While not labeled as such, the U.S. is increasingly implementing a "dual track" approach toward the Syrian regime. Trying to achieve foreign policy objectives by applying pressure on one "track" while simultaneously attempting to negotiate a solution on a second diplomatic "track" is the same approach that U.S. President Barack Obama is unsuccessfully using to deal with Iran's nuclear program. However, while I have argued elsewhere against its usage with Iran, if done correctly, it is the best available policy option for the U.S. in Syria.
Proper application of the dual track approach requires that the amount of pressure matches one's desired objectives. The larger the objectives, the greater the pressure needed. With Iran having expended so much financial and political capital on their nuclear file, getting them to limit their program is an ambitious objective requiring an enormous amount of pressure. Unfortunately, the U.S. lacks the means to create such pressure. Economic sanctions have proven insufficient and the requisite military pressure is not a viable option, as it would have unacceptably high costs for the U.S. and risk a broader conflict that would further destabilize the region.
Syria is another story. In addition to economic sanctions already in place, the U.S. can create acute levels of pressure by working with the political and armed opposition already active in Syria, limiting costs and risks for the U.S.
Yet, with continued support from Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia, and with the regime's recent gains on the battlefield, pressure is waning. Under these current circumstances there is little chance Syrian President Bashar al-Assad will feel compelled to agree to any arrangement that involves ceding power. Therefore, a dramatic increase in pressure is needed.
First, the administration must begin supplying properly vetted moderate opposition forces with the types of weapons they have long been calling for. The administration is making preparations to begin supplying small arms and ammunition. Yet more is needed to limit the military disparity between the rebels and the opposition. The administration must be more aggressive and supply rebel forces with heavy weaponry, including anti-tank and possibly even anti-aircraft missiles.
Second, the U.S. should create safe zones along the Jordanian and Turkish borders. These can be implemented by using patriot missile batteries already in place in Jordan and Turkey, drones, and naval ships in the Mediterranean. Such safe zones would deter Assad from using the Syrian Air Force to bomb rebel held areas, and would have minimal costs and risks for the U.S.
Third, the U.S. would need to severely degrade the regime's artillery and Scud missile launching capability through an initial series of U.S. airstrikes. While attempting to completely destroy the regimes artillery strike capacity would require too great a U.S. commitment, selectively targeting artillery batteries in key positions will have a major impact on both Assad's offensive and defensive military capability and would decrease the number of causalities he is able to inflict.
On the political track, in addition to continuing to pursue diplomatic negotiations, the U.S. needs to apply pressure to the opposition's in the Syrian National Coalition to take greater steps toward creating a transitional government that can serve as an interlocutor for negotiations with the regime. With increased military assistance, the U.S. will increase the leverage it has in cajoling the opposition into forming the needed transitional government, and when the time comes to persuade this body to accept a compromise solution that would likely not meet all their demands.
Admittedly, the prospect for reaching a negotiated solution in the near future is not great. There is a distinct possibility that Assad and his forces are determined to continue fighting regardless of any external pressure. It is not, however, so clear that their Russian and Iranian backers, whose support is crucial for the regime to maintain its grip on power, are equally unwilling to compromise. Although Iran and Russia have so far shown no interest in pulling their support from Assad, this could change if the U.S. ratchets up pressure and Assad's hold on power becomes more tenuous. Thus, as the U.S. increases pressure they should continue to test the water with Iran and Russia to see if there are any concessions that can be offered to convince them to end their support for Assad.
Yet, even if increased pressure fails to induce Assad and/or his allies to agree to a political solution, the pressure strategy laid out here is still warranted. Increased military support, safe zones, and U.S. airstrikes will not guarantee a military victory for the armed opposition, but such steps can increase the security of territory under rebel control and provide greater opportunity for them to more effectively govern, provide services, and create protected areas for Syrian refugees to return to. This in turn will enhance the credibility of the moderate rebel forces in the country and help their standing vis a vis al-Qaeda affiliated groups. Even if rebel infighting and other restraints prevent the improvement of security in areas under their control, destroying much of Assad's capacity to wage his campaign of terror against the Syrian people will dramatically limit the number of innocent Syrians being killed by indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas by the regime.
The dual track approach is far from a silver bullet, but it is the best approach available as it works to ease the suffering of the people, weakens Assad's ability to inflict violence on Syrians, improves facts on the ground for the moderate armed opposition forces the U.S. should be supporting, while simultaneously optimizing the chance for a political solution in both the short and long-term.