With efforts to end the war in Syria returning to the front burner after years of false starts and embarrassing failures, it’s a little late to talk about a foreign policy ‘win’ for Washington. But is it possible to come up with a result that is both achievable and more or less acceptable?
Despite his dramatic military buildup this fall, Russian President Vladimir Putin really can’t tip the balance of power. Neither can the Syrian government’s other major ally, Iran.
A number of experts have weighed in recently with analyses exploring the challenges ahead for Putin, particularly the danger of Russia becoming a target for terrorists, or casting the buildup as a indication of Russian weakness rather than strength.
The U.S. isn’t going to make a decisive move, either. Dispatching a few dozen special forces troops to help coordinate the fight again the Islamic State seems to be one more example of President Obama lacking — in the words of New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman — the “courage of his own ambivalence.”
Friedman says Obama is right to want to avoid direct involvement in Syria. But he keeps getting drawn into taking half-measures that stand little chance of success.
Nevertheless, for the first time, all the external players with the most to gain or lose are at the table. It’s by no means certain they can craft a deal — or impose it on Syrians. But potentially, there is something in a peace deal for nearly everyone.
What kind of Syria might emerge?
Bashar Assad will have to go…
The U.S. and its allies are simply too invested in the departure of the Syrian president for him to stay on. But they’ll have to give ground. Washington, its allies in London, Paris and Saudi Arabia now talk about a process leading to Assad’s departure. And Russia says it’s less committed to Assad personally than to the continuation of the Syrian government.
Former President Jimmy Carter, who has known the Syrian president for decades, says Assad won’t go easily. The Russians will have to push him.
But this is not the founder of the family dynasty, Hafez Assad, or the original heir, Bashar’s older brother Basil. Bashar is an ophthalmologist, who was living comfortably in London when he was called back into the family business after Basil died in a car crash.
The West will have to give up any hope of bringing Assad to justice. But if the Russians lean hard enough, and he can spirit out enough cash and find a secure landing spot, he may well go.
…to be replaced by new leaders…
It is in no one’s interest now to see governing authority in Syria collapse completely. The U.S. learned in Iraq how dangerous that can be. The Russians, the Americans the Iranians and the Turks, in particular, want to see the Islamic State defeated. But to accomplish that, they need a partner in Damascus to be the face of the effort.
So they’ll try to create a governing structure that incorporates elements of the current Syrian military and governing bureaucracy, but is acceptable to at least some of the U.S.-backed rebels. Washington would have to accept that Russia and Iran, which long have used Syria to project power into the Middle East, will remain influential.
Who would lead this new government? The Syrian opposition has never produced anyone who seemed a plausible alternative to Assad. That has been one of its major failings. Nevertheless, this excellent report by the BBC’s chief international correspondent, Lyse Doucet, suggests diplomats already are trading lists of names.
…who will be given billions in aid…
Syria’s infrastructure, economy and social structure have been destroyed. It will take decades to rebuild, and even then it will be poorer and weaker. In the meantime, daily life will be difficult, warlords and militia fighters will have to be persuaded to give up weapons — or be defeated. Crime and corruption will be rampant. Plus, the country still will be fighting the Islamic State and other extremist groups.
But major players will want to keep a hand in — through the United Nations, and their own economic and military aid packages. And this is a place where the Obama administration would apply the lesson of another failed intervention — in Libya.
While Obama defends the U.S. air campaign that brought down Muammar Gaddafi, he now acknowledges that it dropped the ball afterwards, betting that Libyans could rebuild without a lot of foreign assistance. Instead Libya has become ungovernable; yet another place for the Islamic State and other radicals to set down roots. The U.S., for one, won’t want to repeat that. No one wants another failed state.
…but millions of Syrians will rebuild their lives elsewhere.
Despite the dramatic rush to Europe this year, most Syrian refugees remain in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. That makes it easier to go home, but also easier to assimilate. Refugee camps have a long history of becoming permanent — with permanent international assistance.
The Zaatari camp in Jordan is already on its way to becoming a mid-sized city.
And it’s hard to imagine that those who managed the journey to Europe would be eager to turn around. Or that, despite their unhappiness at the influx, many European countries would send them home, knowing what awaits them.