What to Do Next About Syria

12/26/2013 01:02 pm ET | Updated Feb 25, 2014

It didn't take long for the Syrian rebel Supreme Military Council to unload on the U.S. and U.K. as co-conspirators in a scheme to hand over Syria to violent extremist Islamists as the U.S. and U.K. cancelled non-lethal aid to the rebels. Russia had also expressed concerned over Islamic Front seizures of supplies and equipment. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul had made the same point in arguing against placing full support for the opposition. They doubted aid would reach its intended beneficiaries. They questioned whether anti-Assad opposition fighters were interested in Syria's future or Islamic extremists bent upon finding a new vipers nest from which to operate.

An unhappy Council spokesman Col. Qasim Sa'ad al-din advised Al-Aribiya that "it has become clear that the West has conspired with Russia" against Syrians, in the mistaken perception that the Free Syrian Army "is not free anymore and that there is no one in Syria apart from terrorist and Islamists." The Colonel rejoined: "We are all Islamists and not everyone who has a beard is an Islamist," by which he meant a violent extremist.

Amid the fog of conflict, the Wall Street Journal also stirred things up by first reporting that Free Syrian Army Commander Salim Idriss had bailed, fleeing to Turkey and hopping over to Qatar after the Islamic Front, the largest Islamist rebel force in Syria, seized FSA depots near the Turkish border and seized control of the Bab al-Tawa crossing. Syrian National Coalition spokesman Khaled Saleh blasted WSJ, declaring that Idriss had merely journeyed to Turkey to negotiate with both FSA rebels and the Islamic Front. U.S. officials later backed up that claim. It's no accident that Eric Ambler loved to write about the Levant: the intrigue and lack of clarity defined a ripe environment for conspiracy theory and back-stabbing.

Here's what is clear: The rebels are in disarray. As the rebellion to overthrow Bashar Al-Assad's regime commenced in March 2011, we wrote that one needed to be wary about the maxim that in the Middle East the enemy of one's enemy is a friend. Although initial protests against the regime, run like a mafia by murderous thugs, were peaceful and demanded democracy, the identity of the rebels was much debated.

The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood ranked as the most influential opposition faction to Assad as dissent broke out in March 11. It exerted influence through a network of informal alliances with Islamist figures, commanders, family connections, and "charitable" organizations. A spinoff led by Ahmad Ramadan formed the National Action Group, which helped create the Syrian National Council in September 2011. The Brotherhood joined a month later. Syrian expert Aron Lund has expressed doubt as to its current influence in the Syrian National Council, and has noted that its "moderate Islamist program" undermined its support as the armed resistance moved towards sectarian, populist Salafism.

The idea that the Muslim Brotherhood is moderate and pro-democratic may sound fine. What took place in Egypt when they got power under Mohamed Morsi reveals how much stock one can place in that propaganda. And these were the moderates among the rebels? Where in our experience in dealing with Sunni efforts to gain power have we seen good faith, or consistent efforts to create a society based on religious tolerance and political pluralism? Does it not strike anyone as odd that in Syria, the Christians, Druze, and the business communities in Damascus and Aleppo back Assad, for all his flaws, over the Sunni rebels?

The reality of Syria's civil war is that while fighting rages across the nation, the rebels have operated as tactical units, not a field army with a cohesive central command. Rebel groups on all sides have aligned, realigned, and competed. The uncertainty of who might benefit from U.S. help was a key deterrence to how aggressively the U.S. was willing to intervene. Despite media reports that surfaced regularly recording high level defections from the regime, no rebel leader in or out of Syria has succeeded in establishing and unifying command over the rebellion. The growing strength of Sunni extremist groups like the Islamic Front have made achievement of that goal much more challenging.

What next? We suggest the realistic U.S. options include:

• Recognizing that the U.S. and the West have limited ability to influence what the rebels do. The extremists are anti-West. The so-called moderates -- whatever that term means in a Syrian context - are too weak and disunited to overthrow Assad and unless the situation reverses, will be too weak to defeat the extremists. Syrians may want aid, but they are not looking for a Western "solution." We shouldn't let hubris mislead us into thinking that they do.

• In Iraq, the situation turned against Al Qa'ida when the Sunni tribes in Anbar province turned against it. There's a lesson here. Assad may not collapse, but the regime seems unlikely to quash the opposition. Defeating the Islamic Front or like-minded groups will require effective Sunni opposition, no easy thing to forge these days.

• The key parties to forge that opposition are Sunnis who want to stop violent extremists. That includes Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, and Turkey. They need to stop talking and act. The U.S. can use statecraft and provide support, but these parties need to act quickly and cohesively to identify and support a viable Sunni opposition. Turkey has fumbled its statecraft through strategic miscalculations. It wants to be a major power player in the region. It's time to start acting like one, but with smarter thinking and a willingness to make things happen. The Saudis and their wealthy neighbors can fund activity. They and other nations like Jordan and Qatar, along with Turkey, have a military and intelligence capability that they can employ as appropriate. The West can support. They must lead.

• That achievement is made immensely more difficult by the need to at least coordinate with the regime. That may cause the West to gag. But defeating the extremists in Syria - a nation whose culture has not embraced the Salafist brand of violent Islam - requires that differences be settled or set aside for a more important common goal. That requires savvy U.S. and Western statecraft that is able to forge cooperation with Russia. We don't influence Assad. Vladimir Putin and his team do. Like it or not, there's no dealing with Assad unless Russia comes to the table. Putin could care less about civilian slaughter in Syria. He cares a lot about Russian interests. Those include keep violent Sunni Islamists out of Russia and what Putin deems Russia's core sphere of influence. Putin has a motive to cooperate. Let's capitalize on it.

• The parties need to address what role, if any, Iran might play. Ideally, any deal with Assad would include an agreement to sever ties with the Iranian regime. It's impossible to forecast how plausible that goal may be. What's clear is that, again like it or not, the Iranians are influential with Assad, and achieving a resolution that avoids an semi-governed or ungoverned Syria riddled with violence may require engagement with Iran. Our point is: don't discard that option. It needs to be considered and thought through.

• The West and Russia can influence regional parties to shape of some resolution -- it may be messy, no matter what -- but the Syrians, in tandem with the Turks and other regional Arab neighbors, need to figure out what is realistic.

The vital U.S. interests are clear. First, keep pushing hard to ensure that no WMDs fall into extremist hand. Second, prevent the Syria civil war from spreading into a regional conflict. Third, take whatever steps are required -- but realistic -- to keep Syria from becoming the haven for international terrorism that we have spent thousands of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars in the Middle East and Afghanistan to prevent happening. The Sinai already presents that challenge. Strong leadership must be asserted to keep Syria from offering an even graver one.

James P. Farwell is a national security expert who has advised the U.S. SPECIAL OPERATIONS COMMAND, and is the author of Persuasion & Power (Washington: Georgetown University Press, 2012). Darby Arakelian is a national security expert and former CIA officer. The opinions expressed are their own and do not reflect those of the U.S. Government, its departments, agencies, or COCOM.