U.N. peacekeeping chief Hervé Ladsous declared on Tuesday what the world has long known: Syria is in a state of civil war. Ladsous noted that the government of Syria has lost "some large chunks of territory," and contended that we are seeing "a massive increase in the level of violence," with the mostly peaceful opposition increasingly fighting back. The world, however, is at a loss for what to do. U.N. and Arab League envoy Kofi Annan's peace plan lies stillborn, with the Syrian regime refusing to honor a ceasefire, the first and easiest step of Annan's diplomatic effort. Meanwhile, the international community remains reluctant to intervene decisively, even though more than 12,000 Syrians have died, tens of thousands more are refugees and internally displaced, and the Syrian regime is executing children and indiscriminately shelling civilians.
It is clear that the Obama administration has no appetite for another aggressive intervention in the Middle East. Washington's European allies, who led the campaign against Muammar al-Qaddafi in Libya, are consumed with their collapsing economies. Moscow, whose support is needed to make sanctions more comprehensive and to gain U.N. support for any intervention, openly backs the Bashar al-Assad regime and has made it clear it opposes support for the Syrian opposition. Indeed, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton claimed on Tuesday that Russia is sending attack helicopters to Syria -- hardly an action designed to promote peace.
Seemingly anything is better than Syria sliding into civil war, and now a tempting middle course has emerged: The Yemen Option.
As violence grew in Yemen in 2011, Washington worked with its regional allies to ease President Ali Abdullah Saleh out from his two-decade rule, with power going to his vice president, Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi. Using such a model for Syria -- so the theory goes -- the United States would broker a deal to ease Assad and perhaps a few of his top cronies out and pass power to another, less controversial member of his regime. Moscow has signaled it might be open to such a deal, which would require only hard diplomatic work, not force, to implement.
Such a Goldilocks approach, however, would neither satisfy the aspirations of the Syria people nor advance U.S. strategic interests. Syria, in the end, is fundamentally different from Yemen, and a negotiated solution cannot, and should not, allow Assad loyalists to remain in power. The better option is for the United States and its allies to back the Syrian opposition more aggressively.
Saleh ruled by playing off Yemen's many competing power centers rather than dominating the country. When the Arab Spring hit Yemen, the battle was between Saleh and rival Yemeni elites, and the resulting power handover -- though it didn't happen overnight -- simply replaced an unpopular leader with one who was less prominent, and thus not blamed for Yemen's many problems. Hadi, who had been vice president for more than 15 years, was hardly a new broom, and cooperation on key issues like counterterrorism seems to have improved during his first months as president.
But in Syria, the choice between the opposition and the regime is far starker. Assad heads a kleptocratic government dominated by the Alawite minority that has co-opted key power centers in Syria and ruled the rest of the country through fear. His father killed tens of thousands of Syrians to stay in power, and as the bloodshed rises, Bashar seems willing to do the same -- or even worse. Saleh's fall was hardly peaceful, with perhaps several thousand dying in the violence. But it was far less bloody than Syria and did not involve horrors like the deliberate murder of children. Syria is also Iran's closest ally, and the two regimes have moved closer in the past year. The Syrian opposition, though divided, is anti-Iranian and hostile to Hezbollah, Assad's ally. We don't know what kind of government the Syrian opposition would produce, or even if it can get its act together enough to produce a government should Assad fall, but it is unlikely to be as bad as the current regime in terms of human rights abuses and hostility to the United States. Still, handing over power to a Syrian apparatchik, which would be part of a Yemen-like solution, risks generating a clone of Assad's government with a different name.