Which side should the U.S. wish to see prevail in the Syrian civil war? For me, the correct answer has seemed to be: neither side, just as it was during the war between Iran and Iraq.
A victory by the butcher Assad has never looked like a good outcome, and it looks worse than ever now that Hezbollah and Iran are backing him so strongly. But a victory by the rebel forces appears quite problematic to the extent, seemingly considerable, that Islamic extremists aligned with al Qaeda have the upper hand within the rebel movement.
Thus, a stalemate may well be the optimal geopolitical result.
To be sure, a stalemate is a bad outcome too because of the dramatically mounting death toll and misery the civil war inflicts on Syrians. But a victory by either side would likely be accompanied by a massive bloodbath. And a stalemate could lead to a negotiated settlement — one that, I hope, would be satisfactory to neither side.
Right now, however, Assad’s forces may be on the verge of breaking the stalemate. As Judith Levy explains at Ricochet, Hezbollah and Syrian regime forces are making a strong assault on Qusayr, an overwhelmingly Sunni town that rebel forces have controlled for more than a year. According to Levy:
The reclaiming of Qusayr is essential to Assad, since the city links Damascus with the Mediterranean coast and connects the capital city to the Alawite heartland. Qusayr is equally valuable to the rebels, since it is a conduit for arms from Lebanon.
The revival of Assad’s fortunes makes me think that U.S. non-involvement should no longer be considered our best option. It seems to me that we now should be looking for ways to stem the progress of Assad regime and Hezbollah forces. For if we were to rank the three possible outcomes of the Syrian civil war — Assad/Hezbollah wins; the rebels win; no one wins — a victory by Assad/Hezbollah would finish third.
Qusayr may be the right place to try to halt Assad’s progress, if we can accomplish this without committing U.S. forces. In this regard, it should be noted that Gen. Salem Idris, leader of a rebel faction that’s apparently well-disposed to the U.S., isn’t asking for U.S. troops.
During the visit this weekend of John McCain, who slipped across the Turkish border into Syria, Idris said: “What we want from the U.S. government is to take the decision to support the Syrian revolution with weapons and ammunition, anti-tank missiles and anti-aircraft weapons.” Naturally, he would also like to see a no-fly zone and strategic U.S. strikes against Hezbollah and/or Assad forces. And naturally, we must be concerned that whatever weapons we provide to Idris’ forces eventually may wind up in the hands of anti-U.S. rebel forces.
Will President Obama provide any support to opposition forces? He is said to be considering it, and continued reports of use of chemical weapons by the regime — which crosses Obama’s famous “red line” — could provide the pretext for a shift in course. Perhaps he will condition aid on an agreement by rebel leaders to attend the peace conference to be held next month in Geneva.
For the U.S., there are no good options in Syria. But at this juncture, helping the rebels avoid defeat in Qusayr and other key fronts may be the best of the bad ones.