The news in recent weeks shows that the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad appears closer to the verge of collapse. Rebel groups have finally formed a unified command structure and are pushing on Damascus. These forces have seized surface-to-air missiles, apparently from government stockpiles, and used them to shoot down the regime aircrafts—as many as 17—that have tormented them. This week the United States and more than 100 other nations recognized the opposition, the Syrian National Coalition, as the Syrian people’s official representative. Meanwhile, the regime has started firing Scud missiles at rebel targets, while even Russia is acknowledging the possibility that the regime may fall. With the impending collapse of the Assad regime, the United States must start thinking about the next steps to advance U.S. national security interests.
The United States has pursued a deliberate and cautious policy toward Syria throughout the conflict, recognizing the manifold dangers that the civil war there presents. While the Obama administration has justifiably refused to provide weapons to rebel groups of uncertain loyalty and character, President Barack Obama signed a secret intelligence finding sometime midyear authorizing covert nonlethal support to rebel groups. In November the administration worked to unify the myriad Syrian opposition groups, many of which have conflict with each other, at a conference in Qatar. And despite its general support for Syrian rebels, the administration designated one group—Jabhat al-Nusra—as a terrorist group because of its links to Al Qaeda in Iraq.
The Obama administration has also worked to limit escalation of the conflict. It has moved to protect allies in the region, helping arrange the deployment of Patriot missile batteries by NATO to protect Turkey from potential missile attacks by the Assad regime. The administration has made it clear that the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime represents a “redline” that could trigger U.S. military intervention.
With all signs pointing toward the Assad regime’s inevitable fall, the United States needs to prepare for how the rest of the conflict could play out, as well as identify steps to take once the Assad regime has fallen. This column focuses on the future actions the United States can take, both in the short and long term, to ensure that it responds appropriately.
The United States and its allies should take the following steps:
- Prepare to preempt Syria’s use of chemical weapons should actionable intelligence indicate that orders for use have been given.
- Plan for securing Syria’s chemical arsenal as soon as possible with allies and international organizations.
- Begin postconflict planning now, with an eye to previous experiences.
- Engage in intensive diplomacy to maintain the unity of Syrian political and armed groups after Assad falls.
- Strengthen the Syrian National Coalition and the moderates within it by making it the exclusive channel for all foreign assistance to opposition forces.
- Continue to encourage sidelining of extremist groups by labeling them as such.
The immediate challenges
In the near term the United States should concern itself with mitigating the spillover resulting from a falling Assad regime, which is lashing out at its neighbor states the same way it has against its own population for months. Assad’s use of Scud missiles is a sign of desperation and a possible indicator that similarly senseless and destructive actions cannot be ruled out. While NATO’S deployment of Patriot missiles to Turkey—including two batteries and 400 troops from the United States—is a good first step, these antimissile batteries will not arrive for weeks, according to Pentagon spokesmen. Moreover, NATO has clearly and explicitly ruled out using the Patriots for offensive purposes such as shooting down Syrian aircraft in Syrian airspace to establish a no-fly zone. It is important to note, however, that while Patriot batteries are capable of shooting down manned aircraft in Syria from Turkish territory (should NATO authorize such use), they lack the range to intercept Syrian ballistic missiles fired against major Syrian cities such as Aleppo. Other measures may be necessary to deter or dissuade Assad from lashing out at U.S. allies in the region and turning his own downfall into a regional conflagration.
The United States and its allies gathered early intelligence, reporting that Syrian forces were beginning preparations for chemical weapons mobilization, which led President Obama to warn the Assad regime against chemical weapons use on December 3. The Assad regime’s willingness to use Scuds in response to rebel advances, however, indicates that the regime may yet use chemical weapons despite the warnings and concerns of the United States and other nations. Should actionable intelligence that Syrian forces have been ordered to use chemical weapons arise, the United States should take pre-emptive action to prevent their use against defenseless civilian populations. A number of possible courses of action will likely be available to the administration in this scenario, and none can be precluded at this point.
