Syria remains rocked by antiregime protests that have endured since March, and the country may be headed for civil war. That's because unlike in Egypt or Tunisia, sectarian rivalries are central to Syrian politics. That adds an element of danger to the situation—but also points the way toward how dictator Bashar al-Assad may fall, especially if the West takes the proper initiative.
Syria's population is 74% Sunni Muslim. Yet the Assad regime is Alawite, an offshoot of Shiite Islam—often considered heretical by orthodox Sunnis—that comprises only 10% or 15% of Syrians. The best-armed and best-trained divisions of the Syrian army are Alawite.
As President Assad has cracked down on protesters with violent force, killing roughly 2,000, Washington's reaction has been slow and unsteady. On May 19, President Obama called for a "serious dialogue" between the regime and the protesters in a speech at the State Department. Yet on July 31, he said "the courageous Syrian people who have demonstrated in the streets will determine its future." Which is it? U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford's July visit to the city of Hama—where he was received by the crowds with bouquets of flowers—is a reminder that U.S. actions remain critically important to any chance of a less violent outcome.
There appears to be no U.S. strategy except prayers that Syria doesn't turn into Libya: a full-fledged civil war. With the NATO military action in Libya now a source of contention both in the U.S. and among NATO allies, the last thing the White House likely wants is increased violence in Syria. Washington's inaction would then make it appear callous and inept—and could eventually lead to calls for a no-fly zone, arming the rebels, or even some form of military intervention.
American leadership can help avoid civil war. Our goal should be to separate the Assad family and its closest cronies from the rest of the Alawite community.
Across Alawite society there are varying degrees of loyalty to the Assads. There are close supporters who know their fate is tied to that of Assad, but there are many others who care little about the ruling family but are paralyzed by fear of vengeance against the entire community after President Assad is gone. The Alawite generals in the Syrian Army should be key targets for a campaign of psychological warfare urging them to salvage their community's post-Assad future by refusing now to kill their fellow citizens. The U.S. should address them publicly, but also reach out to them privately through whatever intelligence or military channels are available.
Here the Turkish government may be able to help, for they turned against Assad even before the U.S. did. The Turks were pursuing their own interests, seeking to displace Iran as the outside power most influential in Syria. But they also don't want to see a Syrian civil war that could, among other things, produce a massive refugee flow across their borders. Messages from Turkish officials to the Alawite military establishment can help persuade them not to sacrifice their future in a vain effort to save the Assad mafia. The message, and the tougher it is the better: "Make your choice now. Are you going to be war criminals or survivors?"
For this to work, the U.S. should stop speaking about "the regime" and speak instead about "the Assads." We should end the American equivocation and say clearly that Assad must and will go. The Alawites, and the generals in particular, won't think hard about their place in Syria's future until they are convinced Assad is finished.
For this reason, Ambassador Ford should be recalled now, to demonstrate a final break with the Assads, or he should be deployed repeatedly, as he was in Hama, to symbolize America's support for the opposition. For the same reason the U.S. should be far more active in turning Assad and his closest supporters into international pariahs, using whatever multilateral bodies are available and employing far sharper presidential rhetoric than we have yet seen. Assad and his family should be offered one last chance to get out now before the wheels start turning that will make him an international outlaw forever.
Second, we should put far more pressure on the Syrian business community—Sunni, Christian and Alawite—so that it increasingly sees the Assads as a bottomless drain on the nation, not a bulwark against chaos. This means working harder to get international cooperation on additional sanctions that would hit Syrian imports and exports, rather than targeting only the finances of a few top officials close to Assad.
Finally, the U.S. should be pressing the Syrian opposition—the traditional leadership inside the country (at least those still out of prison), and the new groups such as those that met recently in Turkey—to state with greater clarity their commitment to civil peace when the Assads are gone. They should pledge that post-Assad Syria will protect all minorities—the Alawites, Kurds and the very nervous Christian communities. They should agree now to an international role in providing these protections and guarantees. The more detailed these pledges are, and the more publicity and international support they get, the more good they will do inside Syria.
But for all the justified focus on Syria, the single event that would most help bring down the Assads would be the fall of Moammar Gadhafi in Libya. It still isn't clear today if the lesson of the Arab Spring is that dictators are doomed or that dictators willing to shoot peaceful protesters can win. Once Gadhafi goes, the oxygen Libya is sucking from the Arab struggle for democracy will circulate again. The NATO effort—however poorly implemented—will have finally been a success, and threats of possible military action to protect civilians, especially refugees, will have some credibility.
Meantime, much can be done to avoid a sectarian war in Syria if the Assad mafia can be separated from much of its own sectarian support. We can use our voice and influence to persuade Syria's minorities that they have a secure future after Assad is gone—and help all of Syria's communities agree on the rules for the post-Assad era that is coming.
Mr. Abrams, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, handled Middle East affairs at the National Security Council from 2001 to 2009.
This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.