The Least Bad Option

Let's face it, there are no good solutions to the mess in Syria.

Are you okay with where you're at on Syria? I know that I'm not. A senior State Department official told me that the Obama administration isn't either. Almost everyone I've spoken to about Syria in the last few days has thrown up their hands and said, "There's no good solution." It may be that the only people who are comfortable with their position are the cynics in Russia and China who are prepared to let Syrian President Bashar al-Assad grind the opposition to powder, and Senator John McCain, who wants NATO to take out Damascus.

It's so much easier to say what won't work in Syria than what will. The Libya intervention-style air campaign that McCain advocates is a bad idea for reasons which a great many people, myself included, have enumerated. In any case, it's not going to happen, because no one who could do it -- the United States, Europe, even Turkey or the Gulf states -- has any appetite for a second Libya. If you haven't heard a syllable recently out of Samantha Power, the chief advocate in the White House for humanitarian intervention, it's probably because such an intervention is simply not in the cards.

But what is in the cards? Diplomacy? Many of us who favored intervention in Libya, but not Syria, have hoped that diplomatic pressure might tip the scales inside Syria and force Assad to step down. The Obama administration backed a U.N. Security Council resolution which would have compelled Assad to step down, transferring power to an interim regime and initiating a political dialogue with all elements of Syrian society. Russia and China vetoed the resolution, though Damascus would almost certainly have shrugged off the demand in any case. Now the U.N. has backed a new diplomatic effort by former Secretary General Kofi Annan, and Assad has formally accepted the terms, which require him to impose a cease-fire and embrace an "inclusive, Syrian-led political process" to address the demands of the opposition. But Syrian security forces have continued firing on civilians in direct contradiction of the Annan plan's terms; it's clear by now that Assad will leave office only if he feels sure that the alternative is a bullet in his head. The real danger is that he will comply with the peace plan just enough to further divide the international community.

So there won't be an intervention or, in all likelihood, a diplomatic deus ex machina. What's in between those two extremes? Last week, the Obama administration announced that, along with Turkey, it would ship communications equipment and other "nonlethal" gear to armed rebels inside Syria. (Saudi Arabia and Qatar have already begun to supply the rebels with weapons.) This is an important shift in policy, since the equipment would permit rebels militias to securely communicate with one another. Such gear may be nonlethal, but it's still military. How far is the White House prepared to go in helping the Free Syrian Army, as the military opposition calls itself? For the moment, it seems, not much further. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have both said that the Free Syrian Army and the civilian opposition, gathered under the umbrella of the Syrian National Council (SNC), must demonstrate far more unity and coherence in order to become a legitimate alternative to the Assad regime, and thus conduits for more substantial aid. At a recent meeting in Istanbul, the political opposition did unite behind the SNC -- except for the Kurds, who walked out.

The administration is right to insist that the militias inside Syria at least acknowledge the legitimacy of the political leadership, and that the SNC get its act together. In Libya, after all, NATO was able to intervene on behalf of the Transitional National Council, which functioned  as an inclusive, nonsectarian, secular government-in-exile. What's more, journalists and others had access to the Libyan rebels, and so could answer the question of just who they were -- which is not the case in Syria. Even so, the militias which fought the war in Libya began to behave like miniature sovereigns soon after Muammar al-Qaddafi was killed. A post-Assad Syria with no recognized political authority might prove even more violent and chaotic than Libya has, leaving the country carved up into sectarian fiefs.

But how much coherence is fair to require as a precondition for further help? A recent report by the Institute for the Study of War points out that "insurgencies are inherently decentralized" and argues that Syria's armed opposition "has shown a propensity for organization at the local level." The report concludes that "delaying policy decisions before the opposition has coalesced around a viable alternative government is tantamount to insisting that the revolution succeed fully before it receives practical or military assistance."

The Friends of Syria, an organization of over 60 nations seeking to resolve the conflict there, is meeting this weekend in Istanbul, and should work actively both to help the civilian opposition hang together and to bind the militias inside Syria to the SNC -- rather than waiting for these forces to gel. (Giving the rebels satellite phones is, of course, one way to do just that.) And then what? White House officials have not wanted to say what they would do once the opposition begins to present a united front -- perhaps in part because they don't know. But reports that the rebels are literally running out of bullets argue that if outsiders don't act fast, there will be no insurgency to support -- at which point, Assad will be able to crush his opponents with impunity.

