Tactically, President Obama is operating true to form in Syria; he's wisely avoiding ever-creeping military measures on behalf of rebels, many of whom might well turn out to be even worse than the already viperous President Assad. But also typically, the Obama team seems to be without a longer-term strategy that explicitly and relentlessly locks into the real emerging threat within Syria—al Qaeda and its devious affiliates. This strategy would go way beyond simply dumping a nasty dictator or pressing for illusory deals between Assad and a Turkey-based rebel group devoid of meaningful power. Meantime, Syrians still drown in bloodletting, chaos, and refugees, while the Assad side weakens only by endless inches.
The real dangers in Syria today come less from Assad, or even Iran, and much more from increasingly potent Sunni extremist fighters. If the "rebels" win, as matters now stand, jihadis likely would be the real victors. They'd swiftly create a terrorist state to menace Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel. U.S. strategy must be constructed to blunt that nightmare.
Stopping jihadis from taking over Syria could represent the only common goal between Syria's ruling Alawites and the secular Sunni rebels. Shiite-related Alawites rightly fear an al Qaeda–like triumph in Syria as the worst possible outcome. There can be no doubt in their minds that Sunni extremists would make the mass killing of Alawites their No. 1 priority. The secular leaders of the Syrian rebels, clustered in the exile group known as the Syrian National Council, also must worry about the extremist threat they themselves would face if the Assad government fell now. Remember, most Syrian Sunnis don't have a history of religious radicalism. They don't want rule by Sharia any more than the Alawites do.
U.S. strategy must focus on building this common ground. Washington should want to ensure that neither its European nor its regional allies gave arms to groups suspected of being even slightly jihadi in nature. In particular, our Arab friends already sending arms must err even further on the side of great caution. Such restraint on our part would show the Alawites we care about their safety, a critical signal. Our negotiating efforts would follow along similar lines: yes, Assad would have to go. Yes, secular rebel leaders and the remaining Alawite leaders would agree to freeze the jihadis out of negotiations and governmental power. And yes, both secular Sunni and Alawite leaders would agree to share governmental power and to protect their own respective communities for the indefinite future. It's not pretty or easy, but it is common ground.
There are two good reasons to try this strategy, however messy it may be. First, it zooms right in on what most worries the United States and its principal allies neighboring Syria—namely, the prospect of Syria becoming an al Qaeda den. The terrorists would have a ready-made storehouse of modern armaments, i.e., chemical weapons and sophisticated anti-aircraft missiles and radars. Washington is well aware of the dangers but focused not nearly enough on prevention.
Second, the anti-jihadi strategy just makes more practical sense than the policy ideas now dominating public debate. One favorite is that the U.S. should be promoting negotiations between the rebels and the government. But rebel leaders in Turkey are nearly powerless and with little control of the fighting rebels inside Syria. Of equal importance, there's nothing on the negotiating table now to sway the Alawites to ditch Assad. Apart from saving lives, we haven't given either side a good argument for making peace—and obviously, neither side is too concerned with saving lives right now or they would have stopped killing each other long ago. The negotiating track hasn't worked and won't—unless we get the Alawites and secular Sunnis to focus on common political interests. The U.N. can keep sending representatives to talk to the rivals, and Secretary of State John Kerry can visit the neighborhood. Alas, none of this will amount to a hill of beans.
The other "solution" gaining ground, especially here in the United States, is for the U.S. to arm the rebels for military victory. That's much easier said than done; advocates need only stop and imagine our limitations in being able to distinguish between good and bad rebels. Arabs all look alike to Americans, even to CIA operatives. Only ignoramuses don't fret about arms falling into the wrong hands. Proponents of arming the rebels might also note a telling fact—namely, that those Arab states already arming rebels, like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Qatar, have limited their own distributions. They realize that even if they know the rebels better than Americans do, they don't know them well enough to give them sophisticated arms. So, if those who know the rebels best can't figure out whom to arm, and with what, how can Americans do better?
A key dimension to an anti-jihadi strategy for the U.S. and its regional allies would be to help the secular rebels better compete for the hearts and minds of the Syrian people. Right now, jihadis are gaining popularity, as they often have elsewhere, by providing goods and services to the needy and by shunning corruption, at least for the moment. We have to convince the secular rebels to do as much and, if they demonstrate that they can deliver, give them the economic wherewithal to compete. Of course, our other humanitarian aid programs in Syria and border areas should continue and even increase. And indeed, we should make clear to the Syrians that we and their Arab brethren would make a major effort at economic reconstruction in Syria should the secular rebels and the Alawites forge a political compromise excluding the jihadis.
One further word about arming "the freedom fighters": no one has come close to making a convincing case that doing so, even apart from mistakenly arming bad guys, would result in ending the war sooner or reducing killings. Rather, the pattern has been the more lethal the rebels' effort, the more violent Assad's forces. And if the past is prologue, and more arms proved insufficient, advocates of arming the rebels would soon argue for direct U.S. intervention.
The only strategy that stands a chance—and not even necessarily a very good one—is for the United States, the post-Assad Alawites, and the secular Syrian Sunnis to focus relentlessly on the common goal: stopping the victory of Islamic extremists.