Given the prospect of actionable intelligence that Syrian forces may use chemical weapons, planning for this potential contingency with NATO allies should begin as soon as possible in order to make this redline as clear to the Assad regime as possible. Additionally, the United States must be prepared to defend its course of action to an international community that is likely to be skeptical of American intelligence and motives even a decade out from the Iraq debacle. While the two situations are scarcely comparable, unfair comparisons will undoubtedly arise.
Plans to secure Syria’s chemical arsenal also deserve serious consideration. The size of the arsenal remains unclear—one estimate puts it at the world’s fourth largest—but is believed to include mustard, sarin, and possibly VX gases. Options for unilateral seizure of the stockpile and multilateral operations with allies are being discussed. The most current Pentagon estimates argue that 75,000 troops would be necessary to secure Syria’s chemical weapons, and according to open sources there are seven chemical-weapon production and storage sites scattered throughout the country. The Pentagon, however has identified two-dozen locations to monitor for potential regime use of chemical weapons. These plans should also include options to secure Syria’s chemical weapons facilities in the wake of Assad’s fall. While the United States and its European allies are training Syrian rebels on how to secure chemical stockpiles, they should also be prepared to move in to secure or to provide direct assistance to rebels in securing these weapons, if necessary.
In addition to preparations for securing these weapons and facilities, the United States and its allies should work with the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons—the international organization that oversees implementation of the Chemical Weapons Convention—to make preparations for accounting for and destroying Syria’s chemical arsenal. Additionally, Syria’s opposition forces should be persuaded to join or at least adhere to the Chemical Weapons Convention as soon as possible. If nothing else, the now internationally recognized opposition should be persuaded to allow international inspection and securing of the country’s chemical stockpiles.
More broadly, contingency planning for a post-Assad Syria should begin quickly. The absence of postconflict plans have adversely affected U.S. interests in various countries—most notably Iraq. A summary of lessons learned in postconflict planning should also include political lessons for dealing with differing factions within countries. Iraq and Afghanistan are obvious examples, but Bosnia, Kosovo, and Libya should be included, as well. Particular attention should be given to experiences dealing with armed opposition groups in a postconflict environment, groups with which the United States will undoubtedly need to engage after the fall of Assad in Syria.
Moreover, the United States and its allies should engage as much as possible with Syrian opposition groups, both political and military, to ensure that the post-Assad powers that be do not repeat the same mistakes that plagued post-Saddam-Hussein Iraq, when the Coalition Provisional Authority barred all members of the ruling Baath Party from government posts, creating a governance void that would haunt the country for years. Handling de-Baathification and security-service reform with care, for instance, should be strongly advocated for in U.S. dealings with Syrian opposition factions. Maintaining institutions that can preserve a semblance of order without granting blanket amnesty to former regime elements is a tricky but necessary proposition for the post-Assad government and its international backers, and preparations should be made now.
The U.S. foreign policy apparatus often finds itself stretched thin by the demands of day-to-day operations and unable to properly prepare for foreseeable contingencies. Nonetheless, it should begin and accelerate its contingency planning for a post-Assad Syria as much as it can, given the pace of rebel gains in the country. Even incomplete plans can provide useful starting points for policy if begun as soon as possible. President Obama’s recognition this week of the Syrian National Coalition opens the door for thorough, comprehensive planning by the international community for what happens after Assad falls—planning that needs to start happening now, as the Free Syrian Army slowly advances on Damascus.
Supporting the foundation for a cohesive future government of Syria
The importance of U.S. pressure on Syrian opposition to create a more inclusive, democratic organization remains essential. As the Center for American Progress wrote in August, “The first step toward [preparing for a post-Assad Syria] is to unify the rebellion—specifically the armed resistance led by the Free Syrian Army and the political opposition by the Syrian National Council—into a single coherent body.” The establishment of the National Coalition in November marked the first step in working toward long-term solutions in Syria.
The next step in the National Coalition’s organization will be incorporating the armed wing of the opposition, led by the Free Syrian Army, under its umbrella. Earlier this month the National Coalition formed a unified military command structure along with a Supreme Military Council built around rebel commanders currently fighting in Syria. Though the formation of the Supreme Military Council is a positive step toward unifying the armed rebellion, the structure will still face internal challenges. Colonel Riad al-Asaad, who founded the Free Syrian Army in July 2011, was not invited to participate in the council, nor were members of Jabhat al-Nusra, the militant group associated with Al Qaeda in Iraq. Isolating uncooperative actors such as Colonel al-Asaad or extremist actors such as Jabhat al-Nusra is in the long-term interest of the Supreme Military Council and the National Coalition, but it will pose short-term challenges in the effort to unify the rebellion.
