Next Steps in Syria

Editor’s Note: On August 1, Martin Indyk testified at a U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations hearing on next steps in Syria. During his testimony, Martin Indyk spoke on the humanitarian crisis in Syria, as hundreds of thousands flee fighting in the country’s main cities of Damascus and Aleppo and cross Syria’s borders into Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon. Read his written testimony below and view video of the hearing.

Mr. Chairman,

Thank you for the opportunity to address your esteemed committee on a matter of critical urgency and importance to U.S. interests in the Middle East. The situation in Syria today is a source of immense human suffering with a death toll of over 100 Syrian citizens a day, and a cumulative death toll that exceeds twenty thousand people. Now a major refugee crisis is brewing: hundreds of thousands are fleeing fighting in Syria’s main cities of Damascus and Aleppo and are crossing Syria’s borders with Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon. Images of Syrian artillery and warplanes attacking the suburbs of ancient Aleppo, reports of sectarian massacres, open discussion of circumstances in which Syria’s arsenal of chemical weapons might be used, and indications of jihadist elements joining the battle, all point to a heightening conflict in which the death toll is bound to rise, perhaps dramatically. If Syria is indeed “spinning out of control,” as Defense Secretary Panetta recently declared, then what we have witnessed in the past sixteen months of revolt might just be the harbinger of a far greater human disaster to come.

This is especially alarming because Syria is not like any of the other Arab countries that have undergone revolution since January 2011. The regime represents an Alawite minority community that numbers some 1.5 million people and enjoys the support of a Christian community of an additional 2.2 million people. That represents roughly twenty percent of the population. The Alawites fear that if the regime falls, they will be slaughtered – that there is no place for them in a post-Assad, Sunni-dominated Syria. Sixteen months of killing has not yet generated any major defections from these minority communities – only Sunni officers, diplomats and business elites are now breaking with the regime. With their backs to the wall, the Alawite regime considers its choice as binary – either kill or be killed. And it has a well-armed fighting force of perhaps 300,000, a paramilitary force – the feared “shabiha” (ghosts) – of several more thousand, and the backing of Iran and Hezbollah to carry on a fight to the death.

Although the regime and its core supporters have the will and means to fight on, it is nevertheless impossible to imagine that they will prevail against a Sunni majority that has every right to be enraged by Assad’s killing spree and that is gaining strength as it garners fighting experience and outside military support from the Sunni states of Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Already the regime has ceded control over much of the country and its borders; the Syrian Kurds are busy establishing an autonomous zone in the east; the economy is in free fall; and its international isolation is growing.

Since the dynamics of this situation suggest that things will get a lot worse before they get any better, and the human suffering will only increase, perhaps dramatically, what is the United States to do?

It is worthwhile in these circumstances to begin with a definition of U.S. core interests in Syria, which is geo-strategically located in the center of the Arab-Israeli heartland – bordering Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, Jordan and Israel – and which has served as the conduit for Iran’s efforts to advance it’s bid for dominance in this sensitive region. Henry Kissinger famously remarked that there could be no Arab-Israeli war without Egypt and no Arab-Israeli peace without Syria. For that reason, successive U.S. administrations have sought to bring Syria into the peace camp with Israel in order to shore up two core, strategic interests: stability in a volatile but vital region; and security for Israel. In that context, cutting the Syrian conduit that Iran uses to promote instability on Israel’s borders through its Hezbollah and Hamas proxies is also a strategic imperative. Similarly, preventing Syria from proliferating or using weapons of mass destruction serves our strategic interests. The promotion of Lebanese independence from Syria and the deterrence of Syrian destabilization of Jordan are also important American interests though of less strategic weight. Finally, the United States has an interest in advancing the human rights of the Syrian people, consistent with its pursuit of freedom and dignity for the people of the Arab world.

In other Arab states where the people have revolted against their authoritarian rulers, the United States has had to balance promotion of its values against the pursuit of its interests. In Libya, for example, the United States had a quite limited strategic interest but chose to support military intervention because of the desire to prevent the almost certain massacre of the citizens of Benghazi. In Bahrain, by contrast, the United States chose to put its strategic interest in stability in neighboring Saudi Arabia ahead of its support for the rights of Bahrain’s citizens, one third of whom were in the streets demanding fundamental reforms.

In Syria, however, there is no such tension between American strategic interests and American concern for the human rights of the Syrian people. Both would be well-served by the prompt removal of the Assad regime, especially because its continuation in power will not only cause immense suffering to the Syrian people, but also because the longer it stays the higher the likelihood of a descent into chaos that could cause severe damage to our other interests in Syria and the wider region (the stability of Syria’s neighbors, avoidance of conflict with Israel, prevention of the use or proliferation of Syria’s chemical weapons, avoidance of the spread of a sectarian Sunni/Shia conflict etc.).

