The demise of the Annan plan for Syria is quickly giving rise to yet another dubious gambit: that the way to bring president Bashar al-Assad down is to get the Russians to walk away from him. It’s certainly worth a try. But in the end, if the United States wants the regime out, it will have to find a way to pressure it with force.
So far, the Arab spring/winter has offered up three ways to get rid of Arab autocrats. First, the Egyptian model in which sustained public pressure in the streets forced Mubarak from power. It worked because the military, seeking to preserve its own credibility and influence, refused to confront the Egyptian people.
The second — the Yemeni mode — saw a combination of factors, including regional pressures from the Saudis and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and internal ones from Yemeni president Saleh’s own physical injuries, work to create a political transition complete with some carrots. Saleh was given immunity and allowed to stay in country.
The third was the Libyan model in which the Americans and French sought a UNSC resolution to create a mandate to protect civilians but actually to use NATO to assist the opposition in overthrowing Qaddafi.
None of these precedents alone is appropriate to the Syrian situation. A year plus in, the military and security services continue to see their interests best served by killing the opposition rather than acquiescing to its rise. No regional actor has yet had the influence to persuade Assad to relinquish power and military action has been deemed (rightly) to be much harder and more risky than in Libya.
With the string running out on former UNSC General Kofi Annan’s six-point initiative, the international community is scrambling to find an alternative to military intervention. The idea du jour is to persuade the Russians to distance themselves from Assad. The thinking is that the Russians may be prepared to bail on the Assad family if remnants of the regime can be included in a transition allowing Moscow to maintain its influence.
This variation of the Yemeni approach, which is to squeeze out the autocrat but leave some of the old regime in place, may be worth a try. But the odds are long for its success. First, it’s not at all clear that Russian President Vladimir Putin, having seen Russia diddled by the Americans and Europeans on the Libyan intervention will want to be played the fool again. Russia may have lost much of its status as a great power, but Putin isn’t going to acquiesce in a game of dominoes in which the Americans knock over all of Moscow’s former friends — Qaddafi, Assad and even Iran. Indeed, Russia's insistence that Iran be brought in as part of a new contact group suggests that Putin is in no hurry to solve the Syria problem.
The next round of the so-called P5 + 1 talks with Iran is in Moscow. And the Russians want a success. How much cooperation do we think we’re going to get from the Russians in muzzling, and in the case of Assad, bringing down their traditional allies? We may well have to choose between Putin’s cooperation on Iran and Syria.
Second, it’s not at all clear that the kind of transition we think the Russians will accept is workable. Get rid of Assad and leave many of the killers and killing units in place? How will that look after 10,000 plus are dead? Granting the Assads immunity is a stretch under these circumstances too. This isn’t Yemen. The killing and massacres can’t be covered up or go unaccounted for without serious internal consequences for the stability of the country and the integrity of who or what follows.
The alternative to Annan and Putin is one that we should rightly want to avoid. A military option in Syria is messy and risky. Syria has a sophisticated air defense system, stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons and a serious military which might well require more than just air strikes and cruise missiles to defeat. Chances are that someone, most likely the United States — especially given the troublesome conclusions of the after-action report on the NATO Libyan operation — would have to lead this intervention; and the odds are much higher than in Libya that we’d end up with boots on the ground owning the country.
And then there’s the day after problem. A military intervention could end up creating circumstances in which it would be harder to put the Syrian Humpty Dumpty back together again. The opposition outside is divided and unrepresentative; the rebels inside have their own agendas; weapons are proliferating and a number of regional players — the Saudis, Iraqis, Hezbollah, and the Iranians — already have their oars in the water and their own preferred outcomes.
Maybe we’ll get lucky and someone will take out the Assad regime from the inside. But unless that happens, if the United States wants the Assad out, it can only happen through some kind of external military intervention. And if the president believes that getting rid of this regime is in the vital national interest of the United States (it isn’t) then he should move expeditiously to craft a strategy (and the allies necessary to help him implement it) to change the balance of power on the ground with military force.
Otherwise, we should stop pretending and hoping that somehow sanctions, the Annan plan, negotiating with the Russians, or expelling Syrian diplomats and a Friends of Syria group will answer the mail on Syria and stop the killing. It won’t. There is no way to get rid of Assad on the cheap.
Aaron David Miller is a distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and a columnist for Al-Monitor. He was formerly an adviser to Republican and Democratic secretaries of State on Arab-Israeli negotiations. His new book, Can America Have Another Great President? will be published by Random House this year.