US officials have let it be known that there has been a shift in US Syria policy away from trying to find a diplomatic solution to the crisis through the auspices of the United Nations, to an attempt to undermine and oust the Assad regime. The pressing nature of discussions by high level administration officials in recent days masks the fact that there really is very little that the US can do to assert control over post-Assad Syria. The vagaries of war makes any notion that we can direct events to our advantage, or mitigate some of the untoward consequences of sectarian strife, an illusion.
In truth, there are only subtle differences to be found in the new policy, with a change in emphasis rather than any dramatic alterations that would be noticeable. Instead of working through the UN where Russia has stymied efforts to put pressure on the Assad regime, the US will work more closely with regional allies like Turkey, the Gulf States, and Israel to try and manage what many observers now believe is the endgame for President Bashar Assad and his faltering regime. There will also be increased aid to the rebels -- but no weapons, although the administration will beef up our intelligence presence on the Turkish border to facilitate the movement of arms to opposition forces. And there is now a "special urgency" to discussions at the highest levels of government about how to manage the post-Assad chaos that could degenerate into a sectarian civil war.
The shift comes as the Free Syrian Army (FSA) is demonstrating an increased combat capability by attacking and briefly holding neighborhoods in Damascus and Aleppo, Syria's two largest cities. But the more than 100 FSA units rarely cooperate and have limited command and control capability. The problem was highlighted by the Syrian army's rapid retaking of most of those neighborhoods in Damascus over the last 48 hours. As part of the incremental shift in policy, the US plans to sell the FSA more communications equipment and train the rebels to use it. There are still rivalries and enmities between rebel factions, however, and making the disparate forces into an effective fighting organization will be a major challenge and will take time.
While some press reports in the last few days have made it seem that the Assad regime was on its last legs, nothing could be further from the truth. While defections by Sunni conscripts appear to have increased, loyalist forces show no sign of turning on the government. The 4th Division, commanded by Assad's brother Mahar, is made up largely of Alawite officers and troops. They have been deployed in the capital where they have driven the rebels from many of the neighborhoods they captured a few days ago. Their tactics include indiscriminate shelling and the use of helicopter gunships. Hundreds of civilians have been killed and thousands have fled their homes.
In addition, loyal troops possess most of the heavy weapons as well as Assad's stockpile of WMD. The US has been particularly worried about Assad's chemical weapons, which the regime admitted for the first time on Monday it had. Syria's foreign ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi said that they would only use WMD in the event of a foreign invasion. "All of these types of weapons are in storage and under security and the direct supervision of the Syrian armed forces and will never be used unless Syria is exposed to external aggression," he said.
The New York Times reports that administration officials have had discussions with the Israelis about destroying Assad's weapons facilities, but are not advocating such an attack. Apparently, if it was felt that the WMD would fall into the wrong hands, the Israelis would be prepared to destroy the stockpiles as a last resort.
And the administration made it clear that any use of WMD for any reason by Syria would not be tolerated. President Obama warned that it would be a "tragic mistake" for Syria to employ WMD. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland was even more blunt:
Any talk about any use of any kind of a weapon like that in this situation is horrific and chilling. The Syrian regime has a responsibility to the world, has a responsibility first and foremost to its own citizens to protect and safeguard those weapons. That kind of loose talk just speaks to the kind of regime that we're talking about.
One of the keys to the shift in policy is increased efforts by the US to close down air and sea routes of supply from Iran. The US has tried to convince Iraq to close its air space to flights from Iran that are believed to carry weapons to the regime, while also having discussions with the Egyptians about closing the Suez canal to ships carrying arms to Syria. The Syrian opposition, which has been warming to the US in recent months as a result of a concerted effort by diplomats to make contact and develop good relations with key members, insists the US should make a greater effort to achieve the interdiction of arms by putting pressure on both Egypt and Iraq.
Neither country has been very cooperative -- especially Iraq which on Monday became the only member in the Arab League to come out against a statement asking for Assad's immediate resignation. "This call is not appropriate at this time because it is interfering in the sovereignty of another country,” Deputy Foreign Minister Labid Abbawi told AFP, adding that “There are other means to secure a peaceful transition of authority.”
Any Syrian transition will necessarily involve the protection of minorities who fear a Sunni-dominated government more than they fear the oppression of Bashar Assad. Christians, Druze, Kurds, Shiites, and especially the Alawites, who currently dominate the military and economy, are worried that a Muslim Brotherhood government would take away the relative freedom they have to worship, while imposing strict Islamic codes of dress and in the courts. The administration can do little more than urge the political opposition, represented by the Syrian National Council, to respect minority rights and that any transitional government should include representatives from all sects and factions.
Many observers believe this is wishful thinking. The Kurds have reportedly made a deal with Assad to stay out of the rebellion if Syrian troops leave Kurdish areas, while Kurdish fighters have been training in Iraq in order to take the place of Syrian troops who would be redeployed to trouble spots. The Kurds have also made a deal with the rebels to stay out of Kurdish areas. What this portends for the future of a post-Assad Syria is unknown, but it presents the possibility that Syrian Kurds would resist being integrated into a transitional government.
The urgency given to discussions at the highest level of the Obama administration is indicative of how very little control the US -- and the world -- will have once President Assad is forced out. Changes in policy, large and small, only mask the difficulties ahead. Civil wars, once begun, don't go according to plan. One need only witness what is happening in Libya where factions are still shooting at each other despite an election that was held recently.
But Syria would be much worse in the aftermath of a rebel victory. The opposition is hopelessly fractured and all sides are arming themselves. The possibility of bloody sectarian violence becomes more pronounced the longer Assad remains in power and the less united the political opposition is in their vision for a post-regime Syria. Al-Qaeda is in Syria hoping to exploit the chaos for its own purposes while the Muslim Brotherhood, dominating the Syrian National Council, waits in the wings for its chance to take power.
How can this situation be managed? The US is looking for a "controlled demolition of the Assad regime,” said Andrew J. Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He added ominously, "But like any controlled demolition, anything can go wrong.”
Freedom Center pamphlets now available on Kindle: Click here.