11/01/2013 05:44 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Syria: Demands for Regime Change Derail Peace Talks

After nation-building debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan one would think the international community would be reluctant to enforce top-down regime change in a geopolitical tinderbox like Syria, where an ethnosectarian civil war has the potential to engulf the entire region in a broader Sunni-Shia conflict. Not to mention Syria's primary benefactor in Moscow is determined to thwart American expansionist designs and quell the spread of Sunni extremism. Nonetheless, the U.S. is demanding President Assad's ouster as a precondition to negotiations at the behest of a few capricious Gulf allies who feel betrayed by Washington's recent refusal to bomb Syria.

This all-or-nothing attitude stemming from the Syrian opposition has infected the thinking of the purported prime interlocutors, including Secretary of State John Kerry. Last week Kerry said Assad should have no role in the process because he has blood on his hands and has lost all legitimacy. Some leaders of the Syrian National Council (SNC), the most visible opposition group, went so far as to suggest that simply entering into discussions with Assad was an act of treason.

Yet the opposition is also suffering from a severe legitimacy crisis. A number of rebel groups have refused to allow leaders in exile to represent their interests, including members of the SNC. Syrian reporter Abdulrahman al-Masri summarizes the situation bluntly during an interview with Aljazeera: "The guys fighting on the ground are the ones suffering, but the people living in hotels are the ones doing the talks." Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar, echoes this sentiment, saying that the opposition "has no credibility on the ground."

The U.S., Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar have delegitimized the cause even further by providing material support to opposition groups that include Al Qaeda-linked extremists, which has also bolstered Assad's efforts to portray the rebels as terrorists. Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov seized upon this issue earlier this week, insinuating that the Sunni sheikdoms have been disappointed by their inability to replace the Assad regime with an Islamic state. In fact, according to The Economist, a perspective is emerging within and outside Syria that, despite Assad's atrocities, the Islamist extremists who threaten to take his place could be even worse.

Overlooked in this pursuit of a grand bargain is the fact that most minority groups, including the Alawites, Druze and Christians, are not very eager to embrace regime change because they fear Sunni retribution in a post-Assad world. The absolute aversion on the part of the opposition and its patrons to engage the dictator and the ongoing radicalization of anti-government forces are probably disturbing developments for many minorities who will likely cling to Assad ever tighter.

Infighting and inflexibility could have grave consequences if U.N.-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi is remotely accurate in his recent prognosis. On Wednesday Brahimi claimed Syria could be "more dramatic, devastating and difficult than Afghanistan, Iraq and even the 15-year-long Lebanese civil war." He even said the country could experience a kind of "Somalization," by descending into a chaotic vacuum due to the complete absence of any real central government.

A belligerent call by foreign powers for regime change makes for an obvious nonstarter to those sitting in Damascus. Why would Assad bless a negotiations process that excludes him and guarantees his extirpation? This type of elite-driven foreign-led reconciliation process has failed in countless conflicts in the past. The U.S. should be guided by a more realistic understanding of its leverage when establishing and pursuing objectives in Syria. Senator Ed Markey (D-Mass) warned that the U.S. should approach the imbroglio "with a lot of humility, given what we've learned after we intervened in Iraq, in Libya, in Afghanistan; after what we've seen go on in Egypt." Rather than calling for Assad's ouster perhaps the opposition should first seek to negotiate a ceasefire and, ultimately, internationally-monitored elections. A few weeks ago hardly a soul believed Assad would agree to have his chemical weapons program dismantled, but he did. Who is to say he wouldn't agree to free and fair elections?

The preponderance of energy should be focused on helping Syrians develop a bottom-up peace process to stop the bloodshed and eventually forge an inclusive political solution, which will likely encompass working with an incumbent the opposition sees as a mortal enemy. The stakes are too high for pursuing an all-or-nothing regime change strategy that provides Assad little incentive to negotiate and all the reason to dig-in for a final stand.

Securing individual rights, pushing for gradual reforms, carving a path to democracy and removing Assad via legitimate means will be an incremental process that could take years. However, the current top-down approach premised on replacing Assad posthaste with a fragmented Sunni-dominated coalition will not gain much traction within the Syrian government, will not appeal to minorities and will most likely prolong the civil war.