Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel Thursday described the flight of the main U.S. ally in Syria — General Alim Idris, leader of the Free Syrian Army — and the loss of U.S.-supplied FSA equipment to Islamist rebels as “a big problem.” That’s putting it mildly. This setback makes plain the failure of U.S. policy and the need to rethink.
As the United States and Britain suspend aid to the rebels and diplomats wonder who will represent the opposition to Bashar Assad at next month’s planned peace talks in Switzerland, it’s worth taking stock of just how bad the situation in Syria has become:
— About 2.3 million refugees and more than 6.5 million internally displaced people are preparing for winter, as 3 inches of early snow covers the devastated city of Homs. The death toll continues to rise, with the current estimate at 126,000.
— Assad’s forces, with help from Russia, Iran and Hezbollah, are winning back territory across the country.
— Militants and gangs have taken to kidnapping human-rights workers, and hold more than 30 journalists, making it even harder to provide aid or report on the conflict.
— The number of foreign jihadis now fighting in Syria, estimated at 5,000, may have surpassed all previous conflicts, including Afghanistan in the 1980s.
— The pro-secular FSA is in a state of collapse, and the effective rebel forces now consist of rival Islamist groups that want to make Syria an Islamic state.
Put aside for the moment whether more resolute U.S. policies could have avoided this mess. Regardless, a rethink is now required. The ends and means of U.S. policy — that Assad must go, but without significant U.S. military intervention — are no longer compatible, if they ever were. Something has to give. Hagel’s assurance that the U.S. will continue to work with Idris and the FSA isn’t enough.
The conflict has changed fundamentally since the pro-democracy uprising of 2011. Al-Qaida fighters have become as big a threat as the Assad regime, and radical Islamists dominate the opposition. The U.S. can hardly continue helping rebels to overthrow Assad when the least objectionable among the effective fighting forces on the ground are the Islamic Front — a group distinct from Syria’s increasingly powerful al-Qaida affiliates, but aggressive sectarians nonetheless, with whom the U.S. or Syria’s religious minorities cannot do business.
The pretense that the next round of talks is about getting the regime and opposition together to decide whether Assad leaves now or later should be dropped. The goal of the talks should be to get Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar together with Iran and Russia to de-escalate what has become a proxy war.
One achievable priority should be to crack down on al-Qaida. Foreign jihadis have been flocking into Syria because they’ve been allowed to. They describe flying openly into Turkey and moving on to Syria using safe houses on the border. The Gulf states may not be funding radical Islamists directly, but rich Gulf donors are. Turkey may have begun to tighten its policy, but stronger action by all of the rebel sponsors should be on the table.
In return Iran should be asked to withdraw Hezbollah fighters and its own Revolutionary Guard from the battlefield. It might be willing to make that trade. Deploying its forces in Syria has stirred resentment in Lebanon. Russia and Iran should also agree to cut their supplies of heavy weapons to Assad.
These moves could squeeze the conflict from both sides and diminish the violence. In the same spirit, the talks should also focus on securing humanitarian corridors for getting aid to civilians, with the United Nations Security Council standing ready to do what’s needed to enable them.
Syria’s civil war could drag on for years. Because they can’t or won’t end it, the U.S., the Gulf states, Iran, Russia and Turkey should concentrate on the limited achievable interests they have in common — suppressing al-Qaida and reducing the human toll.