By Ryan C. Crocker
Ryan C. Crocker has served as United States ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, Kuwait and Lebanon. He is dean of the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University.
DECEMBER 21, 2013
It is time to consider a future for Syria without Assad’s ouster, because it is overwhelmingly likely that is what the future will be.
President Obama’s bold declaration in 2011 that Assad must go violated a fundamental principle of foreign affairs: if you articulate a policy, you had better be sure you have the means to carry it out. In Syria, we clearly did not.
We underestimated his resilience and must accept that he isn’t going, and that the alternative is a major Arab country in the hands of Al Qaeda.
We assumed that Syria was like Egypt, Tunisia and Libya with a hated dictator ripe for toppling by his people. History demonstrates why toppling would not be easy: Hama, 1982. Bashar’s father Hafez cornered the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood in the country’s fourth largest city. Ringed by armor and artillery, the city center was destroyed. The Brothers were neutralized, but some 15,000 Sunni civilians also perished. The exact number will never be known.
There were two long-term consequences. First, the minority Alawi regime under father and son knows there may someday be a day of reckoning and spent the next three decades developing the security, military and intelligence apparatus to withstand it. For the Alawites, it’s simple: we either hang together or we hang separately. There was never a question that the security forces would turn against the regime and thereby sign their own death warrants.
Second, because of Hama, significant elements of the Sunni community are deeply radicalized. Repressed, but radicalized, waiting for the day of revenge. Another non-surprise: the most extreme elements of the opposition, affiliated with Al Qaeda, have taken control of it.
It is also not a surprise that Iran and its Lebanese asset Hezbollah are all in on the side of Assad. The Alawis, a Shi’a offshoot, are Iran’s only allies in a hostile Sunni sea. Nor is it a surprise that Russia blocked a Security Council Chapter VII resolution. The impact of a radical Sunni ascendancy in Damascus on Chechnya and Dagestan is one of Moscow’s worst security nightmares.
Better armed, organized, supported and motivated, Assad isn’t going. Most likely, he will get the country back, inch by bloody inch. Perhaps Al Qaeda will hold a few enclaves in the north. But he will hold Damascus. And do we really want the alternative — a major country at the heart of the Arab world in the hands of Al Qaeda?
So we need to come to terms with a future that includes Assad — and consider that as bad as he is, there is something worse. A good place to start is Geneva next month and some quiet engagement with Syrian officials.