Thus, how soon the regime falls, and how it passes from power have become vitally important questions for U.S. policy. But the Obama Administration finds itself hamstrung in this situation. It has good reason to be reluctant to intervene militarily: the American people are weary after ten years of war in the greater Middle East; the international community is, at least for the time being, divided; the Syrian army still wields considerable capabilities – including chemical weapons – that could drive up the cost of intervention; and the opposition is divided and unable so far to present a coherent alternative that the U.S. could actively help take power. All of these factors can and probably will change over time: the American people will become increasingly angry with the wholesale slaughter of innocents; Russia and China will find it increasingly untenable to block UN Security Council action; the Syrian army will likely crack under the strain of prolonged conflict with its own citizens; and the opposition is already beginning to coalesce around a more coherent platform for transitioning to a post-Assad Syria.

However, the longer it takes for these developments to unfold, the harder it will be to effect an orderly transition to a post-Assad Syria. The Alawites could repair to a “rump state” in the mountains around Tartus and Latakia, resulting in a prolonged sectarian civil war that could generate ethnic cleansing, large numbers of displaced persons and refugees, and a possible overflow to Lebanon (where Shia Hezbollah dominates over restive Sunni and Christian communities), Iraq (where a Shia government in Baghdad is now confronting an Al Qaeda resurgence), and potentially Bahrain (where a Sunni king rules over a Shia majority in revolt and where Iran might well play “payback” for the loss of its Syrian ally).

Time is therefore of the essence, and action needs to be taken nothwithstanding the many constraints. I believe a combination of the following steps is now necessary.

  1. Work with the Russians on a Political Process: Because Russian backing for the regime is increasingly untenable, and because we need UN Security Council cover for so many of the other steps, it is essential to persuade the Russians that their interests can be better protected by working with us rather than against us. Secretary of State Clinton has been working this issue hard but as the Russians begin to see the light, it will be important for the President to engage Putin on a more regular and intense basis to help remove his distrust of our motives and convince him that we have a common interest in preventing the rise of Islamic extremism near his borders by working on an orderly transition together. That orderly transition begins with Assad standing aside in order for a U.S. and Russian-sponsored political dialogue to be launched. At the moment the Russians insist that the dialogue be with Assad, which is a non-starter for the opposition. We have to find a way to convince them that helping to remove Assad is the only way to produce the dialogue that they want.
  2. Guarantee the Christians and Alawites: As long as these communities fear for their very survival they will stick with the regime. They need to receive credible guarantees that their lives and interests will be preserved in a post-Assad, Sunni-dominated Syria. These guarantees will likely need to be backed by a UN-sponsored protective force since they will have no faith in commitments extended by the opposition.  Planning should get underway now for such a blue helmet force that will need to be ready to intervene either when Assad steps aside or when he is overthrown. But there can be no such force without Russian cooperation (hence step #1).
  3. Work on the Alawite Generals: If credible guarantees can be provided to their community, these generals may be more willing to consider splitting with Assad and his henchmen. Their units are already under considerable strain; their inner sanctum has already been penetrated; some of them must see the writing on the wall. If an orderly transition is to be sustained, the army will need to play a stabilizing role which requires generals with their intact units defecting to the opposition. The Russians can play a useful role here if they are in harness with us; other means can be used to contact them. At a certain point it might also makes sense for Israeli and Turkish units to conduct large-scale exercises on their respective borders with Syria (they each have recently reinforced their troops there). IDF positions on the Golan Heights are 40 kilometers from Damascus; Turkey has a lengthy border with Syria. Military exercises on their own sides of the border could concentrate the minds of the Syrian generals on the potential for a three-front war if they don’t move against Assad and his inner circle.
  4. Coordinate with the Arabs, Turks, and Israelis: Saudi Arabia and Qatar have taken the lead in concerting Arab League opposition to the Assad regime and in arming the opposition. We need to work closely with them to ensure that their arms are going to the elements in the opposition that have an interest in an orderly post-Assad future for all Syria’s citizens. In particular, the Saudis and Qataris need to be cautioned against lighting a sectarian fire that could easily spread to Bahrain and cause immense instability in the Gulf.

    Turkey has a key role to play in promoting an orderly transition. Prime Minister Erdogan and Foreign Minister Davutoglu have spoken about the creation of humanitarian corridors across the Turkish border in Syria. With the potential for a large-scale refugee inflow, the Turks may soon be ready to move. However, that will require a UN cover and NATO support. We should be planning for both those contingencies now.

    We should be consulting closely with the Israelis, given their knowledge of the Syrian army and their intense interest in ensuring that Syria’s chemical weapons are not transferred to Hezbollah or fall into the hands of jihadist elements. There may be low profile ways in which they can help the opposition too.

  5. Concert the Opposition: One of the most problematic challenges to the achievement of an orderly transition – beyond persuading Assad to step down – is to get the opposition to generate a coherent and credible leadership that commands the loyalty of a majority of the many factions that have now assumed a role in the Syrian revolution. Progress on this effort has been frustratingly slow. Hopefully the greater focus now on the internal opposition will yield a more detailed and accurate mapping of all these groups that will then make an effort to unify them more possible.

None of these steps are easy and there is no sure fire recipe for producing an orderly transition to a post-Assad Syria. Nevertheless, there is so much at stake for our strategic interests and so much to gain from preventing a descent into chaos that we must do our best by acting quickly and resolutely.