The United States faces a terrible conundrum regarding Syria. The Obama administration wants the regime of Bashar al-Assad gone, but it does not want to see the unfolding of the very processes—conflict and possible international intervention—that seem to be emerging as the only viable means to achieve that.
This means that the United States has condemned itself to thus far playing an almost entirely reactive role, even in the context of the limited means at its disposal to influence events in Syria. However, standing on the sidelines and warning all players not to do what they are already doing is not going to work.
Washington is very reasonably anxious about the prospect of a widespread civil conflict—with or without a direct international dimension—because it worries about both the process and the outcome.
A civil war in Syria would likely have a strongly sectarian character and the potential to spill over into neighboring states such as Lebanon and Iraq, posing a significant threat to regional stability. It could also prove a protracted, bloody mess.
At least as troubling from Washington's perspective is that the outcome is very uncertain. What the aftermath would look like is even more unclear than it was in Libya, where the stakes were considerably lower. The possibilities of stalemate, regional conflict, de facto partition, communal cleansing, waves of refugees, empowerment of extremists and other grim scenarios all inform a strong American desire not to see the emergence of civil war in Syria.
This conundrum is shared not only by other Western powers but some Arab states and many in the Syrian opposition, including a large group in the Syrian National Council’s leadership, as well.
But none of these actors are in control of events on the ground, which seem to be moving inexorably toward intensified armed conflict and away from a political battle. The regime has presented the Syrians in general, as well as the international community, with a binary choice: Take us as is, or face an open-ended conflict with uncertain outcomes.
Opposition forces on the ground that seem to answer directly to no one, such as the Free Syrian Army, have in effect waved aside repeated warnings from Western and Arab leaders, and senior SNC figures, that militarizing the conflict plays into the hands of the regime. That's certainly true on paper, where the Syrian army would seem to dwarf the size and capabilities of the fledgling insurgent groups, but the political story tells a different tale as the regime's hold on power and legitimacy has never looked more precarious and, indeed, doomed.
Even though it is the regime that is deliberately pushing Syria toward civil war, and the opposition might have been wiser to avoid armed conflict, these events have developed their own momentum, and reversing it will be difficult if not impossible.
The problem for the United States is that all of its more obvious intermediate solutions seem bound to fail. The present Arab League initiative at the UN, based largely on the Yemen model of coerced transition, seems unlikely to gain Security Council approval. And, if it did, there's no reason to believe it would be a functional model for regime change in Syria. Even if strengthened economic and other sanctions mandated by the Security Council could be achieved over Russian objections, historical precedent strongly suggests they would also have a very limited impact.
The preferred scenario, of course, is to persuade Russia by various means—possibly including reassurances about the long-term future of its precious warm-water Mediterranean port on the Syrian coast in Tartus—to relent on its uncompromising support for the Assad regime.
However, in the long run, Russian opposition to intensified sanctions, blockades and other coercive measures, potentially including military intervention, could be bypassed through a General Assembly 377 resolution. Such “uniting for peace” measures were precisely designed to get around repeated vetoes by a permanent member of the Security Council. Similarly, Security Council super majorities and strongly-worded Arab League statements can give substantial measures—even if subject to a lone veto—political and moral authority.
Although it is very hard to speculate on the exact trajectory, all signs in Syria point toward the escalation of the insurgency into a civil war and the need, like it or not, for more aggressive and even direct forms of international intervention. Certainly the conditions for such a move are not yet ripe, both diplomatically and on the ground.
However, all the variables in play suggest that the armed conflict will only intensify and that direct outside intervention of some kind, for humanitarian, strategic and political reasons, is eventually coming. The West, and the United States in particular, would be well advised to start getting used to this idea and begin preparing for it now.
Hussein Ibish writes frequently about Middle Eastern affairs for numerous publications in the United States and the Arab world. He blogs at www.Ibishblog.com.