The prospect of the Syrian opposition forming a provisional or transitional government brings to the fore fundamental decisions for the United States: decisions that would have to be taken or openly reaffirmed before Syrian Opposition Coalition President Moaz al-Khatib visits Washington sometime in February. Washington’s enthusiasm for the emergence of a government offering an alternative to the Assad regime is somewhere between well-guarded and non-existent. This is because the very process of governmental formation would force the Obama administration to make tough decisions in the full light of day.
As noted previously, the creation of a viable, credible alternative to the Assad regime in the form of a transitional government would be an essential step toward stripping that regime of much of the residual support it has and therefore hastening its end. The mainstream opposition (civilian and armed) has written and spoken extensively on why Syrian minorities should welcome the replacement of Assad’s faux secularism with real civil society and rule of law in which Syrian citizenship would eclipse all political distinctions based on sect, ethnicity, and gender. Yet without a real alternative, one featuring actual names and a specific, credible program, why should the unconvinced be anything but skeptical? Why should they believe what they hear from opposition figures purporting to speak for those who would bring to an end the family business? The Assad regime has been as familiar as it has been corrupt, as predictable as it has been incompetent, and as persistent as it has been brutal. For millions of Syrians, they see Bashar al-Assad as the devil they know.
It would probably be difficult to find anyone in the Obama administration who would disagree with this analysis. Indeed, the United States’ recognition of the Syrian Opposition Coalition in December 2012 as “the legitimate representative of the Syrian people” would be meaningless without the implicit understanding that those who legitimately represent 22.5 million Syrians have the right to constitute a government. And yet, were such a government to establish itself on liberated Syrian territory, would the United States recognize it as the Syrian government? Would it help to defend that government against the Assad regime’s likely efforts to strangle it in the cradle? Would it enter into a security assistance relationship with the new Syrian government? Would it organize an international effort to fund the new government at levels that would enable it to meet the humanitarian, essential services, and law-and-order needs of its constituents?
These questions must be answered—and answered definitively—before the Syrian Opposition Coalition can reasonably undertake the establishment of such a government. For example, the administration could explore security assistance by supporting Turkey through steps consistent with a mutual defense treaty that Ankara could enter into with the new Syrian government, and by establishing a decisive American role in determining how (and to whom) weapons provided by others flow into Syria. Likewise, the establishment of a governmental alternative to the Assad regime must be accompanied by a financial means to enable it to succeed. This does not mean that the American taxpayer should be placed at the head of the queue, but the Unites States could leverage its influence to create an international fund to support the new government. American leadership in designing and organizing the structure of support is vital. Without this leadership, one of two things will happen: either the new government will not be formed, or it will be formed and will likely fail. What these outcomes would have in common is victory for a regime that President Obama demanded step aside in August 2011.
All of this adds up to a dilemma for President Obama and his interagency Syria team. They know that given enough time Bashar al-Assad will wreck Syria and leave in the middle of the Levant an ungovernable space akin to Somalia or Libya. They know that creating a clear, attractive alternative to Assad is an essential step toward saving Syria before salvation itself becomes impossible. Yet they remain wedded to a limited strategy that—while achieving some gains by strangling the regime economically, isolating it diplomatically, helping Syrians desperately in need of humanitarian relief, and delivering material assistance to local councils inside Syria—leave others with the primary task of removing a regime whose persistence is dreaded by all of Syria’s neighbors. It is not as if American contributions to the Syrian revolution have been unimportant. The danger is that they are becoming irrelevant as the prospects for a peaceful, managed transition recede and a fight on the ground becomes all-important.
The possibility of the Syrian opposition forming an alternative government offers the Obama administration a choice it does not welcome: either reconsider its basic strategy or tell the opposition (and our allies and friends) not to count on the United States to do the things that would give a new government the chance to succeed. The former could be wrenching, as key administration officials see Syria as a beckoning morass: the mother of all distractions for a second Obama term dedicated to accomplishing an ambitious agenda at home and creating a sustainable and stable security architecture in Asia. Yet the latter could be disastrous; given enough rope Assad will take Syria straight to the gallows, and the consequences of that hanging will be felt by 22.5 million Syrians and all of their neighbors for decades to come. Will the United States be able to avert its glance as the tsunami of Syrian state failure washes refugees, terrorists, and weapons of mass destruction over the region?
The Syrian revolution may fail even if the United States does everything it can reasonably do to support it. There should be no illusions about the 82nd Airborne Division dropping in on Damascus or any American boots on the ground. Although Assad will never return the genie to the bottle and rule as he did before mid-March 2011, it is conceivable that his sectarian strategy—ironically and catastrophically enabled by anti-Assad Gulf donors sending money and arms to extremists trying to dominate the Syrian armed opposition—will indeed succeed in keeping him alive as a militia chieftain or destroying Syria. And even if the Syrian opposition received everything it needs to establish an alternative government, they might not succeed in overcoming the daunting challenges.
The Syrian revolution is not America’s to win or lose. The American Revolution was not France’s to win or lose. Yet without the support of France, American independence could have been deferred indefinitely and disastrously. Without American support, the uprising of Syrians against a regime willing to assault their dignity and take their lives in addition to picking their pockets, might have died an early death. Yet now a point of decision has arrived. For the Syrian opposition to form a government offering all Syrians a credible and convincing alternative to the Assad-Makhluf family clique, the United States will have to step up its game. Reluctance to do so is understandable. Failure to do so could be disastrous.
Frederic C. Hof is a senior fellow of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council and the former Special Advisor for Transition in Syria at the US Department of State.