Syria in the balance

The debate on what to do about Syria is intensifying by the day, yet a consensus seems as elusive as ever. The current argument is about whether to arm the rebels. The Obama administration and its allies are opposed despite increasing pressure from influential voices deeply dismayed at the daily carnage.

The problem is not with the merits of arming or helping the opposition in Syria but with the international community’s approach. Incremental policymaking in response to events on the ground will lead the world down an unwanted path.

The real question is not the here and now but where Syria is heading in the medium term. Though we may not know the exact answer, what we can do is anticipate worst-case scenarios. The task is to formulate policies in the present that are designed, to the best of our abilities, to prevent such outcomes.

There are two disastrous outcomes that are most likely in six months. The first is a weakened regime continuing to violently quell the rebellion. As Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces move from city to city and from town to town wantonly killing civilians, thousands more innocent people may die. The numbers would increase if the rebels get armed.


Alternatively, in six months the Assad regime may be gone. The sectarian polarization and bitterness engendered by its brutality may result in a bloodbath as Sunni Muslims take revenge on all those who stood with Assad to the end. In the chaos that would ensue, and in the absence of a well-organized opposition force, sectarian war would reign.

There may of course be other outcomes, including a regional conflagration should Assad choose to launch a war of desperation against Israel, but the challenge at hand is to design policies that prevent the worst ones from materializing.

What we know is that the regime believes it is winning and, therefore, has no incentive to negotiate. The United Nations mediation mission led by Kofi Annan will be used by Damascus to gain time. Short of a massive wave of refugees numbering in the hundreds of thousands, the regime can rely on Russia to obstruct the U.N. Security Council from taking meaningful action. And the opposition is too fractured and disorganized and has little control over the different groups fighting.

What we need to do is show all parties that there is a tremendous price to pay in terms of Syrian lives and other consequences for noncompliance with international demands. Here are suggestions for the so-called Friends of Syria group — made up of dozens of nations seeking a solution to the crisis — to help achieve this goal in the medium term.


The first order of business is to begin a worldwide information campaign not only to highlight the crimes committed by Assad and his henchmen but also to isolate and pressure Russia and China, which still back Assad.

A few weeks ago, an Obama administration source revealed that the United States had been flying drones over Syria to document the atrocities. If this is the case, make the images available in all media around the world. Encourage the Qataris and Saudis to fund public campaigns in Indonesia, Malaysia and elsewhere.

One can even take a page from the"Kony 2012"campaign and rally social media to organize demonstrations at Russian and Chinese embassies, airline offices and the like to increase the costs for protecting the Assad regime.

Start identifying by name individuals engaged in the slaughter. Initially restrict the list to higher-ups, giving others down the food chain time to reconsider their options. The many Alawite officers and others implicated in the carnage have to realize that they may be left with few choices for refuge.

Commence preparations for a prosecution for crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court. The regime and its officials ought to be given a deadline for participating at an international conference on the future of Syria, with certain prosecution as the consequence for failure to meet the deadline.

Start working on a visible, broad-based Arab-Turkish peacekeeping force that would intervene in the event of a post-Assad civil war or to create a haven to protect civilians. Planning for “the day after” would send a powerful message to the regime and its citizens that the end is near. This force has to reflect the diversity of Syria’s population to ensure confidence among Syrians. Eventually one can envision majority Shiite Iraqi units taking up positions in majority Alawite districts, etc.

Lastly, give the opposition incentives to stop its internal bickering, become more inclusive and resolve its differences by letting its factions know that access to financial and other support will come only with a unified and representative structure in place. The alternative is to encourage other groups to emerge.

This may not work, but the international community needs a plan. Ad hoc policymaking is not getting us anywhere.


Henri J. Barkey is a professor of international relations at Lehigh University.

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