The West and East alike seem unmoved by the horror stories coming out of Syria. While babies die, people freeze to death, food and medicine reach the wrong destination and the refugee number reaches 3 million, world leaders seem preoccupied with strategic issues like the civil war’s best possible outcome. And the death toll has passed 130,000, while the wounded are in the hundreds of thousands.
- 'U.S. Mustn't Turn Syria Into Iraq'
- Syrian Christians, Trapped in Middle
- Lebanon: From Syria Backyard to Own War
- Syrian Air Raid Kills Over 22
- Syrian Rebels Fret: West Wants Assad
- Al-Qaida in Syria Not Seeking Rule
Meanwhile, new voices are rising in Washington that Syrian President Bashar Assad could find quite comforting. Michael Hayden, a former head of the Central Intelligence Agency, said he sees three possible outcomes for the Syrian struggle, none involving a victory for the rebels.
“Option three is Assad wins,” Hayden said at the annual Jamestown Foundation conference of terror experts. “As ugly as it sounds, I’m kind of trending toward option three as the best out of three very, very ugly possible outcomes.” The other two are an escalating war between Sunni and Shi’ite extremists and Syria’s dissolution into battling cantons.
Hayden isn’t the only one thinking that an Assad victory is the lesser of evils. Ryan Crocker, a former U.S. ambassador to Iraq and Syria, told The New York Times that “bad as Assad is, he is not as bad as the jihadis who would take over in his absence.”
Hayden and Crocker were joined this week by Michael Rogers, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. “We don’t have a good operation to vet rebels on the ground,” he said at a Johns Hopkins University conference. “This is a recipe for disaster.”
Officially, the Obama administration is sticking to its position: Assad has to go. That’s the line Secretary of State John Kerry is supposed to take at the Geneva II summit on January 22. But even Kerry has been sounding mixed of late. He has praised Assad for cooperating on Syria’s chemical weapons, and this week he accused Assad of fanning the flames of ethnic war; then he could claim he’s the only one who can solve a crisis.
The Syrian opposition might have taken heart from Kerry’s last statement, but American officials squirm when pressed on alternatives to Assad. Nor does the opposition itself, either at the political or military level, know what it has to offer, or how it could impose its rule over the many rival organizations in Syria.
For instance, there have been reports about talks in Turkey between the Syrian National Coalition and the Islamic Front, which consolidates 11 radical groups not affiliated with Al-Qaida. (There are more than two dozen Islamic organizations overall.) The U.S. ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, was reportedly present at the meetings. The Islamic Front denied that it had met with other rebels or the Americans, but opposition sources say the meetings with the Americans indeed took place.
Meanwhile, the head of the Free Syrian Army, Salim Idris, known as the Professor for his academic background and zero military experience, confirmed that he had met with the Islamic Front with an eye to consolidating ranks, not only against Assad but also against Al-Qaida-linked groups such the Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. But Idris learned that the Islamic Front is a threatening competitor itself.
Last week the Islamic Front raided an arms depot of the Supreme Military Council in northern Syria near the Turkish town of Reyhanli. The United States and Britain then announced they were suspending “nonlethal” military aid such as communication devices and computers until it's clear whether the Free Syrian Army can hold on to the equipment it receives.
Assad, who has marked other military victories this week, continues to receive economic support from Iran and may believe that given the opposition's disentegration and the winds of peace between Tehran and Washington, the West may back down and let him stay, at least for an agreed-on transition period. That’s apparently the plan taking shape between Washington and Moscow, which will be trying to get the Syrian opposition to accept the plan.
The plan has many sticking points such as the length of the transition period, the composition of the transition government, what Assad will do in the next election, the type of reforms Assad will be required to accept, the status of the Kurdish minority, guarantees to prevent revenge killings, and most importantly, whether Assad will receive a free hand against Al-Qaida.
At Geneva, representatives of more than 30 nations will have to agree on answers to all that. If these are the cards being dealt, don’t expect the war to end soon.