Joshua Landis writes: The US government should tell Assad that he must launch serious negotiations for a transition government. If he does not, Western governments should supply opposition militias with ground to air missiles in sufficient numbers to bring down the Syrian air-force. Circumstantial evidence suggests that US officials in Libya may already have been working to facilitate the transfer of portable heat-seeking missiles—the bulk of them SA-7s—from Libya to Syria.
As soon as the elections are over in the US, Washington should redouble its efforts at changing the balance of power in Syria, if Assad does not begin to form a transitional government in earnest. He must come to terms with the most powerful rebel leaders or see his air force neutralized.
Lakhdar Brahimi of the UN should be empowered to monitor and report on these negotiations, judging if they are sincere.
Assad should be encouraged to work toward some sort of agreement comparable to the Taif Agreement — or National Reconciliation Accord — that ended the Lebanese civil war. It may be impossible to get the Sunni militias to accept such a solution, particularly as they remain so divided. All the same it is worth trying.
It is unclear whether Assad will chose to fall back to the Alawite Mountains, where he can may struggle to protect Alawites from uncontrolled retribution, but where his capacity to damage to the rest of Syria is severely limited.
Assad has no possibility of regaining control of Syria. He does not have soldiers enough to retake lost cities. But he insists on using his air force to destroy what remains of rebel held towns. This is senseless destruction. He has no hope of recapturing them. It should be stopped. He has been carrying out a scorched earth policy that is killing thousands, leaving hundreds of thousands homeless, and destroying Syria’s precious architectural heritage.
I have long resisted supporting US intervention, believing that the US should refuse to get sucked into Syria. It cannot determine what is fair. No one truly understands the “real” Syria today, as Syrians are only beginning to emerge from 40 years of sever authoritarianism that stopped politics in its tracks. What new social forces will emerge in the coming years is impossible to determine. Most importantly, the opposition has been too fragmented to replace the Syrian Army as a source of stability and security. Syrians need to find their own way forward and to create a new balance among the sects and regions. Decapitating the regime too suddenly, I believe, would likely result in a number of unhappy endings: a massacre of the Alawites, a civil war among militias that could bring even greater suffering, or a melt-down of security as happened in Iraq.
The various Syrian factions have to find a new equilibrium, which would not happen with an overpowering US intervention. Even one limited to the use of American air power, such as that carried out in Libya, could be too much force, used too quickly.
The supply of portable heat-seeking missiles, however, seems to be increasingly justified. US politicians fear that elements of the Syrian opposition may misuse ground to air missiles, but surely they cannot be misused more than are Assad’s jets and helicopters. Assad’s air superiority combined with his inability to rule Syria, is causing endless misery. Air power is so destructive that it should be denied to both sides. Fewer people would be killed and a new balance would emerge as an expression of regional forces.
Assad and his increasingly Alawite manned army can no longer control Aleppo and Damascus, which are overwhelmingly Sunni. Assad may not even be able to defend the Alawite Mountains from the growing strength of Sunni militias. The fate of the Alawite region is likely to depend on whether Sunni forces can unify — an eventuality that is not assured. The US should stay out of the struggle to define the internal arrangement of Syrian factions. Who knows how Syria will look when the fighting is over? Will the Kurds gain independence or a large measure of autonomy? How will the Alawite Territory be connected to Syria? Will the city of Latakia become an Alawite or Sunni dominated city? Will the government in Damascus hold central power as firmly in its hands as it has over the last 50 years? Or will Syria find unity in a larger measure of federalism? One can change views on these questions every day — the outcome depends on decisions yet to be made by Syria’s many leaders — but it seems clear that the Syrian air force has simply become an instrument of destruction. The day of reckoning for Alawites and for Syrians at large is only being put off by the lopsided use of air power. The US has already played a decisive role in tipping the balance of power in Syria against the Assad regime. It is time to help the Syrian opposition stop the government use of air-power.