With the increased likelihood that Assad will fall, even were he to hang on until a Gaddafi-style bitter end, pressure is mounting on the U.S., Europe, and Turkey inter alia to come up with a game plan for the post-endgame. The good news is progress is rapidly being made: stepped up aid from the U.S., aid from Europe, intelligence sharing among Turkey-Jordan-US-Europe, and direct training of Syrian opposition forces.
All of this may be enough to tip the balance against the Assad regime, leading to its end sooner rather than later. But it is not nearly enough to handle the widely expected chaos once the endgame is reached. What about playing the Russia card? The greatest fear is that extremist al-Qaeda affiliated groups will get their hands on a variety of weapons caches in the capital and elsewhere, let alone a full-blown civil war that would seriously destabilize the entire region. Special forces from the aforementioned countries will be needed, but they will likely be operating in an incredibly volatile if not thoroughly unstable environment.
To truly do the job a massive multilateral operation will be needed, and all the better in this era of instability and low legitimacy (of the West vis-a-vis the Middle East) if this force were to come from the UN. It would need to be the largest UN peacekeeping force in history–around 30,000 troops–and better still if it were a newer style integrated UN mission with a substantial civilian stabilization element. Western policymakers these days are regretting the degree to which the lack of a post-conflict stability operation in Libya led directly to the destabilizing chain of events in Mali. Increasingly the phrase on the lips of policymakers is “the day after,” usually in the form of a question about what should be done precisely at this juncture in Syria.
Indeed, there are two large prohibitive factors: the high probability of a Russian Security Council veto and serious doubts about whether enough countries would be willing (and able) to supply the necessary numbers of peacekeeping troops.
So here is the novel idea: give this one to Russia. The chances of overcoming both of these hurdles would be substantially increased by naming a Russian general/official as the head of the UN mission. Putting Russia in the lead is not as risky as one might think. Russia is rarely given enough respect or trust to be put in the lead of a multilateral operation, but it would probably take up the offer. With an affirmative response would likely come a commitment of several thousand Russian troops. Such a development would likely unnerve many a western country, which in turn would motivate them to commit enough troops on their own such that overall there would be a good deal more non Russian troops than Russian troops.
Yes, Russia for some time has been virtually strategically irrelevant, save for messing with countries that used to be part of the USSR and playing a spoiler role on the UN Security Council. It has been sufficiently irresponsible in recent years as to deserve a cold shoulder from the U.S. and Europe. But the move suggested here could potentially put such a spotlight on Russia that Putin and Co. might well start to make an actual contribution to global order. Such an outcome would be tantamount to a reset of the reset of the reset. Except this one might even work, even in light of the strategic distrust among the various contributors to such an operation.
Remember the infamous race to the Pristina airport at the end of the NATO bombing in Kosovo in 1999? Put it this way, the eventual viability of the operation proposed here will only work if cool heads like British General Mike Jackson are commanding the western troops involved instead of less than cool heads like General Wesley Clark, who ordered Jackson to use force to prevent the Russians from occupying the airport (Jackson refused, telling Clark he was not about to start World War III). The strategic imperative in Syria is the same for Russia, Europe, Turkey, and the U.S. inter alia. The joint need to prevent a bloodbath cum civil/regional war–plus a little hindsight back to the Kosovo War aftermath–should overcome any outdated sensitivities to working hand-in-hand with Russia. A more stable Middle East and a more reliable Russia just might result.
The most practical suggestion for an alternative way forward on Syria, that also involves a diplomatic device for getting Russia on board, has been offered by Ed Joseph and Chris Chivvis. They start from the premise of what it would take to achieve Russian cooperation for a forceful intervention to remove the Assad regime directly. I find their approach viable, though I start from a different premise: what the international community should do to prevent a regional war and even a larger humanitarian crisis once the Assad regime is removed by the Syrian opposition forces (with close to the current level of assistance from the international community).
Our approaches, however, are consistent as one of these sage analysts has confirmed. I concur with their preference for keeping the U.S. role to a minimum on either a NATO or UN intervention, to the degree this is practical. Neither they nor I buy the argument for opposing any kind of intervention, as there is more than an even chance that the opposition will eventually overthrow the regime; which then will devolve into a fight between disparate elements of the opposition forces with different state sponsors that would then be tempted to intervene themselves. A sectarian regional war could be the result, as already Hezbollah has attacked Sunni Syrian opposition fighters. This has governments around the region on high alert and already planning for their individual role in the Syrian endgame. Having already spilled over its borders, we may not be calling this a Syrian civil war for much longer.
As much as American policymakers are as wary of a new intervention as the American public is, it is in our national security interest to play an effective supportive role alongside an array of other international partners on a multilateral mission that is jointly well planned and sufficiently funded to maximize efficacy. This is the essence of the Obama Doctrine: only be unilateral when you have to; act in multilateral fashion whenever possible.