The United States can stop a looming catastrophe for 3 million Syrians

Newly displaced Syrian children arrive to a refugee camp in Atimah village, Idlib province, Syria September 11, 2018. REUTERS/ Khalil Ashawi - RC1969082B70
Editor's note:

The United States can’t reverse the course of the Syrian civil war, write Michael O’Hanlon and Steven Heydemann, but it can at least take action to ensure that the people of Idlib are spared the worst. This piece originally appeared in the Washington Post on September 17.

As government forces close in on Idlib province in northern Syria, a catastrophe looms for the roughly 3 million Syrians living there. President Bashar al-Assad and his Russian backers are determined to assault the last remaining enclave of resistance to his regime. If the past is any guide, it will be horrible. Already, the regime has launched dozens of airstrikes, which have killed civilians. A Monday agreement between Russia and Turkey appears to create a safe zone in Idlib—but only in the rather unlikely event that it holds, and even then only in a limited geographic space, for a modest fraction of the region’s population.

The United States must take a stand. We can’t reverse the course of the war, but we can at least take action to ensure that the people of Idlib are spared the worst—even if this entails some unpalatable moral compromises. Assertive deterrence by the United States and its partners is essential. To be effective, however, deterrence should be linked to a diplomatic strategy that will require difficult trade-offs.

Washington should start by vowing to retaliate in the event of any indiscriminate use of violence by Assad against his own people, in a manner of our choosing. This could be done without dramatically escalating U.S. involvement in the war. For example, a helicopter seen to be barrel-bombing an apartment building could later be destroyed by a long-range surface-to-air missile once back at its base. The Trump administration has rightly threatened to respond if Assad uses chemical weapons in his planned campaign. While commendable, this ignores that conventional weapons—artillery, airstrikes, barrel bombings—account for something like 99 percent of all casualties. International prohibitions against genocide, and the laws of war under Geneva Conventions, could be invoked to justify the response.

Such a threat by the United States would have to be embedded within a broader political and military framework for how it could contribute to winding down the violence and ending the war. This strategy would prioritize removing former al-Qaeda and Islamic State elements who have infiltrated the more moderate opposition forces and civilian populations in Idlib. They need to go. Working with Turkey, local moderate opposition forces and perhaps even Russia, we need to commit to this task—not with U.S. ground forces in any large numbers, but with the combination of intelligence, airpower, Special Operations raids and collaboration with partners that has worked against the Islamic State in the country’s east. It will take time. But it must be done.

Meanwhile, we need to offer Assad a hard-headed bargain. One part of the deal he won’t like: Idlib province, as well as small pockets in the south and the large Kurdish-majority areas to the country’s northeast, would remain autonomous from Damascus for the foreseeable future (and we would continue to threaten retaliation against any regime helicopters, other planes and large ground weapons used in these places). The international community would also help these regions rebuild and establish forms of self-governance. The end goal of this strategy is not partition but to lay the groundwork for decentralized governance in a unified Syria in the future.

The other part of the deal will appeal far more to Assad, and to his Russian and Iranian sponsors. In areas of the country where the government is now in control, the United States and allies would tolerate Assad’s rule for the foreseeable future and bring the U.N.-convened talks in Geneva designed to replace him to a long-overdue close.

To be sure, this brutal mass murderer ultimately has to go for the country to have any hope of future stability. Any political transition in Syria will, however, have to be a managed one that allows Assad and regime loyalists some say in choosing his successor. Otherwise, he and supporters will fear retaliation by a future government bent on revenge. We should withhold reconstruction aid for the regions of Syria that Assad controls until he is gone. But the international community should otherwise make it clear that we will no longer pursue his ouster in favor of a majoritarian successor. As much as this approach may insult our democratic mores, it is the only realistic option for the foreseeable future, given Syrian realities today.

This new approach gives Assad a choice. He can destroy much of Idlib, risk retaliation from Washington and key European Union member states that could ultimately jeopardize his military strength, further polarize the country, further delegitimize his own hold on power and guarantee that Syria will have little outside help in rebuilding itself. Or he can allow Turkey, backed by the United States and others, to take the lead in Idlib for the foreseeable future, while staying in power for the time being—and, more to the point, ultimately passing control to a chosen successor. From a U.S. perspective, one has to hold one’s nose to contemplate making such an unpalatable deal with Assad. But the path we are on now is much worse.