I like to argue alternative viewpoints for fun.
As Lebanon descended into chaos in 1986, the Syrian government made the decision to reimpose its hegemonic influences over the fractured nation. Reestablishing control over many areas which they had previously occupied prior to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, the Syrian military managed to install order on the streets of Beirut. Damascus invited Western governments bring their consulates back to Beirut, promised to ensure the security of these institutions, and began working to secure the release of Western citizens held captive by terrorist organization. During and this time period, scholars often used the term Pax Syriana to describe the Syrian government's various efforts to ensure tranquility in Lebanon. Today, Syria plays an even more important role in the dynamics of Middle Eastern security: since the beginning of its civil war, the nation has become a petri dish for terrorism to flourish in. Emboldened by its successes in the nation, the Islamic State has spread into Iraq. Population migrations have place tremendous pressure on nations like Lebanon and Jordan. Even Israel is beginning to feel its security become threatened, as al-Nusra purportedly controls the Quneitra border crossing and has been attacking parts of the Golan Heights. With Syria as the epicenter for a transnational wave of insecurity, it has become clear that Western nations must act to preserve regional stability by ensuring Assad's victory over non-Kurdish areas of his country. Peace in Syria means peace by Syria.
No doubt, Bashar al-Assad is a brutal thug who has perpetrated a wide score of reprehensible atrocities against his own citizens. He has close ties with the Iranian government, with his government acting as a leg in Iran's dream of pursuing regional hegemony. However, when faced with an increasingly complex situation which continues to deteriorate on a daily basis, the United States must decide between an unattainable ideal, a bearable reality, or an intolerable onslaught of unmanageable instability which tugs at structures underpinning the fragile stability of many Middle Eastern nations.
Think back to Reagan's time in office. By no means will I lionize him as the best president in American history, but his Middle Eastern policy was one of off shore balancing. Instead of directly intervening with American forces, Reagan sought to create a balance of power between Arab powers and Iran. Saving U.S. military forces to only intervene when situations demanded their presence, such as Operation Earnest Will to ensure freedom of navigation in the Persian Gulf, America funneled weapons and information to dubious dictators. Most notably, Saddam during the extent of his war with Iran. The one instance where we deployed U.S. forces to conduct operations operations became Reagan's greatest regret. No, the 1980s did not see a Middle East which reflected American values in earnest. But neither was it an insufferable menace. The threat of Communist influence was effectively neutered, Israel's security was secure as nations quarreled among themselves, and the U.S. Navy ensured that oil continued to flow unimpeded.
Perhaps we ought to return to this policy, thereby recognizing limits to American influence. We cannot force an idea upon a people; we cannot verify the motivations of every group; we cannot spread democracy by the sword. But we can support actors who support our long term interests. No doubt, some of these actors will possess certain traits we value as a society, and we should jump at the chance to back them politically, economically, and military. The Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq exemplifies a quasi-state which expounds democratic virtues and holds a mutual interest in blunting the expansion of the Islamic State and al-Nusra. Others, however, do not share our moral ideals, but rather our security goals. Assad, for his brusque methods, is potentially a security partner falling under this umbrella.
We don't necessarily have to give him advanced weapon systems, either. Our goal should be to ensure a very long, slow, grinding victory which takes many years and weakens Assad. The end result would actually be less Iranian influence emanating from the country, as the governing body in Damascus would be less powerful. U.S. intelligence agencies could provide intelligence support to Assad, allowing him to more effectively combat groups in the nation. Our efforts ought to be primarily focused on providing him with information about al-Nusra, the Islamic State, and other terrorist groups. We've already begun to this, too. According to the International Business Times, we've been supplying Assad with information about the whereabouts of Islamic State leaders. Though it may be difficult logistically, we should attempt to expand our intelligence operations in Syria to include information about other terrorist organizations as well.
Granted, we can identify three problems with this partnership: First, Assad's regime is close to Tehran. Iran has gone to great lengths to ensure that their ally remains afloat. Iran's 'Black Navy' of oil tankers have bypassed Western sanctions and fueled the Syrian war machine. By large, this shipments have been pro bono. The Hezbollah proxy has pushed hard to secure Syrian positions in the country and is easily one of the most effective combat forces in the country right now. Iran recognizes that Syria will not pay them back fully, but their role in Iranian strategy is indispensable. Likely, their relationship will emerge stronger from the ashes of conflict if Assad wins. Nations tend to reciprocate good deeds with more good deeds As Kevin Hagan noted in his Naval Post Graduate thesis, reciprocity is a powerful element in international affairs. It's unlikely Syria will simply forget the support Iran lent, they'll repay that in whatever way they can.
However, even if Assad wins the civil war, it's very likely that he'll be weakened for at least the near future. His efforts will be concentrated in dealing with a low level insurgency which will inevitably remain. An insurgency rarely ends with one decisive military victory. Insurgencies are resilient. The death of a rebellion is prolonged, with its dying gasps lasting years. As Ben Connable wrote in 2010, the average insurgency lasts ten years. This fact highlights why Western governments ought to support Assad. They do not end when one belligerent is defeated The post-government segment of civil conflict sees temporary alliances crumble as competing groups seek to fill the power vacuum created by the despot's fall. Even the Free Syrian Army and Syrian Revolutionary Front lack the numbers to establish stability across the entire nation.
Simply giving the mantle to a pro-Western government doesn't ensure stability. See Libya, which despite U.S. funding and support, still struggles to contend with internal forces resisting its rule. Islamist militants have seized Tripoli's major airport and demanded that the government be replaced with the previous national congress, which contained an Islamist majority. There isn't much reason to believe that Syria, which features even less coordination among rebel groups, will end much differently. U.S. security practitioners have noted this. General Martin Dempsey, who serves as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has resisted Congressional efforts to provide support for rebel groups. During Congressional testimony, he stated that there weren't any groups which could truly benefit our interests if funded. As Americans, we tend to idealize the power of revolution because our own ended quite successfully. But most uprisings throughout history are either crushed or usher in an even worse force.
The second issue Western governments face by supporting Assad is potential backlash by Kurdish elements. Relieving pressure on Assad could strain our relationship with a phenomenal ally. However, there are two ways to remedy this. First, we can withhold information about Kurdish groups in Syria. Secondly, we can fund them (I am not entirely sure why Dempsy is against supporting Kurdish groups, even if they do suffer from internal divisions). We know the Kurds can act as a counter weight to Iranian influence, and we also know they are capable of governance. Therefore, we don't have to necessarily allow Assad to win over these areas. They can remain functionally independent, while Assad retains enough control over the rest of the country to prevent the creation of terrorist quasi-states.
Finally, the third issue faced by Western governments is a propaganda loss. Western support of a dictator is bound to create anti-American sediment in many Syrians. It's understandable, too. I cannot blame a young Syrian for joining a transnational terrorist movement if he sees American support of a brutal despot oppressing his people. However, at the same time, the threat of recruitment will be offset by the diminished threat groups will pose if they are driven out by Syria. As Caleb has told me in private conversations, Iraq will be hard pressed to defeat the Islamic State so long as their logistical base remains in Syria. Cutting off the Islamic State at its root will detrimentally affect their other operations elsewhere, including Iraq.
Assad, whether we like him or not, remains Syria's best bet for stability. If his regime collapses, then the only entity capable of fighting terrorist organizations disappears from the fight.. Our motto in Syria must not be regime change or democracy. It has to be Pax Syriana.