One person I spoke to who does have a plan is a former government official with extensive experience in Syria. The opposition, he argues, needs not just weapons but "a comprehensive military and civilian battle plan" to defeat Assad. He envisions a multilateral effort in which the United States would provide not just communications technology but real-time military intelligence to help the rebels respond to government troop movements. Gulf states would provide the bulk of the weapons and funds; the Jordanians might provide special forces to work closely with the militia; Turkey would provide the staging ground itself as well as other forms of aid; and diplomats would give strategic guidance to the SNC.

Such an effort would look less like the bombing campaign in Libya and more like, well, the  CIA-sponsored campaign to arm and train the mujahideen who fought the Soviets in Afghanistan. This is, of course, not a terribly encouraging analogy, since yesterday's anti-Soviet warriors became today's anti-American Taliban. We need no better reminder of the unintended consequences of supporting foreign insurgencies. But he did not shy away from the comparison. "We need to do what we did under Reagan," he said, "which is to actively support these insurgencies." But, he adds, we need to know who we are working with, to set out clear standards of behavior and to condition our help on maintaining those standards -- as we did not do in Afghanistan. And we need to be careful that the international effort doesn't exacerbate the problem: The Saudis, for example, are likely to bring an overtly sectarian agenda to Syria. The effort would be better off with a bigger role for the Turks, and a smaller one for the Saudis.

The neo-mujahideen strategy has plenty of problems -- beyond the possibility of a Frankenstein insurgency. It will take months to organize, and Assad will keep targeting civilians in the meanwhile. Assad's security forces may respond to a more robust military opposition by further ramping up the killing machine. And providing a safe haven along the northern border with Turkey offers very little comfort to either civilians or rebels in western cities like Hama or Homs, which border on Lebanon, or southern ones like Deraa, which is close to Jordan. And neither of those countries is prepared to host the insurgency.

But there are no good solutions; only less bad ones. And Assad's evident willingness to kill his opponents, and his opponents' willingness to keep fighting, or even protesting, despite the likelihood of being killed, compels outsiders to urgently devise and implement a least-bad solution rather than wait for the opposition to demonstrate that it deserves support. I'm open to a better suggestion. Does anyone have one?

JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images

Terms of Engagement

Pandering in Paris

With President Nicolas Sarkozy closing the gap in the run up to elections, challenger Francois Hollande is falling back on the tired, old Socialist battle cry.

"Clomp! CLOMP! Clomp! CLOMP!"" That's the sound of French President Nicolas Sarkozy's high-heeled boots as they grow closer, closer, closer to Francois Hollande, the gentle lamb offered up by the hapless Socialist Party in next month's presidential election. Six months ago, Hollande lead Sarkozy 39 percent to 24 percent in the polls. Four months ago, it was 31.5 percent to 26 percent. And earlier this week, it was...Sarko, 28.5 percent, Hollande, 27 percent. Hollande still holds a strong lead in a hypothetical run-off between the two men, but Socialist partisans are beginning to tremble. Last week, the president debated Laurent Fabius, a leading Socialist standard-bearer, on television. "Sarko destroyed him," a leftist policy intellectual said to me grimly. Clomp!

Much of the press attention here has been focused on Sarkozy's utterly shameless courtship of France's xenophobic voters, most of them followers of the far-right National Front. In the debate with Fabius, Sarkozy said that France has too many foreigners, and repeated a proposal he had made to cut the annual number of legal immigrants almost in half. After National Front leader Marine Le Pen made the absurd suggestion that all meat in the Paris region was being slaughtered according to Islamic rules, known as halal, Sarkozy declared, with a straight face, that "the biggest concern of French people is halal meat." The New York Times accused Sarkozy of taking "the low road" in a way that will be "damaging to French society," if not necessarily to his own electoral prospects.

But the low road is where Sarkozy lives. He made a name for himself in 2005 by calling immigrant rioters racaille, or "scum," and more recently proposed deporting gypsies from France. Sarkozy is, in American terms, a little bit of Rudy Giuliani and a great deal of Richard Nixon. "The French recognize in him something that is in them, too," says Marc Weitzmann, a French novelist whose work captures modern political life. "That's why the French vote for him, and hate him at the same time."

But what's wrong with the Socialists? In 2007, they nominated Segolene Royale, an eccentric figure whom Sarkozy feasted off in the presidential debates. Hollande is, bizarrely, her ex-unmarried-spouse. He is, however, a much better candidate -- a careful thinker and a gentleman, witty and wry in the French manner. The one thing he lacks, unfortunately, is the all-important gift for the visceral -- this in the face of a man, Sarkozy, with a dark genius for the lowest common denominator. Hollande has been coasting on the public's overwhelming desire to get rid of Sarkozy, but it now seems that he won't be able to coast all the way to the Elysée.

