A friend who works in the Obama Administration recently lamented that the Russians are always a step ahead of us when it comes to Syria and the Middle East. If we are wondering why this is the case, the answer is simple: Moscow knows exactly what it wants in Syria and we do not. The time has come for the U.S. government, with selected allies, to publicly offer what it thinks a comprehensive solution to the Syrian crisis should look like. As suggested below, even if the proposition put forth here does not end up as the ultimate outcome, it is important for the U.S. government to assert a leadership role to start the process going.
The Russians, along with the Iranians, want Assad to remain in power. He offers Russia a strategic window with the base in Tartus and elsewhere. Syria’s mafia-like regime structure has deep links with its counterparts in Moscow whereby a small elite benefits economically. For the Russians, Syria is where they can make a stand against their dreaded nemesis: Western-inspired soft regime change.
By contrast, the U.S. position is all over the place. It first wanted Assad to leave and supported rebels, perhaps not enthusiastically. With the emergence of the Islamic State, it has shifted priorities to fight it. Washington has been contemplating an arrangement with Moscow whereby Assad would remain in power for a “transitional” period so that everyone can focus on ISIS. Russia is unlikely to deliver in the long run. Its air force is helping Assad consolidate power along the heart of Syria, the Damascus-Aleppo axis. This will be completed when Aleppo is taken from the opposition. For the Russians and Assad, the rest of Syria does not really mater.
This could produce a stable equilibrium even if the opposition refuses to accept it and continues fighting. But this opposition, squeezed between regime and ISIS forces, is weaker and therefore incapable of changing the facts on the ground. All it can do is inflict casualties on the government side, but then this is does not appear to be much of a burden.
The U.S. government has no convincing alternative vocabulary to offer. The Sunni majority does not trust Washington, especially since the failure to live up to its chemical weapons ultimatum. By not employing force after a clear and justified reason for doing so, it has forfeited all credibility. In other ways, too, the Obama Administration has been more of a spectator than an activist. Regime supporters have little reason to look to the United States since Washington has ignored their concerns by focusing solely on Assad and conflating the regime with the bulk of beleaguered Alawi and Christian population. The Syrian Kurds are the only ones cooperating, but they too are cognizant of the unreliable U.S. policy record on the Kurds and are wary of Turkey’s natural influence on its long-standing American ally.
On the eve of a possible Syria meeting in Geneva, a forward-looking U.S. proposal could be as straightforward as the following: The U.S. government commits itself to the creation of a confederal democratic Syria that is divided along confessional and ethnic lines. In its most elementary form, the new Syria would be divided along three main areas, Alawi/Christian, Sunni, and Kurdish, with Damascus remaining as the capital although temporarily run by a UN administration. Each of these regions would send representatives to a governing council where they would exercise veto rights over certain types of legislation, such as defense, foreign policy, and natural resources, but certainly not on all. This would encourage cooperation across regions. Other, smaller groups such as the Druze and the Turkmen, provided their numbers add up, could get subsidiary regions.
The underlying principle behind this proposal is that after five years of war and its accompanying atrocities the lack of trust that permeates Syrian society will not abate anytime soon. Therefore, citizens will feel safer and more willing to reconstruct their societies if they are governed by their own kind.
Such an American announcement may elicit strong reactions from Turkey, which abhors the idea of any Kurdish autonomy and would rather see Sunni Arabs rule Syria, or from Russia and Iran who may rightly see that the areas that would be under the control of Alawis would be much less than what they now control. The main objection would be that this could be the beginning of the redrawing of boundaries in the region. Maybe so. But the people in the region should decide these boundaries, though not through war.
Whatever the merit of the idea, it will serve three purposes. First, it will consolidate American thinking along a concrete end-state and bring coherence to the policymaking enterprise. Second, and most importantly, it is a way to signal to Syrians everywhere that there is a definite plan out there to end the fighting. For the Sunnis, the knowledge that they will obtain the majority of Syria might also galvanize them ultimately to take on ISIS. Third, it has the added advantage of overturning the negotiating table where, to date, Washington has been discussing the issue almost entirely on the basis of Russian terms.
To be sure, trying to implement a confederal solution would be messy, and, as always, the devil is in the details. All actors would be tempted to game the proposal. Some population movements are likely to occur as a result, but it is better that this happen by design and not though ethnic cleansing, which is what is going on now in selected parts of the country.
Still, this is possibly the only constructive option out there: Not everyone will get what they want and drawing the lines separating communities will require tough give and take. But at least one can visualize an end to the fighting and, with the U.S. government taking the initiative, begin to think about how to organize the day after.