The New Republic wouldn’t be soliciting my take if there was an easy solution to this policy conundrum. Indeed, Syria is such a tough nut to crack that I fear the best approach to the problem is to apply a Sherlock Holmes-style logic to it. When all of the impossible policy choices have been eliminated, only the improbable ones—however unpalatable they might be—are left to mull over.
Read the whole thing: I confess to not being happy with either of my suggested policies (buy off the Russians; arm the Free Syrian Army), but as I conclude, "the sad truth is that there is no good outcome, only different shades of terrible."
For some other policy suggestions, see Daniel Serwer and Caitlin Fitzgerald on the reverting-to-nonviolence option. This argument does have some support in the academic literature -- but I also think this option has been overtaken by events.
On the opposite side of the spectrum. I'd also recommend reading Dan Trombly's extended realpolitik cost-benefit analysis of myriad options and policy contingencies for Syria. His key paragraph:
The much more unpleasant strategic reality is that, whether foreign forces intervene or not, the U.S. receives little reward from hastening Assad’s downfall. An embattled Assad imposes just the same limitations on Syrian and Iranian threats to U.S. interests. Resources will have to be diverted from the proxies Iran supports through Syria to Syria itself as Iran tries to maintain its host’s viability. The loss of Assad’s regime would mean a rapid retrenchment in Iranian support, for sure, but this would likely be replaced by a proxy campaign against Syria’s new government and its foreign backers, or a redeployment of IRGC/QF assets to other theaters, probably against the U.S (if not both). Given that rapidly overthrowing Assad without major overt military action from a broad coalition of forces is a pipe dream anyway, the United States should consider contingency plans in which it works through, rather than against, the specter of protracted civil war. To be able to bleed Iran in Syria would, relative to the risks involved, be a far more significant strategic opportunity against Iranian power relative to the investment and risk than would be a major overt campaign to overthrow Assad outright. The more blood and treasure Iran loses in Syria – even if Assad stays in power longer – the weaker Iran will be.
This is cold -- but in the absence of rapid regime change, it's also spot-on. My only point of disagreement with Trombly is that he thinks supporting/arming/training the FSA is a bad idea, while I think it's a surefire way to achieve his preferred outcome. This wasn't the logic I used in my TNR essay, and it's one I'm reluctant to voice, but there it is.
What do you think?