By George Friedman
Last week, approximately 51 State Department officials filed a protest against the American policy in Syria. They called for airstrikes against the Bashar al-Assad regime, which they claimed has been in constant violation of all ceasefire agreements. On the surface, this is a completely reasonable demand. Bashar al-Assad and his father Hafez al-Assad have maintained power in Syria since 1970 through oppression and periodic reigns of terror. Resting on the support of the Alawite minority in Syria, they created a military and security force that has violated all standards of human decency.
In 1982, Hafez suppressed protests in Hama by killing between 10,000 and 20,000 people. Bashar conducted an equally brutal repression following the uprising in 2011, initiating the civil war that is now raging.
There is no question that the world would be a better place without the Assads. Bombing Damascus until the regime is destroyed is morally desirable. And if bombing it would force Assad to change his policy toward the rebels, that would be of enormous value.
The problem is threefold. First, would such bombing work? Second, how many innocent civilians would be killed in the bombing, and how would the uprising’s supporters and others demanding action to stop Assad’s brutality respond to these inevitable civilian deaths? Finally, and most important, if a massive air campaign forced Assad out, what would the situation be like after the attack?
Beginning with the last question, the example of Libya sits before us. Moammar Gadhafi was certainly in the running with the Assads and Saddam Hussein for the title of most brutal thug in the region. His regime was destroyed and he was killed. What followed was not the establishment of a liberal democracy, in which a leader like former Czech President Václav Havel or former Polish President Lech Wałęsa proclaimed the liberation of a people. Rather, what followed was the continuation of a civil war with people certainly no less vicious than Gadhafi contending for power, and the country suffering through years of war and poverty.
Syria, of course, is a different case. It cannot be said that Assad has imposed order through terror on Syria. He has terrified without maintaining order. Still, it is useful to consider what might follow airstrikes. There are three possibilities. One is that Assad, shocked at the attacks, will stop his war. Second, he might take the airstrikes in stride and continue the war. Third, the airstrikes may be so effective that they will cause the regime to crumble.
The first outcome is unlikely. Assad is fighting for his life, and his life depends on the military’s confidence in his will to win. The military knows that if its force is broken, its soldiers will likely be slaughtered by their enemies. To this point the regime and army have survived by ruthlessness and a remarkable will to go on. Once Assad compromises, it will seem that his will is broken, and that will cascade downward. Assad is in a situation with no middle ground between unforgiving warfare and calamitous defeat. The regime and army may collapse, but they cannot allow themselves to be seen as weak.
The idea that airstrikes will force him to honor ceasefire agreements fails to understand Assad’s situation. Therefore, the only real option is to use air power to break the regime. Assuming that’s possible, the question is whether it is a good idea.
At the beginning of the civil war it may have been an excellent idea. Now, there are multiple unsavory contenders for power, most important the Islamic State. The Islamic State is giving up ground, and my view is that this is designed to preserve forces for a strategic counterattack. Even if I am wrong, there is still no sign that IS is being defeated.
The United States is facing a situation in Syria similar to the one it faced in Iraq. Roughly, there was a Shiite force and a Sunni force, and both were hostile to the United States. In Iraq, the United States could not fight both simultaneously. The surge was an attempt to reach a political understanding with the Sunni leaders and use that to impose an imperfect truce on the Shiite militia. The attempt to fight both sides simultaneously was strategically impossible given the amount of force it would require.
In Syria, the United States is facing the Assad regime and IS, both hostile to the United States. There is a mixed bag of opposition groups, of various ideologies and capabilities. And the Russians and Turks are each playing their own game. If Assad’s regime were destroyed, who would fill the vacuum? That is the question that the State Department dissidents have to answer.
Unless the United States wants to simultaneously fight IS, try to bring order to the chaos of opposition fighters and try to administer Syria itself, the U.S. must avoid the collapse of the regime. The State Department dissidents are not asking for airstrikes to destroy the regime but to simply force it to agree to a truce. I would assume they understand the potential chaos that would result. But airstrikes are not the surgical weapons they are seen as by some. The outcome of airstrikes simply can’t be predicted that neatly.
Reduce the Syrian war to a two player game. We have Assad on one side, IS on the other. Going to war with both at the same time could result in unpleasant consequences. Going to war with each sequentially makes more sense, so long as you destroy the more dangerous force first. Then, the other force may capitulate of its own accord, or, if not, at least you can set the tempo. Controlling the tempo of war is essential, as it allows you to deploy force prudently. Carrying out air attacks on Assad now could well create a tempo that would defeat the U.S.
The great example of sequential war fighting was Franklin D. Roosevelt’s decision to ally with Josef Stalin. Roosevelt knew that Hitler and Stalin were equally monstrous. But he also understood that if he went to war with both at the same time he would likely lose. He also understood that allowing Stalin to continue fighting Hitler would lead to victory at a much lower cost to the United States. He chose to ally himself with a monster in order to defeat a morally equivalent but more dangerous monster.
This might cause some to recoil, but whatever Assad is, he is no Stalin. An alliance with Assad is not needed. However, destroying him at this time would be premature. At this point, a post-Assad Syria would result in even worse outcomes than leaving him alive. And if you doubt that, consider the fall of Gadhafi and Saddam. There will come a time when we will deal with Assad, but this is not the time.
Those not taking into account the broader strategic situation might see airstrikes on Assad’s regime as a moral imperative. But when you look at the strategic situation, there are multiple moral imperatives and all cannot be dealt with simultaneously. The example of Roosevelt’s approach to Stalin – a much greater moral challenge – must be borne in mind. First things first, and right now, IS is more dangerous than Assad.