January 31, 2012
The United States faces a terrible conundrum regarding Syria. The Obama administration wants the regime of Bashar al-Assad gone, but it does not want to see the unfolding of the very processes—conflict and possible international intervention—that seem to be emerging as the only viable means to achieve that.
This means that the United States has condemned itself to thus far playing an almost entirely reactive role, even in the context of the limited means at its disposal to influence events in Syria. However, standing on the sidelines and warning all players not to do what they are already doing is not going to work.
… A civil war in Syria would likely have a strongly sectarian character and the potential to spill over into neighboring states such as Lebanon and Iraq, posing a significant threat to regional stability. It could also prove a protracted, bloody mess.
At least as troubling from Washington’s perspective is that the outcome is very uncertain. What the aftermath would look like is even more unclear than it was in Libya, where the stakes were considerably lower. The possibilities of stalemate, regional conflict, de facto partition, communal cleansing, waves of refugees, empowerment of extremists and other grim scenarios all inform a strong American desire not to see the emergence of civil war in Syria.
… But none of these actors are in control of events on the ground, which seem to be moving inexorably toward intensified armed conflict and away from a political battle. The regime has presented the Syrians in general, as well as the international community, with a binary choice: Take us as is, or face an open-ended conflict with uncertain outcomes.