What Are the Syrian Options?

Official Washington is in a blind rage over Russia’s military intervention in Syria in support of the Assad regime, but the changed dynamic may offer useful options if U.S. policymakers can just look clearly at the crisis, as ex-CIA official Graham E. Fuller explains.

By Graham E. Fuller

With the arrival of Russian forces on the scene the Syrian situation has now grown unbearably complicated. Among the totality of players on the scene, Washington hates them all.

The U.S. has long detested Assad father and son; for years it has attempted to weaken and even dislodge them through various strategems, especially in the George W. Bush years. They have been a leading symbol of resistance to American domination in the Middle East and to expansion of Israeli power; they have been leading supporters of the Palestinians, and maintained the longest standing alliance of any in the Middle East in their ties with Iran, for over 35 years.

A scene of destruction after an aerial bombing in Azaz, Syria, Aug. 16, 2012. (U.S. government photo)

A scene of destruction after an aerial bombing in Azaz, Syria, Aug. 16, 2012. (U.S. government photo)

And ever since the Iranian Revolution the U.S. has equally vigorously fought Iranian influence anywhere in the Middle East. For Washington, the fall of Assad was actually more about Iran than it was about Syria.

But now, for far more compelling reasons, the U.S. has come to perceive ISIS, (the “Islamic State”) as the single biggest regional threat and supporter of jihadi violence. Yet ISIS is also fighting Assad. Washington reluctantly concluded that an ISIS victory in Syria, and its attendant chaos, would be far worse than Assad. Same goes for al-Nusra Front, a major jihadi force battling Assad; it just happens to be closely affiliated with Al Qaeda.

And now Russia is weighing in with significant new military presence in Syria, first and foremost to prevent the collapse of the Assad regime against its fundamentalist enemies. Moscow will now take on almost all opposition to Assad; as such it also strongly seeks to weaken ISIS, which it has greater reason to fear than does the U.S., given Russia’s large and restive Muslim population. But Washington doesn’t want to see Russia in Syria either, and would prefer to prevent any significant Russian presence in the area.

Other “allies” on Syria include Turkey whose Syrian policies under Erdogan have gone off the rails, as Ankara is now more intent on checkmating the Kurds (even the broad-based moderate liberal Kurdish HDP party at home) than on checking radical jihadi forces in Syria.

And then there is Saudi Arabia whose obsession to overthrow Assad and check Iran has driven it to exploit the scourge of ugly sectarianism in the region to the detriment of nearly everyone. Riyadh has also launched a brutal and unwinnable war in Yemen; indeed, Washington is one of the long-term losers through association with indiscriminate Saudi bombing campaigns in that country, whose refugees will predictably soon also turn up on the refugee screen.

In short, Washington hates everybody involved, except a near-mythical paper force of “moderates” fighting against Assad. While those small groups include individuals who could be desirable in a future post-Assad Syrian regime, more moderate, tolerant, secular and democratic, the “moderates” sadly are negligible military players, as Washington has now been compelled to admit.

What to Do?

Washington has no good choices. Neocon and liberal hawks want the U.S. to weigh in in Syria, deny it to Russia and Iran (and would end up stuck in another quagmire to rival the Iraq and Afghan debacles they created.) But short of taking over all of Syria for a very long time, Washington cannot fix what ails the country and its deepening fissures.

Can Russia and Iran find a way out of war to forge some new compromise regime? Just possibly. The greatest advantage they possess is their good ties with the Assad regime. Both therefore possess far better intelligence and influence on the politics of Damascus that does the U.S.

Assad is deeply beholden to Russia and Iran for his survival. He may indeed resist leaving office, but if any foreign powers are capable of arranging some kind of palace coup even by arrangement, it is Moscow and Tehran. But can they do it? Will they do it?

The status quo in Syria is actually undesirable for both Russia and Iran as well since it feeds regional jihadism and breeds instability. Assad’s military collapse to jihadi-dominated forces would cost them their position in Syria. But it would hurt the West as well and would not guarantee an end to civil war.

Both Iran and Russia have publicly stated that they bear no particular love for Bashar al-Assad as such. Indeed, Assad must nurture suspicions about their ultimate intentions as well, but he has nowhere else to turn. But whatever happens, preserving the state structure, with or without Assad, is essential. Otherwise the rampant anarchy of a collapsed state looms.

