Guest editor: Dr. Sherman Lewis, Professor Emeritus Political Science, California State University East Bay
U.S. policy toward Syria has, from the start, been too simplistic and short term. It has been too highly influenced by domestic politics and U.S. exceptionalism. President Obama’s latest proposal, a limited cruise missile strike on chemical weapons, is like a scalpel without an operating room. The Russian initiative, while better than a U.S. strike and helpful, deals with too little of the problem. Syria certainly has crossed a red line against chemical weapons, evidently more than once, but there should also be action in response to another red line that was crossed, war crimes against civilians.
We need a long term, multilateral strategy to overcome two powerful networks, the secular Baathist Alawite regime under Assad, and the Jihadists. Our previous blog reviewed policy from a U.S. perspective. Here, we present a complex policy in which the U.S. plays an important but limited, less visible role.
In wake of the UN’s “indesputable” and “thoroughly objective” report that Syria did use chemical weapons,
most eyes are fixed on the U.S., Russia, and Syria for the next step, but they will not affect the larger, more important problem that has caused many more deaths: the Syrian Civil War. Stopping Assad’s use of chemical weapons is impotent unless it’s part of a larger strategy.
The primary requisite is cooperation among critical anti-Assad stakeholders: the U.S., NATO, the European Union, the Arab League, the gulf states, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), Syrian civilian leaders with their various interests, ethnicities and sects, and Turkey. The stakeholders would commit a process taking five to ten years.
First, the Arab League would establish a Task Force with Turkey as its Secretariat. The Task Force, in consultation with Western powers, makes policy decisions. The Secretariat serves as the exclusive spokesperson to the media for the multilateral effort. All other stakeholders and actors take a step back from the media for the sake of multilateral functionality. When asked what the U.S. strategy is, President Obama defers to the Arab League saying that the U.S. will work through the Task Force, and that as conditions change and news develops, the Secretariat will keep everyone updated. The U.S. is a superpower, but must act like it is not. Syrian and Arab national interests need to be the major driving force.
Secondarily, the Secretariat establishes an area in the Hatay area of Turkey north and west of Syria for greater refugee capacity and for political and military operations. The Hatay area is about 20 to 30 miles (30 to 50 kilometers) wide and seems to have room for a sizable, temporary new town. This area of Turkey has access to the Mediterranean at Iskenderun, and has small airports. The flat areas are farmed, to be avoided, and the barren hills are difficult to use, but still feasible. The area would be a capital in exile for the FSA and Syrian civilian leaders for political, diplomatic, military, and educational purposes.
Every Syrian who wants to be a part of a post-Assad regime is required to spend most of the year there to begin the networking necessary for a functional post-Assad regime. The fractious leadership has to work out its differences and find a way to work together. The FSA and Syrian civilians lack political and diplomatic cohesion and need a place for extended discussion to coordinate civil and military leaderships. They need to agree on who will hold what positions in a post-Assad regime, on what the major policies will be, and on some process for making decisions. This can be developed only over a long period of time. FSA commanders are required to rotate out of Syria for political education and networking. Upon return, they educate their troops about the discipline necessary to get the arms and training they want. Part of that education includes how to relate to the Jihadists, the danger they pose to Syria and Islam, and why the West is so sensitive about them.
With outside military support, the FSA would be able to gradually liberate and secure more nearby areas of Syria. The strategy assumes that military action is necessary to create the conditions for a cease fire and negotiations. When the FSA agrees to critical conditions, the West and gulf states assist it. The Turkish Secretariat manages military assistance from all stakeholders. A select few and trusted FSA fighters receive training and the arms necessary to take out Syrian airplanes, tanks, and heavy artillery. If there are no Assad airplanes, there is no need for the West to have a no-fly zone. The Syrian army will still be strong, but the FSA will have a better chance, and fewer civilians will be slaughtered.
Gradually, as Sunni areas are secured by the FSA, Syrian civilian leaders go from the temporary capital to relatively safe areas of Syria. If civilian leaders want to avoid being frozen out of politics by the FSA, they should take some role in the fighting and get to know the fighters. The liberated areas need to be well-administered and have some economic recovery to show that a future under the FSA and civil leadership can work.
Credit: internacional.elpais.com by Enric González
The Secretariat helps train the FSA and civilians for control and civil administration of liberated Sunni areas. The FSA avoids Alawite areas and does everything possible to avoid communal war, which is a goal embedded by their political education.
Assad commanders and leaders increasingly become subject to International Criminal Court (ICC) indictments. The combination of staying out of Alawite areas and indicting Assad officials gradually develops a wedge to break the Alawite allegiance to Assad. This helps to avoid more communal violence but requires discipline and will lead to a more federated, less centralized Syria. Easing of communal tensions also reduces the intensity of fighting where the Syrian army feels it is defending not just Assad, but its community. Local cease-fires allow the FSA more resources to suppress the most dangerous jihadist operations.
A similar strategy is established to persuade the Russians that a post-Assad situation of decentralization with less fighting is not a power gain for the West and can protect Russia’s economic interests. Similarly, the Iranians need to feel confident that Shiite interests are protected and that an FSA victory improves Iranian security.
Having the Arab Task Force as the leading policy maker is important to prevent the West and particularly the U.S. from imposing its version of the Syrian national interest.
Once Syrian civilians and the FSA have a coherent working relationship, essentially a one-party system over an expanding area of Syria, they negotiate with Alawite communities so that Assad and his officials are removed from power. Once a ceasefire is stable, reintegration begins and, eventually, Syria can achieve some degree of democracy.
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