This time around, France is in the midst of an economic crisis for which Hollande must come up with convincing answers if he is to close the sale with voters. France's unemployment rate is hovering around 10 percent, and its growth rate is around zero. Earlier this year, Standard & Poor downgraded France's credit rating (along with that of eight other European countries). Sarkozy ran in 2007 as a man prepared to wrench France into the future, and he still enjoys that reputation. Hollande, too, has tried to present himself as a modernizer and a pragmatist. "He's not stuck in nostalgia for the 20th century, or the 19th century for that matter," as one Socialist leader recently put it. His platform emphasizes fiscal prudence, economic growth and relatively modest expansion of the public sector (through he plans to hire 60,000 educators).

That is, in effect, one side of his reaction to France's predicament. But it is the quieter side. In public, he is the tribune of public outrage over the lords of finance. At his first campaign rally in January, Hollande declared that his "real adversary" was not Sarkozy but rather the "faceless rulers" of global finance. And when pushed into a corner, he has darted left. In late February, with Sarko closing in, Hollande unveiled a proposal to create a new tax bracket for those annually making in excess of 1 million euros, or $1.3 million, with a marginal tax rate of 75 percent. Even Ed Miliband, the leader of Britain's Labor Party, blanched at the proposal. Hollande seemed to be playing to French resentment of capitalism and wealth as cynically as Sarkozy was with the immigrant issue. Having spooked the forces of finance, the Socialists quickly backpedaled by having Fabius declare that the new tax rate would be probably just a temporary measure.

France does have an economic justice problem: According to Julia Cagé, an economist with the Ecole D'Economie in Paris, the wealthiest 5 percent of French citizens pay taxes at a lower rate than the very poor. Sarkozy cut taxes on the rich, and continues to defend their privileges, thus creating a very large opening for a populist attack (or "class warfare," as we say on this side of the Atlantic). But France also has a competitiveness problem, and Sarkozy at least preaches the virtue of the "German model" of liberalized labor markets as a means of giving the country an economic jolt.

Hollande favors cutting taxes on small business -- a good idea -- and establishing a public investment bank to direct funds to potential growth sectors, a maybe not-so-good idea. But he has advocated partially rolling back increases in the retirement age mandated by Sarkozy, and he has supported the 35-hour work week, the Socialists' poisoned gift to the French economy. And he has rarely spoken about labor market reforms, despite the growing gap between French productivity and that of Germany and other northern countries. I asked several people to explain Hollande's "contract of generations" designed to spur youth employment, but none of them had heard of it, and the language is so fuzzy I couldn't make any sense of it.

Hollande, like Sarkozy, is playing to his base, and probably he's wise to do so. France's allergy to the marketplace really is remarkable. In the last election, Segolene Royale was heard to say something nice about the British economic model, and then had to defend herself from allegations -- certainly unfair -- that she was a convert to "liberalism." As Nicholas Dungan, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, puts it, the French generally -- and the Socialists above all -- "don't consider the markets to have any valuable message to convey." Market failure, that is, may trigger calls for more spending and higher taxes, but not for market reform. Dungan takes the view that the deep French commitment to social solidarity, Fraternite, recoils at the creative destruction of capitalism.

It all kind of makes one yearn for Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former head of the International Monetary Fund and Socialist hero, whose political prospects evaporated after he was accused of raping a hotel maid in New York. Had he run for the presidency, Strauss-Kahn might have been able to convince the French that economic liberalism was not incompatible with social justice, and that the accumulation of wealth was not inimical to broad economic growth. Without him, the Socialists have reverted to their instincts.

And what if Hollande loses? What if, that is, the Socialists can't beat the most hated leader in modern French history at a moment when the economy is failing and the very concept of Europe, itself a great French legacy, is in danger of collapsing? Would that force a shift to the center, as with Tony Blair's Labor Party? (Blair, by the way, is supporting Sarkozy.) That seems unlikely. Martine Aubry, who lost out in the Socialist Party's nominating contest, derided Hollande as a "soft Socialist." Defeat would probably bolster those who argue for a more blunt appeal to French workers, and to French anger at globalization and liberalism.

Defeat, that is, could turn nostalgia for the 20th century, or even for the 19th, into the Socialist's platform. A Sarko victory might also enrage the students and workers who view him as the handmaiden of French plutocracy, and could plunge France into the kind of social unrest which is becoming endemic across Europe. And since France's president only knows one way to deal with disorder, that French solidarity could be put to a very grave test.