The crisis in Syria is clearly getting out of control. Refugees threaten to overwhelm neighboring countries, Israel’s Air Force has struck government targets, the regime has been accused of using chemical weapons and outside militias have joined the Syrian combatants in an increasingly brutal stalemate. The time is now for the international community to take action. But, in the absence of serious multilateral diplomacy, simply arming the opposition and enforcing a no-fly zone, as most American pundits and politicians argue, will only prolong the bloodshed. Obama has been right to push for negotiations with Russia, the Assad regime and the opposition. Peace in Syria will only come with a US-led international effort that includes Russia, Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the Assad regime, the opposition and others.
The view that arming rebels or enforcing a no-fly zone will hasten regime defeat fails to take into account Syria’s complex makeup and the mindset of the belligerents. Perhaps 20% to 40% of the Syrian population (mainly minority Alawites, Christians, Kurds, Druse and many Sunni middle- and upper-class members) supports the Assad regime because they have convinced themselves, rightly or wrongly, that they face extermination if the rebels win. The Assad propaganda machine encourages this alarm. Regardless of the validity of this fear, it drives these minority groups to regard Assad’s survival as synonymous with their own. Thus, military support measures to the rebels will only build solidarity among regime supporters as well as straining America’s military.
In fact, our personalization of the regime in Syria as “Assad’s regime” leads to bad analysis; the Baathi regime and the Alawite military power structure predate the elder Assad’s takeover in 1970 and are still very much alive. There is little reason to believe that Assad’s departure from the scene will lead to regime collapse. However, even the most partisan regime supporter could live with his departure if convinced that it would lead to an acceptable modus vivendi in Syria. While there are many details to resolve, the end result must be a structure that guarantees the safety of all elements of Syria’s population.
Likewise, the plurality in Lebanon, large minorities in Turkey, the majority of Iraqis and many Jordanians all either support the Syrian regime or regard its survival as the lesser of two evils. In this way, the conflict in Syria is actually representative of larger sectarian power struggles in the region. Its outcome could greatly impact the politics of the region for years to come. Pressing this fact is in no way a defense of the Assad regime. Rather, it sheds light on the complexities of the situation and underscores the need to organize the most important international players to impose a cease-fire and a transitional regime from without. Left to their own devices, the internal players see the civil war as a zero-sum game.
Some have argued that the humanitarian crisis created by Assad’s campaign justifies immediate military action. If the United States doesn’t intervene, they argue, then Assad will continue to murder his citizens by the thousands. That view is shortsighted. Military support to the opposition, without a concomitant diplomatic effort to force both sides to make the necessary concessions, might make us feel proactive but will not advance our interests nor those of the Syrian people.
A coordinated international action to force both sides to a settlement is the only way to ensure some semblance of stability and prevent the conflict from spilling over Syria’s borders. Without international pressure, the two sides have made it clear they will not negotiate with each other. All of the major regional players in the crisis, including Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran must bring their leverage to bear with the Syrian government and the opposition to negotiate a transition.
That’s why it is encouraging to see Secretary of State John Kerry speak with his counterpart in Russia about talks to end the conflict. Both countries should build on this momentum and bring together all of the major regional players for serious negotiations. The US will need to rely on its closest allies in the Middle East, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, to deliver the opposition. Representing the voice of legitimate Syrian rebels will be key in ensuring a peaceful solution. Ensuring that Iran becomes part of the solution and does not play the spoiler will be difficult — but susceptible to agile diplomacy.
The Obama administration is rightly cautious to take steps that will not make a bad situation worse. Direct military support to rebel groups only works as part of a carefully calibrated effort to bring pressure on all sides. We need international partners to engage all sides of the Syrian conflict. Perhaps such negotiations could be the beginning of a larger regional conversation to end the sectarian power struggle between Sunni states on one side and Russia, Iran, Lebanon and Iraq on the other.
Ambassador Patrick Theros (retired) is the president and executive director of the US-Qatar Business Council. He served as United States ambassador to Qatar from 1995 to 2000.
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