The confederation of groups and interests that make up the rebellion will likely begin to unravel soon after Assad falls. Containing the sort of factional warfare and domestic blood-letting that plagues most postrevolutionary movements will require consolidating the strength of the National Coalition and the Supreme Military Council to ensure that they—and not extremist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra—rule post-Assad Syria. This question is one of resources, organization, and legitimacy. Each will require significant U.S. diplomacy to keep the anti-Assad international coalition on the same page.
The United States will need to work with countries such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey to ensure that they adhere to their commitment to funnel all financial and military aid to the rebellion through the National Coalition and Supreme Military Council. Some analysts have expressed concern about the resource advantage that extremist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra possess over the comparatively moderate elements of the Syrian rebellion, and they have therefore advised U.S. policymakers to directly arm preferred militias. Though flooding chosen armed groups with weapons may be effective in bringing about Assad’s downfall more quickly, such actions will likely only create more problems once the regime collapses. Additionally, it is unlikely that simply giving arms to favored elements of the rebellion will put them in a superior position vis-à-vis extremist groups.
By making the National Coalition the exclusive channel for all foreign assistance to the rebellion, U.S. diplomats and security advisors can help strengthen the more moderate elements of the rebellion and marginalize extremist groups. Such action would severely constrict the resource pipeline flowing from Saudi Arabia and Qatar to groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra. Coordinating the international community and maintaining a unified resource pipeline through the National Coalition and Supreme Military Council will require U.S. diplomats in Ankara, Riyadh, Doha, and elsewhere to convince, cajole, and pressure our allies, who may have interests and concerns that diverge from our own. The Supreme Military Council in particular will need to do better than previous attempts at a military council structure to prevent financiers from working outside of the command structure.
But the ultimate victors in a post-regime-change scenario are more often decided by organization than by level of armaments. The establishment of a unified and accountable leadership for the rebellion, led politically by National Coalition President Moaz al-Khatib and militarily by Supreme Military Council Chief of Staff Gen. Salim Idriss, is not only important from a command and control perspective; this structure, if developed properly, can also create a framework to build security and governing institutions that can quickly fill the power vacuum left by Assad’s fall.
Finally, the United States has an important role to play in helping the National Coalition establish itself as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people. The United States plays a key signaling role in the international community: The combination of U.S. support for the Riad Seif plan, backroom discussions by U.S. diplomats at the November conference in Doha, and now President Obama’s statement of recognition were all key factors leading to the National Coalition’s recognition by more than 100 nations at the Friends of Syria meeting in Morocco this week.
But the legitimacy that the United States and other allied nations have bestowed upon the National Coalition can only go so far. The organization will need to earn trust and respect within Syria by acting as a representative of the Syrian people, a careful steward of the resources provided by international actors, and an effective political and military force that removes Assad from power and brings this civil war to an end. The United States can help marginalize groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra by labeling them as a part of Al Qaeda, but the Supreme Military Council will need to prove it can accomplish the goal of removing Assad from power without the assistance of extremists before other elements of the rebellion will be willing to distance themselves from these groups.
The United States has a critical role to play in Syria’s future, but we cannot solely focus on the near-term goal of hastening Assad’s fall from power. We cannot afford to ignore the dangerous consequences such action could have when the fall comes with no clear plans in place. Though some desire louder and clearer acts of intervention such as the no-fly zone over Libya in 2011 or the arming of rebels in Afghanistan in the 1980s, the most effective actions the United States can take will occur behind closed doors, where U.S. diplomats can continue to build and lead an international coalition to support Syria’s future with the resources, organization, and legitimacy it needs when the fall of the Assad regime does come.
Peter Juul is a Policy Analyst at the Center for American Progress. Ken Sofer is a Research Assistant at the Center.
The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.
Former Senior Policy Analyst
Senior Policy Adviser