The following is an excerpt from The Case for a More Robust Intervention in Syria by Century Foundation fellow Thanassis Cambanis.
Options in Syria are all grim (for Syrians themselves, for the United States, and for all the regional intervening powers and groups, as well as the international community). The major options can be categorized as follows:
- Assad, and nothing else. Promote an outright Assad victory. Supporters of this approach argue that Assad’s rule is more stable than any alternative. If the United States made a full about-face, it could pull support from rebels and pressure allies to do the same, and signaling that it would accept consolidation of Assad’s power.
- Full withdrawal. Close down the covert rebel aid program, even curtailing or stopping the war against the Islamic State group. Such a course would probably come as part of a wider embrace of U.S. isolationism.
- Attack only Islamic State. Abandon any military involvement, direct or indirect, unless it is entirely concerned with Islamic State, and not the Syrian government.
- Partial withdrawal with humanitarian enhancement. Give up on influencing the prospect of a political solution, and decide that the United States will only take actions aimed to reduce death toll and displacement, and contain cross-border spillover of conflict. Increase non-military aid to bordering countries.
- Balancing the civil war and containing its spillover (the status quo). Provide military and financial assistance so that rebels do not lose, but not enough so they can make advances. Contribute to palliative humanitarian care, but not enough to actually contain refugee crisis.
- Enhanced containment. Intervene militarily and promote a negotiated settlement that includes all major parties, Syrian and foreign. Increase military action by advisers, proxies, and allies designed to reduce civilian death and displacement, and increase risk to Syrian government and allied forces of engaging in indiscriminate bombings and shelling. Deepen collaboration with unsavory rivals (Russia, Iran, Syrian government) to promote negotiated settlement, along with a renewed willingness to confront those rivals.
- Regime change. Give rebels sufficient military support to overthrow government and take Damascus, knowing such a course will likely result in a long, continuing civil war and further sectarian reprisals, with no natural successor to Assad on the horizon.
Enhanced containment—a limited military intervention in service of a political solution to the civil war—is the best among a set of difficult choices. U.S.-orchestrated regime change, such as an outright invasion, would go much too far, destabilizing the Levant and probably making everything in Syria worse, in a replay of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. An alliance with Assad would reward murderous tactics, guarantee an unstable and ungovernable Syria, and reinforce Tehran and Moscow’s most aggressive inclinations. So would withdrawal or a sole focus on Islamic State. The only viable options lie in the middle, and include the status quo.
All of the viable choices bear costs and risks; the status quo approach defers some of the worst blowback until later, when the emboldened Assad axis and foreign sponsors strike, while an entire generation of anti-Assad Syrians and disenfranchised Sunnis blames the West for their plight. An enhanced containment strategy requires the United States to cap Russian escalation now, rather than later, in perhaps an intervention even further from Russia’s core sphere; and it brings forward the moment of reckoning when Syria’s collapse and the expansionism of Iran and Russia force the United States to get deeper involved.
By escalating now, on its own terms, the United States can better control the course of events and be in a stronger position to respond to the unexpected.