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What Should Follow the Tomahawk Attack on Syria

Two important points regarding the Tomahawk attack on Syria first. The first point is what the Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said April 10 that the strike “had shown Washington’s total unwillingness to cooperate on Syria” and that “renewed calls for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down would not help to resolve the crisis, as there is no other alternative to the peace talks in Geneva”. The second point is the claim that the US strike was “theatrical” and did not do achieve any tangible results, particularly that the base was used again within a couple of days.

While we actually agree with Peskov that there is no other alternative to peace talks, we disagree with the claim that the US was unwilling to cooperate in Syria. Since 2013, when the Russians intermediated to end the “Obama Redline Crisis”, Moscow committed to taking measures, with the US, against Assad use of chemical weapons, even if it is to be only chlorine gas. Cooperation does not mean the US should follow Russia, even when Moscow does not fulfill its part of the deal.

The renewed calls for Assad to step down comes from a simple calculation: If you want to stabilize a country, how can you let its President, who gassed his people and killed several hundreds of thousands of them, continue presiding over the people he punished so severely for opposing his rule? It will not stabilize. Hopefully, Secretary’s Tillerson’s meeting in Moscow will bring a coordinated approach, though this is unlikely. Without a global understanding between Washington and Moscow, expectations should remain reserved.

To answer the people who claim that the strike was theatrical, one would only say that the weight of this attack should be measured in terms of policies, not in terms of the damage it caused. The US distanced itself from any potential partnership with Assad, against ISIL or in any other domain. Moreover, the Lavrov-Kerry September agreement should now be pronounced dead. Cooperation with Russia, if it happens again, as should be the case, will be based on a different strategy.

The central question now is how things should go from here.

The US should avoid, until it becomes unavoidable, sending troops to Syria. And the US should not accept a military solution to this war. A military solution will lead to another war and unimaginable atrocities. A full scale sectarian cleansing would start, compelling the international community to intervene.  

Instead, the administration should put its strategy on one major base: change the balance of force on the ground to force Assad to accept a reasonable political solution. In other words, it’s a pre-calculated change, until a specific point. Could the Russians say why they oppose this? How can they support a political solution while they see Assad working hard to stop it, and claim at the same time that they want a political solution?

If they claim that the Geneva process was progressing, we all know that it was not. How does the Kremlin imagine the position of the those, in the opposition, who participate in Geneva while “talking” to the same guys who gassed their people? Those participants risk to end hanging in void, representing only themselves, and fully isolated from their bases. Reaching a deal in this case will mean nothing.   

It is simple. For Russia to keep the Syrian state, it should either go the extra 100 miles to try to end the war by force. And it wouldn’t work even if they reach the 100th mile. But both Moscow and Iran have a limited ability to support Assad’s interagency, and we are supposed to be grown up enough to know that, in most cases, force cannot, alone, end an insurgency. If the balance of power is changed to a certain point, Assad will find no way but talks. If the result is to keep the Syrian state minus Assad, terrorism and sectarianism, as it should be, then the Russians can keep their bases.

If the Russians think that Assad will uproot terrorism in Syria, someone should tell them they are wrong. So far, he could not. And so long as you have Assad versus a people who were gassed and lost thousands of their loved ones, the fight will continue in a form or another. In this environment terrorism flourishes and expands.

Then, how to change the balance of force, all the while sealing the terrorists out? President Obama recklessly closed the opened window of this approach back in 2013. He then closed his eyes on reports that Assad used chemical weapons over and over, in spite of President Putin’s promise to President Obama in 2013 that this will never happen again. This allowed Chemical Assad to continue his hobby of killing civilians, if not be barrel bombs, then by chemical weapons.

But the option to change the balance of power, closed by the former US President, can be salvaged, though this will take patience, a lot of it. Still, it will pay enough dividends later to justify any benefit-cost calculus. Having an effective and moderate force active on the ground is a very valuable achievement in this troubled region.

When we see two forces, both are terrible, fighting each other, the way to go is not to support the “lesser evil”, particularly if supporting the “lesser evil” will keep the crisis flaring. The way is that we should look if there is enough material to gather in a third choice that is relatively acceptable.

This option necessitates to invest an effort in organizing a force based on three sources of recruits: The Arab tribes in northern Syria, the Kurds, and the once-more-vetted groups of oppositions that do not harbor any terrorist tendencies. The US government has the necessary information on those groups. They know that there are opposition groups that are indeed anti-terrorists. Many of their fighters died fighting ISIL. The non-Nusra, non-ISIL opposition, or part of it, can be organized and armed to fight both, Assad and the terrorists.

The objective is not to march to Damascus if a sudden fall of Damascus leads to the abrupt collapse of the state in Syria, hence a prolonged period of chaos a la Libya. The only legitimate objective in this case is to caliber the moves of the opposition in order to reach an Assad ready to negotiate a fair political solution. Brakes should be incorporated in the structure of this force through some of its components.

What type of Syria is sought in this case? This should be defined on the negotiating table. But what is already clear in everyone’s mind is that it should be without Assad, united under one flag with integral territories, and democratic. One avenue is the self-administered regions where the governing bodies receive aid and assistance as much as they fight terrorism, sectarianism, and radicalism. Representatives of those regions would constitute the country’s legislative body, and all this should be based on a democratic constitution. The above-mentioned force will be the guarantor of order and stability.

The US raised the stake in Syria. But this did not yet bring about a change in Russian, Iranian or Assad positions. The only way left is to carefully raise the stakes more, avoid blinking first at all price, and wait for the moment when this trio feels that their man in Damascus cannot hold any longer, and that they cannot continue aiding him forever, then erect the talking table and announce a ceasefire.

The Tomahawk attack was a first step in “raising the stakes”. This attack will mean nothing if Washington blinks or if Russia contains the new energy generated recently by leading it to nowhere as it did with Obama’s redline. However, raising the stakes should happen according to a well-studied strategy. Sometimes, a clear and public firm commitment does the effect required. And sometimes, it requires going the full span of “raising the stakes”. In either case, the objective should remain a political solution without all killers of civilians.

The statements of Secretary Tillerson in Italy before landing in Moscow reflect the fact the Washington is not in the mode to step back. Tillerson bluntly said that the reign of Assad is coming to an end, and that Moscow has to choose to play a positive role or become irrelevant. There is no better interpretation of raising the stakes than what the Secretary has said.

The age of “leading from behind” seems to have gone forever.

13 April, 2017

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