by David Avital and Marc Engberg
Russian President Vladimir Putin recently stated that the U.S. lacks a coherent Syria policy and is instead adopting a “wait and see” approach which will not help to resolve the Syrian civil war. His argument that the U.S. has yet to produce a practical alternative to the regime seems accurate and should prompt the White House to address precisely that issue.
It is clear that the Obama administration, by not rushing to a hasty solution on Syria, has learned its lesson from previous U.S. experiences in the region and should be commended for it. Past attempts at wholesale regime change which destroy institutions as well as supporting an apparent coalition without laying out an exit strategy have been enough to make this administration cautious, refraining from formulating a policy without calculating all of the potential consequences of its actions.
By not acting impulsively (despite setting a “redline”) and aiming to better understand the demographics of Syria, which are even more complex and fractured than those of Iraq or Egypt, the administration exhibited laudable maturity and resilience, despite mounting political pressure at home and abroad. However, inaction is not a policy in itself, and, as the clock continues to tick, such passivity could lead to a power vacuum ready to be filled by outside, and not always friendly, actors (read Russia and Iran). There is an urgent need to create a coherent and practical alternative, one which considers the political and practical realities of the country, the interests of neighboring nations, and the legitimate opposition groups who will ultimately respect Syria’s minorities.
It is apparent, at this moment, that any political solution for Syria will not include Bashar al-Assad remaining in power, as has been stated and conditioned by the Saudis, the Turks, other Arab League members, some European leaders, and by some of the extreme minorities in Syria. It is clear that Assad understands he will have to step aside willingly for the sake of keeping his regime intact. The focus of the administration should be on looking for alternatives to Bashar al-Assad while maintaining the integrity of the institutions of the Syrian state, including civil and security agencies. One of the potential alternatives who should be considered and looked at is Rifaat al-Assad, or someone of his ilk. Rifaat al-Assad, a leading opposition figure who was exiled from Syria 30 years ago, represents the potential for creating an interim political solution which would achieve the objective of a peaceful transition.
It is likely that all the nations with vested interests in Syria, as well as the moderate opposition (the ones who will respect minority rights and religious freedom), will agree to Rifaat as an interim solution, especially while no other viable alternative has emerged. Rifaat al-Assad, who has been in opposition, first to his brother, Hafez, and, now, to his nephew, Bashar, is in great physical shape and, more importantly, possesses an important and essential asset within Syria itself. Many of his army officers still live in Syria, and members of his sect and family still hold key positions in various government institutions and the armed forces. Although the name al-Assad may confuse some, Rifaat is a clear opposition figure (he was denied the right to return to Syria for his own mother’s funeral) and an alternative who may be the one who can stabilize Syria and lead the country into a new phase of political reform. While it is not a perfect solution, Rifaat al-Assad represents a creative and practical alternative which might lend the administration a reputation for thinking outside the box and providing direction for a solution.
The U.S. should be at the table in developing a political transition for Syria together with the Russians, Saudis, Turks, and Iranians. Collaboration with the Russians proved to be beneficial and led to success on the chemical disarmament of Syria. The U.S. should take the lead on proposing Rifaat al-Assad, or another like him, as the interim president of Syria and convincing the others at the table of the viability and shared benefit of this outcome. It is evident to the Syrian people themselves, including all reasonable opposition groups, that the alternative to a political solution is a protraction of the civil war and an indefinite continuation of the bloodshed and displacement it has left in its wake. What Syria needs is a broad-based transitional coalition government which maintains institutions (learning from missteps in Iraq) and takes more measured, gradual steps towards democratic change (learning from missteps Egypt).
Stability and security in Syria are in the United States’ national interest. This is the only acceptable outcome. Removing Bashar al-Assad and installing Rifaat al-Assad as interim president for a stabilizing period of 2-3 years with a view to democratic elections provides the best circumstances for achieving this outcome.
American Diplomacy is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to American Diplomacy.
David Avital is the CEO and Founder of the New York-headquartered MTP Investment Group and has experience with areas of investment ranging from real estate to technology. As a businessman turned philanthropist, David is actively engaged in a variety of nonprofit organizations, think tanks, and policy initiatives primarily centered on issues of conflict resolution and the promotion of peaceful coexistence of communities in conflict. His association with think tanks and policy initiatives provides him with the tools that in turn help to enhance policy change within the U.S. government and beyond. David, together with the organizations with which he is associated, is able to make true change and real impact on people’s lives. These organizations include Save a Child’s Heart, The Common Good, One Voice Movement, American Friends of the Open University, American Friends of Tel Aviv University, Israel Policy Forum/Center for American Progress, J Street, and the Institute for National Security Studies
Marc Engberg is a specialist on democratic transitions in Russia and the former Soviet Union. He holds an M.A. from Stanford University in Russian, East European, & Eurasian Studies.