So we end up back with the same old calculus: that the Assad regime is perhaps the least of all evils, especially since U.S. invasion and long-term occupation of Syria is unthinkable. Indeed, the Russian presence is in part designed to block just another such U.S. exercise in regime change leading to chaos.

Moscow perceives that as yet another U.S. effort to plant its strategic flag in the region, as in Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, or even Ukraine. Meanwhile Iran finds the conflict a dangerous source of sectarian conflict as well. (Ironically, Tehran’s position may be slightly sidelined now with the arrival of far superior Russian forces.)

There simply is no good option for Washington. But reestablishment of central government and order in Syria is the first priority. I doubt that military overthrow of the whole regime, even were it possible, could bring genuine order in any foreseeable timeframe.

As distasteful as it might be in Washington, a dominant role for Russia and Iran at least acknowledges that they bring more to the political and military table than anyone else. Our interests in Syria are simply not that divergent from theirs, except for those policy-makers who believe that we can still “have it all” and keep Russia and Iran out.

But even if one accepts a Russian and Iranian role, the hard work of hammering out some vision of a future Syria will be tough. Partition is utterly unrealistic; it would only plant the seeds of future conflicts over turf to come. Russia may well end up in its own quagmire, but I don’t see that as a foregone conclusion. Nor would it be good for the U.S.

But how to move from the present country-wide civil war to some kind of negotiations? And who will be included in negotiations? Certainly not ISIS or Al Qaeda. Are some kind of external UN-linked peacekeepers an option? Pakistani or Moroccan troops? Any plan would at least have to start with freezing fighting as it stands.

Complex diplomatic issues are unavoidable. Given the state of American politics, in virtual perpetual election mode of extravagant posturing, the necessary dispassionate examination of these alternatives seems unlikely. But we can’t get to even that stage without acknowledging that simply hating everyone involved isn’t a policy either.

Graham E. Fuller is a former senior CIA official, author of numerous books on the Muslim World; his latest book is Breaking Faith: A novel of espionage and an American’s crisis of conscience in Pakistan. (Amazon, Kindle) grahamefuller.com


16 comments for “What Are the Syrian Options?

  1. MadTizzy
    October 9, 2015 at 19:50

    The US has long detested the Assads? I thought Syria was our favorite place to send “rendered” individuals to be tortured. Guess we liked them well enough to hand them our dirty work…

  2. Peter Loeb
    October 9, 2015 at 07:00


    Graham Fuller’s assessment above is excellent. It goes no
    further than my own analysis in a brief comment which I titled
    “THE EASY VICTORY” abnd ran twice.With its traditional
    arrogance the US and its “allies” never calculated anyone
    anywhere in the world —its world?— might possibly change
    the givens in the Syrian-Ukraine situations. As in many previous
    examples, the US and allies presume that their
    analyses of a world situation MUST be correct.
    (What happens behind the scenes is impossible for
    most to us to know at this point. Perhaps a future
    expert in diplomatic history such as Gabriel Kolko
    will untangle many of the webs buried for now
    from our view. At any rate, whatever has gone on
    and is going on now in upper circles is unavailable
    to us.

    Barack Obama’s Presidency of the US will soon
    be completed. The election is in 2016, always
    in my childhood remembered with greater accuracy
    than Christmas Day THE FIRST TUESDAY AFTER
    of us who write analyses today, it would be
    appropriate at this time to examine the possibilities
    under the next President be he/her a Democrat
    or Republican.

    As we look at Syria and other centers of American-
    Israeli operations, there is continued death, murder,
    and destruction in Israel and Palestine. The lives
    of many whom Israel (and evidently the US)
    consider as subhuman beings (Palestinians),their
    homes are being destroyed, international law is
    violated again and again.

    And the US says: Nothing.

    Well (the answer is), what CAN they say? Don’t
    you understand that it is election time in the

    And even the slightest criticisms of Israel (which
    should be “Palestine” which Israel invaded
    by force and conquered) would be not only
    “anti-Zionist” but “anti-Semitic”. So a people
    protesting for its rights, for its very
    survival, is of little interest. They must die.
    Of course you must understand that. Or are you
    a fool?

