In 20-plus years of government service, I saw more than a few reruns of the same movie, particularly when we faced a really tough challenge. "Give me some options!", "Yes, Mr./Madam Secretary. We'll get a memo to you shortly."
Most of the time, the movie ended more or less the same way. The options that might work involved serious political and strategic risks, the others cost much less but wouldn't work quickly -- or more likely, at all. And so followed the much-caricatured but very real three-option memo: (1) do everything (2) do nothing (3) muddle through as best you can.
And so we muddle. The Syrian uprising is a blood-soaked tragedy playing out on a big stage, in full view of the international community. A brutal, repressive regime willfully and indiscriminately kills its own people in a desperate -- and so far successful -- effort to stay in power. It encourages and looses upon the land sectarian hatreds and resentments that play out in a fury of murder, kidnappings, and torture.
The fecklessness and powerlessness of the United States, and the international community writ large, only becomes more evident as the horrors mount. We have seen an Arab League observer mission that actually legitimizes the regime, a "Friends of Syria" group that highlights the division rather than the consensus in the international community, a U.N. General Assembly resolution condemning the Syrian regime that only showcases the absence of tougher Security Council action because the Russians and Chinese won't play along, repeated (and empty calls) for President Bashar al-Assad's removal, and sanctions that hurt but can't topple the regime. We have also seen the so-far unsubstantiated hope that in some way, all of these pressures will combine to create circumstances for the proverbial inside job, in which some Alawi military commander -- worried about his own skin and a war crimes prosecution, or perhaps even in an enlightened moment about the future of his country -- somehow challenges the regime with armor in the streets of Damascus and takes out the Assads.
But muddle through we must. The takeaway from any honest and unforgiving analysis of Syria produces a series of options that range from bad to worse. So we continue to play at the margins. We can't significantly ease the humanitarian crisis, unify the opposition, and stop the killing -- let alone get rid of the Assads.
Syria has always been different. The minority character of the regime, with its mix of profound insecurity and grandiosity as the vanguard of Arab nationalism, separates it from all the other Arabs. In the late 1990s, during debates about whether to focus on the Israeli-Palestinian or Israeli-Syrian negotiations, I recall telling Secretary of State Madeleine Albright that Assad the elder was the Frank Sinatra of the peace process: He wouldn't make his peace with Israel and the West like Egypt's Anwar Sadat, King Hussein of Jordan, or even Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat had done before him -- he'd do it his own way. And as a consequence, the process and substance of an Israeli-Syrian peace deal on the Golan Heights would be different than the others, and much harder. Albright got it; I'm not sure anyone else did.
The rise of the Assads, and their view of Israel and America, was unique -- and the arc of their demise is likely to be as well. A year in, the uprisings in the Arab world have offered up three pathways for regime change, none of them appropriate to Syria.