02/07/2013 10:51 am ET Updated Apr 09, 2013

Making a Political Transition in Syria Possible

*I wrote this piece in August 2012 and the recommendations herein reflect the conditions in Syria at the time.

Analysts of the civil war in Syria have long held that Bashar al-Assad will not lose a critical mass of support from his Alawite clan as long as they fear for their safety at the hands of Syria's Sunni majority. This is true, but it is a problem that extends beyond the Alawites to all of the sectarian mosaic that is Syria. The Free Syrian Army (FSA), the mostly Sunni umbrella group of forces fighting the Assad regime, needs to make clear that the Syria they are fighting for is inclusive of all Syrians. Inclusiveness starts with establishing a clear chain of command for the FSA. The status quo -- a loose patchwork of officers with overlapping purviews -- is untenable.

The FSA should begin by consolidating its leadership under one commanding Sunni general. This would not only address foreign frustrations of not having a central point of contact with the FSA but would also make transferring funds and arms much easier. Moreover, it would increase accountability should outside arms find their way into the hands of extremist groups, a prime concern of Western powers. United States Defense Secretary Leon Panetta testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee in March that "there has been no single unifying military alternative that can be recognized, appointed or contacted" in the Syrian opposition. A centralized command for the FSA would close this gap and facilitate greater cooperation with Turkey, Gulf countries and the West. It would also help the FSA prioritize its operations during the political transition in Syria, from locking down Assad's cache of chemical weapons to securing the country's volatile borders.

The Free Syrian Army should name Christians and Alawites to top posts as soon as it appoints a commanding Sunni officer. Diversifying the FSA would be tangible evidence to Syrians that the rebel army is committed to inclusiveness. This would not be diversity for diversity's sake, as is often the case with neighboring Lebanon's quota system, but a real effort to forge cooperation between the Sunni majority and the Christian and Alawite minorities who feel vulnerable to post-Assad disorder. The Egyptian revolution offers a cautionary tale for the FSA about inclusiveness: thousands of Coptic Christians have fled Egypt since the fall of Mubarak because they feared their secure standing in society went the way of the dictator. This has made the political unity needed to govern Egypt elusive.

Creating a central channel for funds and arms to the FSA goes hand-in-hand with creating a centralized leadership. The problem is not a lack of willingness from international donors to write a check, but to whom to make the check out. While a regional donor with deep pockets like Saudi Arabia can find a way of getting money to the FSA through back channels, this maneuvering is not possible for most other donors. Closer coordination between the FSA and the civilian National Syrian Council would help ensure that donations go through a central channel and are put to the best possible use on the battlefield. It is a matter of merging political activism outside of Syria with the FSA's operations inside the country.

The FSA's problem is one of perception as well as policy. Yes, it is a fragmented collection of rebel groups that would benefit from a more centralized leadership, but it also has an image problem in the international media. The FSA has been painted as a rag-tag group difficult to support because of its lack of coordination. As with the Libyan rebels who ultimately deposed Qaddafi, there has been much media speculation about potential al Qaeda infiltration of the Free Syrian Army. These worries need to be laid to rest with a strong rebranding of the FSA once it has centralized its chain of command. There is no shortage of global support for the heroism the FSA has shown on the battlefield, but this support weakens when doubts about the FSA's intentions creep in due to conflicting information.

Just as the domestic situation in Syria hinges on the loyalty of the Alawites, so does the support of Assad's main ally, Russia. Moscow's position that ousting Assad would violate Syrian sovereignty is based on the strained logic that Alawite support for the dictator somehow legitimizes his grip on power. Never mind the fact that it is out of an instinct for self-preservation, not genuine support, that Alawites (who are about 11% of the population) have not abandoned Assad. A significant tide of Alawite defections would make the Russian position difficult to sustain. Without a single constituency in Syria to draw strength from, Assad would be of limited use to Russia as a client. With Russian obstruction at the UN Security council no more, the Chinese would be unwilling to be the only dissenting vote for humanitarian intervention in Syria.

Nearly as crucial as getting Russia to pull the rug from under Assad will be confining Iran to the sidelines during the political transition. Tehran's sway over Assad -- Iran runs a multi-million-dollar weapons trade with Syria -- makes this very challenging. This week Iran sent hundreds of foot soldiers and members of its Revolutionary Guard Corps to help Assad with a shortage of military personnel. Iran is now actively engaged in the conflict and may need to be engaged in resolving it: Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi recently suggested including the Iranians in a negotiated end to the conflict. Yet despite offering some of its Revolutionary Guard to Assad, the Iranians may consider the Syrian dictator's days to be numbered and be interested in damage control -- in brokering a ceasefire so as to preserve as much of the Iranian patronage network in Syria as possible. The key will be to keep Iran at arm's length during the political transition so as to draw the new Syria away from Tehran's orbit.

Flash back to the present, to what needs to happen for a political transition in Syria to be possible. The Free Syrian Army must focus on what it can change, namely its organizational structure and to how it connects with its international and domestic supporters. This is as important as any move the FSA can make on the battlefield.

The confidence built within the FSA's ranks could spread outward and invigorate the political opposition based in Turkey. Donors in the Gulf and in the West might see better bang for their buck and double down on their commitments to oust Assad. Making the Free Syrian Army a more efficient and disciplined body, one inclusive of Alawites and Christians, can be a catalyst for political reform in the new Syria.