As bad as things are in Syria, they could get much worse once Bashar al-Assad's regime falls, as it eventually must. Like Iraq, Syria is a country divided by religion and ethnicity, held together by a brutal regime drawn from a minority element of the population. And as in Iraq, that minority has profited handsomely at the expense of the majority, meaning that it will not cede power easily and that when it finally does, at least some elements of the majority will see it as time for payback. In other words, Syria after Assad could very well be al Qaeda's dream come true.
Already, al Qaeda is positioning itself to engage in sectarian violence. As my Rand Corp. colleague Seth Jones has pointed out, al Qaeda makes up a small part of the resistance movement, but its strength appears to be rising. Since December, it has conducted roughly two dozen attacks, primarily against Syrian security service targets.
More ominously, al Qaeda may be poised to make inroads with more moderate fighters who are cash-strapped and desperate for military backing. Over the weekend, NBC's Richard Engel reported from Aleppo that one rebel brigade doesn't "have enough weapons to fight and they're dying." Al Qaeda, he said, has offered weapons and money, which the rebels are seriously considering. "They'd rather have support from the United States, the U.N., or Europe, but it hasn't come."
The State Department, through the U.S. Institute of Peace, is assisting Syrian émigrés and more recent refugees to plan for postwar reconstruction. This is certainly a useful exercise. Yet planning divorced from resources and power, as these efforts necessarily are, will likely have only a limited impact. What is more important for the U.S. government to do at this stage than drafting plans is forging relationships with those likely to next govern Syria. These relationships should be developed at multiple levels: diplomatic, covert, military, economic, and political.
To avoid Iraq-like sectarian violence in Syria, it will be important to work during the civil war to unify the opposition, marginalize al Qaeda and other extremist elements already increasingly active there, stimulate defections from the regime -- particularly from its Alawite core -- and encourage the inclusion of Alawites within the opposition leadership. I expect that Barack Obama's administration is already advising the Syrian opposition along these lines.
But the United States' ability to shape future events in Syria will only be as great as the support it gives the rebels in their fight to topple Assad. Decisive assistance right now will do more to forge a relationship with the eventual rulers of Syria than mere promises of postwar aid. The new Syrian leadership will be formed in the crucible of war, and in all likelihood it will prove resistant to postwar overtures by governments that did not support it from the outset. It would, for instance, be a great mistake to allow rebel leaders to conclude that al Qaeda did more to help their cause than the United States.
Having helped organize multinational military operations in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan, I would be the last to understate the complexities, dangers, and costs associated with any greater American involvement in Syria's civil war. For this reason, I do not believe the United States should become the chief standard-bearer for an external military intervention. I do believe, however, that the United States should up its assistance to the rebels to include lethal equipment and training. It should also remain open to even greater involvement if the Syrian opposition requests it and other regional powers call for and are prepared to participate in any such effort, much as it did in Libya when those conditions were met.