I read much hand-wringing over the supposed dilemma in our Syria policy: we want to remove the Asad government, yet necessary attacks on the Islamic State group tend to keep Asad in power. Which do we want more? This conundrum uses false assumptions. We actually can “eat our cake and have it too,” in a certain sense.
US policy is (or should be) to cooperate in transforming the current Syrian government into one that is acceptable to the Syrian people, one that respects Syria’s diversity, the basic human rights of its citizens, and the sovereignty of its neighbors. The Asad government and the infrastructure that keeps it in place have lost legitimacy at home and abroad (with one or two exceptions).
Military action alone, by anyone, will not change Syrian governance in a positive direction. We cannot and must not try to “overthrow” the Asad regime. We should not envision the wholesale removal of the Baath Party all the way down the line to every ministry employee and college professor, as we initially did in Iraq. Asad and his cronies must go – meaning, there is no future formulation of Syrian governance in which Bashar al-Asad and his entourage remain in positions of leadership and authority. Everything else is and should be negotiable; the Syrians themselves do the negotiating. How Syrians come together peacefully to set up such negotiations, transitional structures and governance is something with which the international community can assist. But Syrians must do the work. I do not underestimate the enormous difficulties that lie ahead. I caught a glimpse of those working on and in Iraq for many years. In the end it can be done.
Many elements in Syria opposed to Asad are equally illegitimate and must be marginalized or eliminated. A good many of them are not Syrian at all. How that will occur is also a decision for the Syrian people, with one exception: organized elements like the Islamic State group, and al-Qa’ida affiliates like the Khorasan group, who cruelly and deliberately murder innocent people, are legitimate targets of states whose citizens are attacked or threatened.
Here’s the real chicken-and-egg “dilemma” for Syria. You cannot permanently degrade and destroy potent violent extremists without a sovereign, legitimate Syrian governing authority; and you cannot establish a sovereign, legitimate Syrian governing authority without degrading and destroying potent violent extremists. Military action alone does not work. Violent extremism will regenerate and mutate until legitimate and effective governance is established. The same was true for Iraq, but it was somewhat easier to begin to change the governance part of the equation. The jury is still very much sequestered on that one. But hope for Iraq is permissible, and we must act on both sides of the equation simultaneously and with vigor.
With Syria, the strategy must unfold much more gingerly. On the governance side: firmly maintain a policy of transforming the Syrian government to one without Asad and his cronies through political negotiation (if necessary, negotiate even with Asad, albeit not physically at the table, and definitely not with a future role for him in Damascus). Strengthening Syrian opposition forces who share that vision and are prepared to enter into such negotiations is a critical first step. Asad and his international supporters must come to accept that peaceful political transition and transformation is the only correct future for Syria, and violent resistance to that transformation is useless and even self-defeating.
On the military action side: crush the Islamic State group and others like Khorasan bent on murder and other crimes against humanity. Do so in a fashion that will not undermine the political negotiations among the rest of Syria that must come next. That will include paying attention to the interests of nations that have a stake in a stable and sustainable future outcome for Syria, to include Turkey, Iran, Iraq, the Gulf nations, Jordan, and Lebanon.