NEW YORK – The Obama administration’s proposal to attack Syria appears to have been outlined in a Brookings Institution report published in March 2012 that contemplated a range of options to destabilize Syria and depose the government of Bashar al-Assad.
The plan included launching limited military attacks and supporting the Free Syria Army as the group of choice among the various “rebel” forces dominated by al-Qaida, the Muslim Brotherhood and radical Islamic mercenaries from around the region.
Produced by the think tank’s Sabin Center in March 2012, “Middle East Memo #21,” titled “Saving Syria: Assessing Options for Regime Change,” proposed the United States should implement a policy aimed at destabilizing Syria with the explicitly stated goal of ousting the Assad regime.
Authored by four Brookings Institution-affiliated authors, the report said the “brutal regime of Bashar al-Asad (sic) is employing its loyal military forces and sectarian thugs to crush the opposition and reassert its tyranny.”
The authors’ underlying justification for removing the Assad regime was that it was engaging in acts of violence against civilians that violated international standards of human rights.
The memo, however, made clear that the real gain to be achieved in toppling Assad was not the humanitarian protection of the Syrian population but the removal from the Middle East of “Iran’s oldest and most important ally in the Arab world.” The report characterized the Assad regime as “a longtime supporter” of terrorist groups like Hezbollah and Hamas that has “at times aided al-Qa’ida terrorists and former regime elements in Iraq.”
The memo’s characterization of U.S. foreign policy goals has prompted critics to charge it presented humanitarian concerns couched in the doctrine of “responsibility to protect,” a U.N. initiative asserting sovereignty is a responsibility, not a right, and the international community, therefore, has a right to ensure nations protect their populations from genocide, war crime, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing.
The critics see the plan as a pretext designed to cover the real goal of destabilizing Syria to depose the Assad regime. The plan would provide weapons to rebel groups, combined with U.S. air attacks and the possibility of a U.S.-backed, internationally configured military invasion with ground troops.
The memo cautioned, however, that actually ousting Assad “will not be easy.”
“Although the Obama administration has for months called for Asad to go, every policy option to remove him is flawed, and some could even make the situation worse – seemingly a recipe for inaction. Doing nothing, however, means standing by while Asad murders his own people and Syria plunges into civil war and risks becoming a failed state.”
Even after acknowledging the Free Syrian Army, or FSA, “is more a brand than a meaningful, united force,” the Brookings Institution memo proceeded on the premise the FSA is the rebel force the Obama administration should champion.
The memo proposed six strategies the U.S. “should consider to achieve Asad’s overthrow”:
- Removing the Assad regime via diplomacy;
- Coercing the regime via sanctions and diplomatic isolation;
- Arming the Syrian opposition to overthrow the regime;
- Engaging in a Libya-like air campaign to help an opposition army gain victory;
- Invading Syria with U.S.-led forces and toppling the regime directly; and
- Participating in a multilateral, NATO-led effort to oust Assad and rebuild Syria.
The memo stressed that no one strategy was going to be endorsed, although the memo clearly indicates preferences, especially when it comes to evaluating the probability each particular strategy has to achieve the stated policy goal of ousting the Assad regime.
The diplomatic option is discounted as having a low probability of success, because Russia’s protection of the Assad regime makes it unlikely the U.S. could pass a U.N. Security Council resolution in any way critical of Assad.
The effort to coerce the Assad regime by sanctions and diplomatic isolation is also regarded as a strategy with a low probability of success, because it would most likely create a stalemate in Syria between government and rebel forces, which would benefit Iran and Russia.
Option 3: U.S. to support FSA in Syria
The third option, arming the Syrian opposition, is considered to have a greater probability of success, provided the U.S. arms the Free Syria Army.
“The United States and its allies could arm the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and other anti-regime forces to try to carry out regime change on their own,” the Brookings Institution memo specified. “Rhetorically, the United States is already moving in this direction, with repeated high-level statements noting that the United States will not rule out arming the opposition should current efforts fail.”
The memo went on to champion arming the FSA with the following language:
A U.S. or allied-armed opposition could gain victory in two ways: the FSA could defeat Syria’s armed forces and conquer the country, or it could continue to gain strength and dishearten regime stalwarts, leading to mass defections or even a coup that causes the regime to collapse. The FSA would then become the new Syrian army, subordinate to an elected Syrian government, with the mission of ensuring the country remains stable and has protected borders.
