The "skin in the game" argument, however, underestimates the centrality of politics. The real obstacle to coordination is that players in Syria do not particularly want to be coordinated: They have their own priorities, their own networks, and their own strategic visions. Some countries do not exert centralized control over the aid flowing from their territory -- Saudi Arabia, for example, has long been notorious for the uncoordinated private funds lavished on Islamist groups across the region. Many of the external backers view their putative partners as rivals.
Simply adding American arms to the bazaar without a new strategic vision would just bring one more bidder to the market. Instead, the United States needs to show these players why it's worthwhile for them to change the way they do business. That's going to require a convincing alternative strategy for accelerating a political transition in Syria in ways that would benefit the players involved more than what they are currently doing. At the moment, they have little confidence that the United States has a workable strategy that would justify surrendering any control over the aid flows to their own proxies. But this could change. Saudi Arabia and Qatar have repeatedly signaled that their provision of aid would benefit from Western "political backing, coordination, equipment and advice."
For any of this to matter strategically, all forms of aid need to be channeled through more effective opposition institutions. The United States and others have been working hard for months to encourage new organizations such as the Syrian Opposition Coalition and the Supreme Military Council, organized in December to coordinate rebel groups. But those efforts were inexplicably handicapped by the failure to immediately put significant new resources at their disposal to demonstrate their worth. And by most accounts, they have withered on the vine. Opposition figures complain about unfulfilled promises of financial or military support, while regional players have shown little interest in changing their current approach. For instance, one member of the Supreme Military Council recently complained that "we were promised that if we unified our ranks that we would be given legitimacy as well as salaries and heavy weapons, but from that day we have gotten nothing."
That can't happen again. Plans must be established in advance to distribute meaningful aid through these channels immediately after they are created. The failure to deliver on such promises badly damaged U.S. credibility and made it less likely that others would continue to cooperate. The push to coordinate aid flows must be accompanied by immediate, sizable, and strategically relevant material payoffs to demonstrate that the plan can work and is worth pursuing.
There's also a major role for planning and diplomacy. It is far too late to avoid a hard landing in Syria, but every effort must be made to ensure the rapid establishment of authority and order following Assad's fall. Syria cannot afford the years of drift that have bedeviled almost every other transitional Arab country. The moment of transition will be critical: If Assad falls without measures in place to produce a reasonably smooth transition, then fighting will likely continue for years. Efforts to build a representative and inclusive Syrian Opposition Coalition, with some degree of authority over armed groups and legitimacy on the ground, will pay dividends during a transition. Planning efforts, such as those developed by the U.S. Institute of Peace's "Day After" project, should also be supported politically and materially.
And then there's diplomacy. I've been skeptical about the value of the current U.N. diplomatic efforts since the collapse of Kofi Annan's mission, but I've been persuaded that they are nevertheless worth pursuing. Since a full military victory by either side seems highly unlikely, a diplomatic channel will almost certainly be necessary at some point. The tentative outreach between opposition coalition head Moaz al-Khatib and the Syrian regime are only the most public of the growing signs that parts of the opposition and parts of the Syrian regime are finally reaching the point where they could contemplate a deal. The diplomatic track is a very important element of a more credible political strategy for accelerating and managing the endgame. A combination of private "track two" meetings and ongoing shuttle diplomacy, whether by Brahimi or by other mediators, should conduct escalating and intense consultations toward this end.
Syria's Hard Landing also offers a number of thoughts on post-transition planning, International Criminal Court war crimes indictments, and transitional justice mechanisms. I have no illusions that any of these will quickly or decisively end the conflict. But I don't believe that military options would offer any easy solutions, either. I hope that these proposals at least spark some new thinking about a political strategy going forward.