By Gary Anderson
Best Defense office of Syrian non-intervention
Syria's situation today is essentially the same as the one in El Salvador in 1991 -- and that is not necessarily a bad thing.
In El Salvador, the rebels had gained control of significant portion of the country, and were even operating openly in the major cities. As in Syria today, both sides in El Salvador had committed atrocities among noncombatants, although in both cases the government had created the most by using paramilitary death squads. In both cases, the opposing sides had reached a stalemate with only bloody attrition on the horizon. Why do I say that this is not necessarily a bad thing? Because the civil war in El Salvador turned out all right. An American brokered series of negotiations led to a coalition government which in turn resulted in fair elections. El Salvador today is a democracy, albeit an imperfect one. Contrast that with the carnage of Lebanon or even Iraq where America intervened militarily. Regime modification, rather than the carnage and anarchy of regime change, is still possible if we give diplomacy a chance.
In the case of El Salvador, the United States had backed the repressive government for a decade during the Cold War in fear of losing El Salvador to the communist bloc because the government seemed like the lesser of two evils. That changed with the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold war. At that point, the Salvadorian Junta decided to take American diplomatic advice and negotiate with the rebels. The window of opportunity opened in briefly, and both sides took it in hopes of avoiding more meaningless bloodshed. That fleeting window may be open in Syria today; but unlike 1991, we are not diplomatically engaged to be able to exploit it. By insisting on the total destruction of the Assad regime, we have abrogated any chance that we could take a meaningful role in encouraging a negotiated settlement of the conflict due to humanitarian concerns.
The real humanitarian disaster would come with a total government collapse and rebel victory because there are "at risk" minorities in the path of the mostly Sunni revolution. The Christians and the Shiite Alawites risk the fate of Iraq's Sunnis and Christians in the wake of the decapitation of the Sunni dominated Saddam Hussein regime. Like Iraq's Sunni minority, the Alawite minority in Syria will likely be targets of a revenge seeking Sunni majority. Realists in the Assad government, such as the recently departed Prime Minister, are probably now looking for an emergency landing and negotiations may be their only alternate runway.
As much as I hate to admit it, the Russians are probably right in trying to prevent an outright rebel victory. They see the unintended consequences more clearly than our neo-hawks who are urging military intervention. As always, the Russian reasoning is cold blooded and cynical, but those of us who are veterans of Lebanon, Somalia, Iraq, and Afghanistan know the horror that can ensue when governance breaks down completely. The best chance for a negotiated end to the civil war would be an American-Russian-Turkish sponsored cease fire and peace conference. The Russians have leverage with the Assad government, but the rebels know that American and Turkish economic and diplomatic support is needed for any reasonable attempt to build a post-Assad government that has real legitimacy beyond the Sunni neighbors in the region.
What might a Salvador-like solution look like? First, it would require a cease fire that would freeze the opponents in place. Second, it would call for an eventual reorganization of the security forces with rebel units integrated into the army and paramilitaries disbanded; it would avoid the total disintegration of the security forces that led to the ethnic cleansing and near genocide that plagued post Saddam Iraq. Third, it would require internationally monitored elections. Assad himself would undoubtedly have to go, but the remaining leadership of the Alawite faction could throw him under the bus gently with an exile in Iran or South Lebanon. The realists in the Assad regime might make that sacrifice to avoid the kind of anarchy that would come with a breakdown of governance.
There is an argument that we should do something in Syria, if only to have some leverage in what comes after; there is a certain amount of sense in that argument. However, before that something becomes drone strikes or a no fly zone, we ought to give diplomacy one more chance. El Salvador avoided the kind of bloodletting that we saw in Afghanistan and Iraq after regime decapitation. If the United States backs off on the demand for total regime change, we open our nation can have a critical role in a negotiated settlement. The only thing that gets wasted in trying diplomacy is words.
Gary Anderson is a retired Marine Corps Colonel. He has served as a U.N. Observer in Lebanon and as a liaison officer in Somalia. Most recently, he has been a governance advisor in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.