U.N. peacekeeping chief Hervé Ladsous declared last week what the world has long known: Syria is in a state of civil war. Ladsous noted that the government of Syria has lost "some large chunks of territory," and contended that we are seeing "a massive increase in the level of violence," with the mostly peaceful opposition increasingly fighting back. The world, however, is at a loss for what to do. U.N. and Arab League envoy Kofi Annan's peace plan lies stillborn, with the Syrian regime refusing to honor a ceasefire, the first and easiest step of Annan's diplomatic effort. Meanwhile, the international community remains reluctant to intervene decisively, even though more than 12,000 Syrians have died, tens of thousands more are refugees and internally displaced, and the Syrian regime is executing children and indiscriminately shelling civilians.
It is clear that the Obama administration has no appetite for another aggressive intervention in the Middle East. Washington's European allies, who led the campaign against Moammar Gadhafi in Libya, are consumed with their collapsing economies.
Moscow, whose support is needed to make sanctions more comprehensive and to gain U.N. support for any intervention, openly backs the Bashar Assad regime and has made it clear it opposes support for the Syrian opposition. Indeed, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton claimed last week that Russia is sending attack helicopters to Syria -- hardly an action designed to promote peace.
Seemingly anything is better than Syria sliding into civil war, and now a tempting middle course has emerged: The Yemen Option.
As violence grew in Yemen in 2011, Washington worked with its regional allies to ease President Ali Abdullah Saleh out from his two-decade rule, with power going to his vice president, Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi. Using such a model for Syria -- so the theory goes -- the United States would broker a deal to ease Assad and perhaps a few of his top cronies out and pass power to another, less controversial member of his regime. Moscow has signaled it might be open to such a deal, which would require only hard diplomatic work, not force, to implement.
Such a Goldilocks approach, however, would neither satisfy the aspirations of the Syria people nor advance U.S. strategic interests. Syria, in the end, is fundamentally different from Yemen, and a negotiated solution cannot, and should not, allow Assad loyalists to remain in power. The better option is for the United States and its allies to back the Syrian opposition more aggressively.
Saleh ruled by playing off Yemen's many competing power centers rather than dominating the country. When the Arab Spring hit Yemen, the battle was between Saleh and rival Yemeni elites, and the resulting power handover -- though it didn't happen overnight -- simply replaced an unpopular leader with one who was less prominent, and thus not blamed for Yemen's many problems. Hadi, who had been vice president for more than 15 years, was hardly a new broom, and cooperation on key issues like counterterrorism seems to have improved during his first months as president.
But in Syria, the choice between the opposition and the regime is far starker. Assad heads a kleptocratic government dominated by the Alawite minority that has co-opted key power centers in Syria and ruled the rest of the country through fear. His father killed tens of thousands of Syrians to stay in power, and as the bloodshed rises, Bashar Assad seems willing to do the same -- or even worse. Saleh's fall was hardly peaceful, with perhaps several thousand dying in the violence. But it was far less bloody than Syria and did not involve horrors like the deliberate murder of children. Syria is also Iran's closest ally, and the two regimes have moved closer in the past year. The Syrian opposition, though divided, is anti-Iranian and hostile to Hezbollah, Assad's ally. We don't know what kind of government the Syrian opposition would produce, or even if it can get its act together enough to produce a government should Assad fall, but it is unlikely to be as bad as the current regime in terms of human rights abuses and hostility to the United States. Still, handing over power to a Syrian apparatchik, which would be part of a Yemen-like solution, risks generating a clone of Assad's government with a different name.
Such moral and strategic compromises might, perhaps, be justifiable if the only alternative is an increasingly bloody civil war. But a negotiated middle ground approach is likely to fail and do little to end the violence. Assad believes time (and might) is on his side. Although the opposition remains unbowed, Assad is trying to terrorize the Syrian people into submission through repeated demonstrations of brutal force. As he is doing now, he would make promises during negotiations he never intends to keep, using the breathing space he gains to continue his crackdown. Because the Syrian elite fears losing its privileged position and suffering payback for its decades of brutality, it is unlikely to support Assad's removal, particularly if they see the opposition as weak, divided, and thus unable to win in the long-term.
Moreover, the Syrian opposition would categorically reject a mere change in strongmen, reasoning, correctly, that their thousands of dead countrymen did not give their lives simply to change the name of the country's dictator. And the lack of opposition unity, which has proven so fatal to its success, makes it impossible to force an unpopular deal upon them. Complicating all this, Iran has weighed in on the side of Assad and would try to undermine any deal that risked its alliance with Damascus. Meanwhile, Russia's actions so far suggest its rhetorical openness to a Yemen-type option is false and that it intends to give Assad time to quell the rebellion by butchering his own people.
Led by U.S. allies in Europe, the Obama administration played an important role in ousting Gadhafi. But it is far more passive in Syria -- even though the country is of far greater strategic importance, the potential for the conflict to spillover into neighboring states is higher, and the bloodletting is escalating. For now, direct military intervention (à la Libya) is not in the cards for political and diplomatic reasons, so the United States should instead more aggressively support the Syrian opposition in conjunction with its allies.
The opposition, in the end, is the key to both ousting Assad and ensuring that any replacement regime is better for Syria and for U.S. interests. Most important is coordinating the flow of arms and money, working with key allies like Turkey and the Gulf states to encourage opposition unity and promote more pro-Western figures. Washington must also push its NATO allies to back Turkey and otherwise give Ankara support for hosting the Syrian opposition. If the Syrian opposition becomes stronger, it becomes a more potent threat to the regime.
Bolstering the opposition is part of a long-term strategy, and it does little for the besieged communities in Syria today. But laying the groundwork for a longer-term approach is better than chasing a compromise solution that is likely to fail and, even if successful, would not advance U.S. interests.
Daniel Byman is professor in the security studies program at Georgetown University and research director of the Saban Center at Brookings.