    Such scenes of death in Palestine are never pictured
    in western reporting, especially in the
    US. If there are any “problems” it must be
    the Palestinians, the “terrorists”, who
    are to blame.

    Perhaps there will be justice–not merely remedy
    or temporary resolution—when the entire
    Zionist project is no longer.

    Meanwhile, for all our concern about
    Syria, we will let Palestinians die, let them
    starve, let the blockade continue, bomb
    their homes, murder their families.
    The Israelis and many Americans advise
    Palestinians that they must be calm, be wise,
    learn to be exterminated with dignity, cooperate
    to preserve the Zionist oppressive state.

    —Peter Loeb, Boston, MA, USA

  3. Barilaro
    October 9, 2015 at 04:15

    It’s a dominance-issue. Assad must go, not because of wrongdoings against civilians or whatever else he may have or haven’t done. He simply isn’t loyal to US-interests, that’s why he has to go. The US history does know a lot of evil friends, some are still in power today and noone questions their positions as long as they are loyal.
    Syria (and maybe even Irak) under Russian domination is a catastrophy to for future US-interests. Some say Russia shouldn’t have supported Assad because of the claims made against his ‘regime’ (can’t confirm nor reject these claims from my position here), some say Russia finally made a good choice to fight the presumably more evil terrorists, supportin more stability. In my opinion Russia didn’t have a choice on whether or not putting a feet into Syria, it’s a more essential issue: Without Syria Iran also would become very vulnerable, but most importantly Russia would lose a lot of the influence and power they actually have with their oil and especially gas. Once the west can sideline Russias ressources Russia would be in deep trouble, and that is the main intention to hold Syria and Ukraine as well.
    China, seeing itself as the only real superpower, on the other hand is more interested to have more than one ‘regional’ power to deal with. With Russia beeing a strong regional power China will finally advance to be seen as official superpower by everyone else, including Japan. And the US, losing their hegemonial-status, will face a recession far worse than the one in 1930+-

  4. Joe Tedesky
    October 9, 2015 at 01:14

    With people like, Petraeus, Brzezinski, McCain, and the Kagan’s around, my hope is they don’t assist in pushing Russia into a quagmire. If the U.S. were smart, it would most definitely stand aside, and allow Russia to do it’s thing in Syria. Why the American government doesn’t team up with Russia, is very telling. Wouldn’t allying with Russia be a way of gaining influence, as to having Assad step down?

  5. Dr. Ibrahim Soudy
    October 8, 2015 at 19:11

    The break up of the Middle East after WWI by Britain, France, Russia, and Italy followed by appointing Dictators to RULE the people of each country by Iron Fist has led to generations of those people who simply do NOT know how to talk to each other. Even in Libya where there are no sectarian tensions the people still do not know how to talk to each other. One would have thought that the Iraqis and Libyans with all their wealth would jump on the opportunity after getting rid of their dictators and rebuild their country!! But NO. They simply do not know HOW TO TALK TO EACH OTHER!!

    The Superpowers of the WWI have planted the seeds of a quagmire in the ME and then came the Americans with their legendary IGNORANCE and completed the mess. The whole world will continue to suffer for generations and generations to come because of the stupid short-sighted actions of the Europeans/Americans in the Middle East. Tough Luck…………Now expect huge clashes in Europe over the coming decades between the locals and the refugees and of course America will have to continue fighting the very terrorist organizations it helps create in the first place…………

  6. Tom Welsh
    October 8, 2015 at 15:54

    This article hardly seems to depart from the standard pabulum continually set forth in the MSM. How can Washington hate and fear ISIS – its own creation, which it apparently funds, trains, supports, and scrupulously refrains from harming?

    As for Mr Assad, President Putin has often said that neither he, nor the rulers of the USA, the UK and the European nations are citizens of Syria – and that therefore it is not for them to say who should be the leader of that nation. It is for the people of Syria to choose, and so far they have expressed a strong preference for Mr Assad.

