WASHINGTON—The Bashar al-Assad regime’s handling of the Syrian uprising may not ensure the survival of the Damascus government, but it seems set on destroying any prospects for a soft landing from the current crisis. A weakened, failed Syria would be a severe strategic threat for the regional and international orders. While the diplomatic course has proven futile, moral and political clarity on the part of the transatlantic alliance may require some operational ambiguity.
The Syrian regime seems determined to replicate its previous success in crushing insurgents. For weeks in 1982, the Syrian military shelled the rebellious city of Hama before storming it and subjecting its population to atrocities. Damascus privately acknowledged its excesses but publicly congratulated itself that the blunt show of force had averted a more costly civil war. In fact, the “Hama Doctrine” — the use of overwhelming brutal force to ensure submission — has been a fundamental element of the regime’s behavior, both in the internal repression of its subject population and in the course of its 1976-2005 occupation of Lebanon.
So when the Arab Spring-inspired demonstrations erupted in March 2011, the natural inclination of the Syrian regime was to repress them with decisive force. But, unlike in 1982, there were restraints. The international community was now better informed of the regime’s actions, and it was capable of taking forceful corrective measures. The specter of a Libya-style operation haunted Damascus and prompted it to use a more nuanced low-intensity, high-impact approach. The death toll has consequently remained below the threshold that might necessitate international action, while the atrocities — which include torture, mutilations, and rape — have been conducted in a manner that enables plausible deniability. Despite some protestations to the contrary, these atrocities are not incidental or mistakes but are an integral part of the regime’s modus operandi.
The February 4 Russian veto at the UN Security Council, which shielded Damascus, and the repeated ill-advised assurances from the transatlantic leadership that no use of force is being contemplated, have emboldened the regime to revert to its classic Hama Doctrine, ushering in the past weeks a new phase of high-intensity, high-impact crackdown. The city of Homs has suffered an all-out military siege, assault, and abuse of its population, and the northern city of Idlib is slated for a similar fate.
Yet, countless victims and unspeakable atrocities later, the al-Assad regime’s grip on the country has not been restored. The uprising is taking new forms, both peaceful and violent, but continues unabated. This is an existential impasse for the regime. Basing its gravitas on the use of overwhelming repressive force, any relenting on its part is a prelude to defeat. Its decision to seek a military solution may be futile but is unavoidable. Welcoming international mediators is an insincere gesture through which the regime gains more time to pursue its repression. Exposing the regime, rather than enabling it to continue its lethal charade, must be a priority for the transatlantic allies and recognizing the Syrian National Council as a legitimate representative of the Syrian people is an important step toward achieving that goal.
The current trajectory seems to be that the regime will inflict upon Syria a prolonged agony before its inevitable departure, leaving it as a quasi-failed state, with deepened factional fault lines. A Yemen-like — or even Somalia-like — future for Syria is avoidable only through concerted international actions today. With the cynicism demonstrated by Russia and China, it is incumbent upon the transatlantic alliance to assume the moral and political leadership. The Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council have displayed an unusual level of commitment to a central role in many of the facets of this complex issue.
As the regional organization with established international legitimacy, the Arab League decision to ostracize the Syrian regime and support the rebels could be strengthened to provide the necessary mandate for actions extending all the way up to a Kosovo-style intervention. Transatlantic powers may not need to heed the call of Syrian rebels pleading for air strikes, but the propensity to declare direct military action a non-option ought to be curbed. Simply put, when it felt that it was under threat, the regime killed less. Political banter in Washington, London, and Paris costs lives in Homs, Dara’a, and Zabadani. The fear of punitive strikes in retribution to crimes against humanity ought to be restored as a regime consideration. No-fly zones, humanitarian corridors, and arming the rebels are complicated actions, particularly when contemplated outside of a UNSC-approved structure. The political cost to pay for such actions is, however, minimal when compared to the implications of a failed Syria.
Hassan Mneimneh is Senior Transatlantic Fellow for the Middle East, North Africa, and the Islamic World at the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Washington.