09/27/2013 01:17 pm ET Updated Nov 27, 2013

Limited Options, Influence for U.S. in Syria

Presently, the national conversation about Syria has centered on possible prescriptions for an international crisis that has the U.S. tied up in a considerable conundrum.

Should President Obama punish Syria's apparent use of chemical weapons? Did Syria and its president, Bashar al-Assad, cross the "red line" that would warrant U.S. military intervention? Can new diplomatic efforts end the chemical weapons impasse? How can the killing be stopped?

Missing from much of what's been written and said about the crisis in Syria over the last several weeks, however, is a realistic assessment of the state of that nation today, as well as that of the United States' capacity to influence events in this extremely volatile and complex country. This assessment is key to answering the question: What kind of a solution in Syria is possible?

Syria, as currently constituted, is a chaotic, confusing and challenging country, one partitioned into multiple centers of power and plagued by a brutal civil war that has killed approximately 100,000 people according to United Nations estimates and that, sadly, seems to have no end in sight. Over 6 million Syrians have been displaced, with prospects of more to come in what is the world's most daunting humanitarian crisis.

One cannot view Syria as a single country or the conflict within the country as a two-sided affair. Despite Assad controlling a significant portion of the country, Syria remains a fractured land being pulled apart by many regional leaders contending for power and flooded with foreign fighters from countries such as Iran and Saudi Arabia who are engaged in a proxy war in an attempt to gain influence in the Middle East.

Until now, the U.S. has not intervened heavily on any of the multiple sides of the conflict in Syria, which has never represented an existential threat to the U.S. Still, we continue to have significant interests in the area, including the overall stability of the Middle East, the national security of Israel and preventing Syria from becoming a safe haven for terrorists.

Moving forward, a major question will be whether the U.S. can help drive a political settlement that will help stop the senseless killing in Syria, which remains the most important objective in Syria. It's possible that real and sincere collaboration over the removal of chemical weapons, which is still very much in doubt, might produce progress toward this goal, but the United States does not have a strategy for a lasting solution in Syria.

With its prestige diminished in the region, the U.S. simply doesn't have the power to control events in Syria. In fact, our capacity to bring about change in the country is extremely limited.

So the question, posed not long ago by one of our generals in another conundrum, Iraq, then becomes, "How does this all end?" A military victory in a country with numerous warring factions is clearly out of the question, at least at a price in lives and resources that we are willing to pay. So, too, is a political victory. Indeed, Syria is a situation in which there is simply no clear and clean solution.

The best hope might be for a partial solution, but that promises to be messy. Syria is likely to end up with multiple groups and warlords ruling the country alongside a nominal, at best, central government. These parties don't appear to be close to any political settlement. It's also quite possible that low-level fighting will continue for some time and that sectarian violence will persist.

As for Assad, U.S. political pundits have been predicting his demise for some time. And yet he has demonstrated a resiliency that has caused our leaders to eschew any talk of regime change. He likely will not realize his vision to become ruler of the entire country, but he and his political party may well be part of an ensuing power struggle. Regardless of Assad's future in Syria, what we will not see is democracy, not in the near term and possibly not ever.

All is not dire, however. Modest progress is being made in the discussions over the removal of Syria's chemical weapons, and it is encouraging that the U.S. and Russia have indicated that these talks might go further into some of the deep-rooted political issues preventing peace in Syria. Prospects for such talks, if they ever started, are slim, but we have to keep trying.

But the overall outlook is not encouraging in a country that presents no good options. Removing Assad from power and bringing democracy to that troubled land means boots on the ground and occupation of the country for a long period of time.

That's a price Americans are not willing to pay.

Lee H. Hamilton is Professor of Practice, Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs; Distinguished Scholar, IU School of Global and International Studies; Director, Center on Congress at Indiana University. He served as U.S. Representative from Indiana's 9th Congressional District from 1965-1999.