The Brookings Institution acknowledged that achieving the result will be difficult, noting:
The FSA, for its part, is currently poorly armed, disorganized, and divided from the broader political opposition movement. To make matters more complex, there is also a deep schism between FSA forces in Syria, doing the bulk of the fighting, and the FSA leadership outside it.
The memo cautioned a U.S. strategy of arming the rebels will also require “coalition strengthening” efforts by the U.S. to better organize the rebels:
Thus, if the United States were to embrace the policy of arming the opposition, a key initial step would be to make the opposition more coherent. This would entail first gaining a better understanding of Syria’s tribal, religious, ethnic, and community structures and their affiliations, and then using money, recognition, and arms as an incentive to push the FSA and Syrian opposition political groups like the Syrian National Council (SNC) to work together. The same tools would then have to be used to push for military integration and a unified command.
The Brookings Institution memo noted the cost and risk to the U.S. of the strategy would be low because the U.S. could avoid putting forces on the ground, and the cost of providing weapons could be represented as being in the millions of dollars, not billions.
The Brookings Institution cautioned, however, that in most cases, supporting opposition forces may foster instability in Syria but not topple the Assad regime.
Option 4: Massive air strikes
Massive U.S. air strikes would supplement arming the FSA.
The memo articulated the option as follows:
The theory here is that powerful American air support could tip the balance in favor of the FSA without miring American ground troops in the fight that will have to be waged for Syria’s cities and mountain fastnesses. In crass terms, the hope is that the United States could fight a “clean” war from 10,000 feet and leave the dirty work on the ground to the FSA, perhaps even obviating a massive commitment to Iraq-style nation-building. Because of the much greater cost and lengthy duration of post-war reconstruction, as well as the obvious unpleasant experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, the potential to relieve the United States from this task appears to be a key selling point for some of this policy’s advocates.
The memo said, however, that the problem was that Assad’s armed forces were already heavily engaged with the population and the opposition across the country, making it difficult to target them from the air.
Option 5: A U.S. invasion
A U.S. invasion was the least popular of the options: “No one currently advocating an invasion of Syria, the four authors of this memo included.”
Yet, the authors suggest the option would work: “Moreover, if the United States is absolutely determined to stop the slaughter of innocent civilians in Syria and/or overthrow the Alawi regime, an invasion may well be the only way to do so – it is certainly the only way that would be guaranteed to do so.”
The authors also expressed concern that if the U.S. were “to kick in the door, to oust the regime,” Washington would then have to commit to long and costly efforts to rebuild Syria after the war.
Option 6: International intervention, the ‘goldilocks’ solution
The international option entails a NATO invasion of Syria, with Arab financial support at a minimum, and the support of the Arab League substituting for an inability to get U.N. Security Council approval.
The Brookings plan may be the origin of Secretary of State John Kerry’s suggestion to the House Foreign Affairs Committee that Arab nations were willing to help bear the cost of military action against Syria.
The memo specified:
The Europeans and the Gulf Arabs have to be willing to pick up much of the tab. As noted above, rebuilding Syria after the events of 2011 and an invasion and occupation will be a major undertaking. Even if the reconstruction of Syria benefits from all the lessons learned in Iraq and suffers from none of its mistakes, it will still be enormously costly and well beyond Turkey’s means. Consequently, even though Turkey would be needed to put up much of the raw military muscle, it would be a mistake to ask them to shoulder the costs of that burden.
The advantage of the international plan, and the reason the Brookings Institution suggested it was “just right,” or “Goldilocks,” was that the U.S. would provide primarily logistics support and a few of the combat components involved in a war against Syria, but not all.
The memo also stressed some of the options “can be considered on an escalation ladder – some should be tried because they are less costly than more aggressive measures, and others should be pursued because they will be a component of a broader effort.”
In conclusion, the Brookings Institution memo cautioned against inaction: “As a final thought, it is always important to keep in mind that failing to act – even failing to decide – is an action and a decision.”
The four authors of the report include three from the Sabin Center for Middle East Policy, Daniel Byman, the director of research, along with Michael Doran and Kenneth M. Pollack, both senior fellows.
Pollack is the author of the 2005 book “The Persian Puzzle: The Conflict Between Iran and America.”
Salman Shaikh is the director of the Brookings Doha Center and a fellow at the Sabin Center. Prior to joining the Brookings Institution, he worked with the U.N. for nearly a decade.