To Save Lives, Make Peace with Assad Now

09/16/2015 12:38 pm ET Updated Sep 14, 2016

A year ago, Oxford University scholar Ahmad Samih Khalidi argued in the New York Times that the United States should end the Syrian civil war by coming to terms with President Bashar al-Assad. The time has come to make the deal.

According to the United Nations, over 200,000 people have died in Syria since the civil war began in 2011. The conflict has created more than four million refugees, while 7,600,000 Syrians have been internally displaced. This is a staggering toll in human life and suffering, and it shows no sign of abating (and meanwhile, the flow of refugees has thrown the European Union into turmoil.) A brokered peace with al-Assad would bring a quick end to the bloodshed. Many refugees would return to their homes.

Almost certainly, President al-Assad would conduct murderous reprisals against the individuals and factions that opposed him in the war. The solution would be a deal that required the Syrian president to admit UN peacekeepers to ensure the well-being of his civil war opponents. Suppose Assad refused to admit peacekeepers? A negotiated peace would still be worth it--it seems unlikely that the human cost of Assad reprisals could come anywhere close to the number of people who have been killed, injured, or dislocated in the Syrian conflict.

The Obama administration's Syria policy hasn't brought defeat to the Assad regime. Nor does it face good prospects of doing so. Arming the "moderate opposition" seems like a better idea in theory than in practice. Who's the moderate opposition? A visit to Wikipedia reveals a bewildering array of groups lined up against the Syrian government, including but not limited to: Hizbut-Tahrir, Ajnad al-Sham Islamic Union, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Shields of the Revolution Council, the Islamic Front, Coalition of Secular and Democratic Syrians, Syrian Democratic People's Party, Syrian National Council, the Supreme Council of the Syrian Revolution, the Assyrian Democratic Organization, the Syrian Turkmen Assembly, the Syrian Democratic Turkmen Movement, Syrian Turkmen National Bloc, Syrian Turkmen Brigades, the Movement of the Future, al-Nusra Front, Syrian Islamic Front, Syrian Islamic Liberation Front, National Coordination Committee for the Forces of Democratic Change, National Democratic Rally, National Salvation Front in Syria, Syriac Union Party, Syria Martyrs' Brigade, Syrian National Democratic Council, and Syrian Revolution General Commission. Many of these groups are themselves composed of different groups. And my list doesn't even include the numerous Kurdish groups operating against Assad.

I am fairly confident in suggesting that American intelligence faces continuing difficulty in identifying which groups are moderate (and will stay moderate). Moreover, a moderate victory in the civil war by no means ensures moderate rule. Illiberal forces might well seize power from a fractious coalition government. Another possibility is no government: a descent into rule by provincial warlords, and Libyan-style chaos. Such an outcome would mean ongoing suffering for the Syrian people, more so than a return to life under the Assad regime.

There are also international risks of supporting anti-government forces in Syria. Recently Russia has stepped up their involvement on behalf of the Assad regime, making preparations for a troop build-up. As Secretary of State John Kerry has noted, this introduces the risk of hostile contact with the American pilots now bombing ISIS positions.

ISIS has gained a foothold in Syria because no cohesive opposition exists. As Ahmad Samih Khalidi argues in his New York Times piece, Bashir al-Assad controls the one army in the Levant that's capable of suppressing ISIS. Without a civil war to wage, the Syrian president could move decisively to eradicate ISIS with American support.

Restoring Assad to power comes across as a retro policy proposal, a throwback to Cold War realpolitik. Many people associate realpolitik with Richard Nixon's Cold War support of dictators regardless of the cost in human life. Perhaps most infamously, millions perished during the Banglideshi War of Independence in 1971 thanks to the Nixon-backed Pakistani president Yahya Khan. But this time around, supporting the dictator would markedly reduce human suffering.

And that should be the yardstick for measuring foreign policy.