opposition. Their aim would be to produce a transitional governing body on the basis of mutual consent. Once created, the transitional governing body would receive and exercise full executive powers.
The strategy employed by the US in pursuit of its objective of negotiated, full political transition is very much in flux. On the one hand the US has obtained the agreement of the Russian Federation to help convene a follow-up Geneva conference under UN chairmanship. On the other hand, however, the Assad regime has evinced no interest in cooperating with a process whose 'mutual consent' and 'full executive powers' provisions would mandate the end of family rule in Syria. The theme of US strategy, therefore, is one of 'changing the regime's calculation' with respect to cooperating with the Geneva process. The emergence of this theme has coincided with the arrival to the US Department of State of Secretary John Kerry, formerly a US Senator from Massachusetts and Chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.
At the beginning of the Syrian crisis in March 2011 the Obama administration was inclined to believe that Bashar al-Assad and his regime would be swept away relatively quickly. Libya's Qadhafi, after all, had departed the scene much faster than many experts had predicted. Believing that Assad would expeditiously go the way of Qadhafi, initial administration strategy focused on lines of effort involving diplomatic isolation, economic sanctions, humanitarian assistance, and rhetorical assertiveness. Indeed, on August 18, 2011 President Obama called on President Assad to step aside so that Syrians could compose their differences in peace.
Syria, however, turned out to be considerably different than Libya in terms of the governing regime's stamina. When he decided to respond to the initial wave of peaceful protests (occasioned by regime brutality and arrogance in the southern city of Daraa) with violence, Bashar al-Assad inevitably set Syria on the path to sectarian warfare. After all, most of the protesters were Sunni Muslims. Most of the personnel in politically reliable armed units (army, intelligence, and gang-like auxiliaries) available to the regime were Alawite. So as regime violence gradually converted a peaceful protest movement into armed resistance, it set in motion what has become a brutal, largely sectarian battle. By proceeding in this manner a family-based regime has sought, quite deliberately, to implicate not only its own sect, but also minorities in general in the violent, often terroristic tactics it has used to try to stay alive. Given that most of the advanced military skills in Syria's armed services reside within the Alawite community and units that are predominantly Alawite, the regime was (and still is) able to bring to bear important combat capabilities in its survival tactics. Over time the US administration came to realize that the Assad regime would not be departing quickly.
By the middle of 2012 two factors had become clear to President Obama and his advisors. First, the struggle for Syria had become mainly military in nature, with Iran and Russia arming the regime and a variety of local actors providing arms to opposition elements, albeit in an uncoordinated and marginally effective manner. Second, the Geneva agreement reached on the last day of June 2012 seemed to be stillborn, as the Assad regime rejected Kofi Annan's pleas to take de-escalatory steps and P-5 unity was broken by a bitter debate in the UN Security Council. In July 2012 President Obama rejected the recommendation of his key national security advisors that the US participate in the arming of vetted elements of the opposition 'Free Syrian Army', a disparate collection of local militias and neighborhood defense units. Instead the US began to provide non-lethal assistance to unarmed elements of the Syrian opposition while sharply increasing its humanitarian assistance. In December 2012 the US recognized the Syrian National Coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.
The revelation of likely chemical weapons usage by the regime, coupled with the strategic imperative of changing the regime's calculation with respect to cooperating with a negotiations process, has obliged the US administration to reconsider the presidential decision of July 2012. Unless the Geneva process gains real traction very quickly, it is quite likely that the US will decide to play a central (and perhaps leading) role in ensuring that selected elements of the armed opposition get what they need in terms of weaponry and equipment, and that jihadists fighting alongside the opposition are denied further assistance. The regime, meanwhile, appears to have placed its fate in the hands of Iran, which has brought to the battlefield foreign fighters in the form of Lebanon's Hezbollah and Shia militiamen from Iraq. The regime seems intent on preserving a strategic corridor linking Damascus to Homs and Homs both to the predominantly Alawite northwestern sector of Syria and to Lebanon. For Iran the strategic objective is to maintain a land link to Lebanon, where Hezbollah serves as its strategic missile and rocket deterrent vis-a-vis Israel.
Clearly the Obama administration sincerely hopes for a negotiated end to the crisis in Syria: one that would preserve the structures of the Syrian state while easing the Assad regime off-stage; one that would result in a government and a system reflecting pluralism, rule of law, minority protection, and citizenship over sectarianism. Although it is considering a wide range of potential military options, its strong preference is for a negotiated settlement. In the end, however, regime survival tactics, including terror attacks by air, missile, and artillery against civilian population centers beyond its physical control are threatening US friends and allies while driving Syria toward state failure. American "boots on the ground" in Syria is not an option under consideration. Yet regime actions, facilitated by Iran and Hezbollah on the ground and Russia diplomatically, may yet dictate US actions that President Obama has heretofore strongly resisted.
* Frederic C. Hof, Ambassador, Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, Atlantic Council
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