Appearing on Al Jazeera’s Inside Story Americas last week, see here, or on the video above, Flynt laid out how badly the Obama administration’s Syria strategy has failed. Asked what would be a “good outcome” for the administration, Flynt recounts,
“My wife, Hillary, and I have been saying for more than two years now, from the get go, that U.S. support for the Syrian opposition was about two things. One was to use the opposition to bring down the Assad government, to (in their calculation) damage Iran’s regional position. Secondly, it was about coopting the Arab Awakening: to show that after the loss of pro-Western regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, a near-miss in Bahrain, that it wasn’t just authoritarian regimes that subordinated their foreign policies to the United States that were at risk from the Arab Awakening—that you could also bring down a regime that had a clear commitment to foreign policy independence.
That project of using the opposition for those purposes has failed. For the Administration to get to a ‘good outcome,’ it is going to have to admit that project has failed, stop trying to leverage regime change in Syria through the opposition, and get serious about a diplomatic process aimed at a power-sharing agreement between the Assad government—with Bashar al-Assad still as head of state—and the opposition. That’s the only way out of this—but the administration is going to have to retreat from some very foolish positions it’s taken in order to get there.”
Challenging a call for greater military support for Syrian oppositionists (including a U.S.-led no-fly zone) from former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Nancy Soderberg, Flynt asks, “What is the legal basis for the United States to impose a no-fly zone? What’s the legal basis for it? The Security Council is not going to approve it. You will have no legal basis for doing it. It’s an aggressive war.” Moreover, Flynt underscores,
“There’s no hard evidence [Ambassador Soderberg] can point to, no hard data—no polling data, no other kind of evidence—that the Syrian opposition commands the support of a majority of Syrians. There is objective data—polling data and other evidence—that the Assad government retains the support of significant parts of Syrian society. There is no reason to believe, other than wishful thinking, that [Assad’s] downfall is inevitable. In fact, I think he’s winning this struggle.”
Amplifying his analysis of Assad’s popular base, Flynt explains, “[Assad] is still seen as the best choice available—the best plausible choice available—by very significant parts of Syrian society. And people who support U.S. intervention in this conflict just blow past that reality.” In an exchange with Soderberg, Flynt notes that it’s not just Alawis and Christians who are “nervous” about what the Assad government’s disappearance would mean for them: “Sunnis who don’t want to live under al-Qa’ida are nervous, too.”
Picking up on this last point, Flynt reviews the historically demonstrated risks of U.S. support to violent jihadi extremists:
“We do this time and time again. We work with the Saudis and others to fund jihadi groups, which then turn back and bite us. We did it in Afghanistan and got al-Qa’ida and the Taliban as a result. We did it in Libya and got a dead ambassador, three other murdered official Americans as a result. And we’re doing it on a bigger scale here [in Syria]. When are we going to learn?”
As to whether it’s possible for the United States to pursue an “all-of-the-above” strategy, in which it simultaneously “saves the Syrian people while also striking a blow against the Iranians,” Flynt says,
“Strategy is always about choice. This administration is pursuing a certain set of objectives, as I described, which has led it to support this opposition, led other U.S. partners to support this opposition. The result is tens of thousands of dead Syrians. If you want to make a choice to help Syrians, then you would get serious about getting to Geneva as fast as you can, getting the opposition to the table to negotiate in a serious way with the Syrian government, headed by President Assad.”
Looking at prospects for serious diplomacy on Syria, Flynt argues that Russia, Iran, and China have been “much more forthright and proactive than the United States and its partners” in seeking a political solution:
“Iran, Russia, and other players that have, in popular parlance, been supporting the Assad government have been clear, from very early in this conflict, that they see a political settlement as the only way out of this. What they have said all along, though, is that they will not let the United States dictate not just pre-conditions for a political settlement, but in effect ‘pre-results,’ by requiring at the beginning that Assad go. And [with the U.S., along with some others,] saying that Iran can’t participate in the process—you can’t have a serious process without all the relevant players at the table.”
Public discourse since Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) returned from his drive-by photo op with Syrian “rebels”/kidnappers and the inability of the United States, Russia, and others to agree on the terms for a “Geneva II” conference suggest that the Obama administration remains very far from a real Syria strategy.
–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett