WASHINGTON, October 3, 2014 — The American decision to strike ISIS targets inside Syria could provide leverage to end Syria’s brutal civil war and ease Syrian President Bashar al-Assad out of power. However, to accomplish that goal, Washington must think outside the the diplomatic box and act quickly, before it loses the advantage.
U.S. air strikes against the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) are interrupting supply chains and financial centers for ISIS. Although military experts say the global community cannot defeat ISIS solely with air strikes, they also agree that any military effort against the group must include going after safe havens in Syria. An Iraq-only effort allows ISIS to retreat into Syria to regroup and rearm.
According to many observers, the air strikes also help strengthen Assad. Abu Muhammad, a commander in the “moderate” Syrian opposition, told Voice of America that the coalition effort is bolstering Assad. Muhammad told Voice of America that Assad is now concentrating on fighting opposition groups other than ISIS, leaving the fight against ISIS to the West. Since air strikes have started, several groups have reported gains by Assad.
The situation in Syria is difficult for Washington. Syria devolved into civil war after Assad used force against peaceful protesters calling for greater democracy in the country. Since the start of the war in 2011, between 121,710 and 180,215 have died, many of them civilians. Assad has used chemical weapons and barrel bombs against his own people in an effort to maintain power, and human rights groups report horrific human rights atrocities.
However, the West has refrained from arming the Syrian opposition over concerns about fragmentation, infighting, and the strength of anti-Western jihadists among the opposition. Even moderate groups have ties to Islamists, and at least some Western-provided weapons have ended up in the hands of jihadists. Additionally, “moderate” rebel groups sold Western hostages, including U.S. journalist James Foley, to ISIS, suggesting that the groups maintain ties.
The United States is deeply opposed to Assad, but understands there currently are no real viable alternatives.
If Assad left office in the current environment, Syria would at best devolve into a chaotic situation resembling current-day Libya, and at worst would face a take-over by ISIS.
To avoid complete collapse of the state of Syria, the United States could use its leverage in launching air strikes on ISIS to negotiate a truce and a transition away from an Assad-led government.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has offered to work with the West against ISIS. This is because Assad realizes that the largest threat to his government is ISIS, not the domestic opposition.
The West could approach Assad and the opposition with a proposal, leveraging military assistance in exchange for a cease fire and a move toward democracy. For example, if Assad and the moderate opposition agree to a transitional parliament where all parties are represented, the new-found coalition would agree to help with the fight against ISIS in Syria. The U.S. and its allies could almost certainly persuade Assad and the opposition, given the right carrot-stick combination.
The last thing Assad wants is for a coalition to push ISIS from Iraq into Syria. A full complement of ISIS fighters in Syria would cause significant damage to a war weary Assad regime. Likewise, the opposition is already facing major defeats from both Assad and ISIS, and could regain some legitimacy from a deal that ends the fighting and grants them representation.
The second phase of an agreement would include free presidential elections after Assad’s current term ends.
At the same time, Western countries could mount a covert action campaign to identify and cultivate potential alternatives to Assad.
While this option may seem somewhat distasteful, the alternatives are disastrous.
Foreign policy is not easy. The first step is clearly identifying U.S. foreign policy goals and priorities; then we can define a strategy.