By which I mean that the city’s plight today, its exposure to Putin’s whims and a revived Assad’s pitiless designs, is a result of the fecklessness and purposelessness over almost five years of the Obama administration. The president and his aides have hidden at various times behind the notions that Syria is marginal to core American national interests; that they have thought through the downsides of intervention better than others; that the diverse actors on the ground are incomprehensible or untrustworthy; that there is no domestic or congressional support for taking action to stop the war or shape its outcome; that there is no legal basis for establishing “safe areas” or taking out Assad’s air power; that Afghanistan and Iraq are lessons in the futility of projecting American power in the 21st century; that Syria will prove Russia’s Afghanistan as it faces the ire of the Sunni world; and that the only imperative, whatever the scale of the suffering or the complete evisceration of American credibility, must be avoidance of another war in the Middle East.
The bankruptcy of U.S. policy goes deeper, argues Emile Hokayem, senior fellow for Middle East security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. The United States has already conceded key points about Assad’s future — concessions that Russia and the regime have been quick to pocket, while giving nothing in return, he writes for Foreign Policy:
The result is a widespread and understandable feeling of betrayal in the rebellion, whose U.S.-friendly elements are increasingly losing face within opposition circles. This could have the ironic effect of fragmenting the rebellion — after years of Western governments bemoaning the divisions between these very same groups.
It’s understandable for the United States to bank on a political process and urge the Syrian opposition to join this dialogue in good faith. But to do so while exposing the rebellion to the joint Assad-Russia-Iran onslaught and without contingency planning is simply nefarious. Washington seems oblivious to the simple truth that diplomacy has a cost, as does its failure — probably because this cost would carried by the rebellion, for which the United States has little respect or care anyway, and would be inherited by Obama’s successor.
Washington should pursue two objectives in tandem, says Zalmay Khalilzad, a former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., Afghanistan and Iraq. The immediate priority is a ceasefire to stop the carnage, control the refugee crisis and prevent Syria’s fallout from destabilizing the region. But a ceasefire would also provide space for the creation of a road map for political change — one that would involve major stakeholders in the Syrian conflict reaching an understanding on Assad’s future, according to Khalilzad, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group:
A realistic compromise would be for Assad to head a transitional administration, which would last around one year, with limited powers, and then resign at the end of the transitional process. During the transition, a prime minister supported by the opposition and technocrats would incrementally assume the powers necessary to transition from unitary, single-party rule. Decentralization would allow minorities such as the Alawites and Kurds to run their own affairs, oversee the drafting of a new constitution, and make progress in establishing good governance and the rule of law.
One of the most sensitive tasks of the transitional government would be to reform Syria’s state institutions — groups forming the opposition will need, for example, to determine how lightly to purge members from the old regime.
“The most fruitful path toward spreading democratization comes not from toppling dictators when there is no clear path to a successor regime, but from bolstering civil society to lay the foundations for internal democratic evolution and demonstrating the benefits of democracy by example,” says a recent report from the Hoover Institution’s Working Group on Foreign Policy and Grand Strategy.
“The U.S. record with regime change is, of course, decidedly mixed, concedes Khalilzad, author of the forthcoming memoir, The Envoy: From Kabul to the White House, My Journey Through a Turbulent World. “But whoever is elected in November — Republican or Democrat — the reality is that regime change, for better or worse, will remain a bipartisan, enduring feature of U.S. foreign policy.” RTWT