    • Kiza
      October 9, 2015 at 00:53

      Spot on. I am not a fan of this author because he digresses just about one inch from the Beltway Group Think (aka Zio-think). He appears to have the right intention – peace, but he finds it too hard to launch himself beyond the fold. This time he lost me when he claimed that Assad clings to power just for his own sake (a dictator, almost called him a “Butcher”). Assad has a large support base of Alawites, Christians and even many Sunnis, his demise would essentially launch an even larger wave of refugees towards Europe. Assad is not even comparable to Saddam, he is a Westernized Arab Intellectual, much easier to reason with than any other current Arab leader. I am rather sure that Assad would accept to step down if the safety of people who depend on him would be assured somehow. Obviously, no assurances by US, Israel, Turkey and Saudi are worth a moment of considerations. Absolute Zero credibility. Only blue helmets from other nations could be the assurance of post-war stability of Syria.

  7. James lake
    October 8, 2015 at 15:40

    You need to explain Why should Assad go? He is no worse that any of those other leaders in the middle East.
    What comes next if he goes?
    I agree with Trump better he stay and work on reform rather than throw decades of leadership by the ba”ath party out the window. Look what happened when saddams party were marginalised we got ISIL.

  8. D5-5
    October 8, 2015 at 14:52

    I for one, and I believe this website, continue to try to get it clear, so here’s the case that I see at this time. What’s happening in Syria is part of a regional and resources control game particularly favoring Israel, Saudi Arabia, and US capitalist interests, not to exclude the enormous amounts of money being made by the munitions industry. The US favors Netanyahu’s view that ISIS is “the lesser evil” versus Assad. Ignoring while sounding sheepishly defensive over Libya as a likely prospect in Syria given US policy is being ignored. Weaponry out of Libya to ISIS (including all the Toyota pickup trucks?) is blessed because it went to “our guys” in the fray–that is, er, the lesser of the two evils types. Assad’s exact sins are vague and encapsulated with “barrel bombs.” Why these bombs are more evil than the kind of fire power that just destroyed the Doctors Without Borders hospital is not considered–i.e. the loss of innocent lives known as “collateral damage” from US air strikes. What the Syrian people think is not studied closely, although there is indication they favor Assad over ISIS’s beheading programs. Two years ago they favored keeping Assad in office, I don’t know about recently. The US is not serious about dealing with ISIS because it favors a replacement program for Assad, which will continue to other locales such as Lebanon and Iran. When the Russians enter effectively against ISIS (rumors now that ISIS troops are deserting in droves under the new onslaught) the US whines about “they’re hitting the moderates.” The total number of moderates trained and in the field after a half billion dollar training program is four. Four as in 4. This lack of foreign policy coherence and stupidity is covered with bluster and crap and smokescreen with violin strings set on righteous and the conductor wearing a white hat. The US has come to this. Its pathetic president has come to this. If I’m leaving something out here, or have it wrong, please fill it in for me. Thank you.

  9. Mortimer
    October 8, 2015 at 13:37


    The “dreaming collective”

    Inevitably “dreaming collective” – and political terror – had to bring me back, once again, to Syria, where Russia, in roughly 48 hours, did more to smash the Wahhabi/Salafi-jihadi terror matrix than the coalition of dodgy opportunists in over a year and 6,000-plus “sorties.” So many wonders you can operate with a couple of Su-24s, decent sat intel, decent ground intel, and political will.

    And then the bigger bang, not a whimper; the larger-than-life ridicule enveloping that tentacular industrial-military-security-intel complex that wastes 1.3 trillion a year.

    Thus Full Spectrum Outrage; from neocons to neoliberalcons to “humanitarian” imperialists, everyone is absolutely fuming. It goes from “Putin plunges into a cauldron to save Assad” — no, dummies, the cauldrons will be laid out by Russia as traps for ISIS/ISIL/Daesh — to the new Russian “strategic blunder” (their new Afghanistan!) and the Pentagon weighing the use of “force” to “protect US-backed Syria rebels targeted by Russia.”

    How dare the Russkies target “our” oh so “moderate” rebels? Our clean-cut al-Qaeda guys?

    Instantly forgotten is that notorious August 2012 Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) paper that spelled out how the NATOGCC combo and Turkey were facilitating the emergence of a Salafi-jihadi “Caliphate” to speed up the “Assad must go” regime change operation.

    And instantly forgotten is how Gen. Michael Flynn, who headed the DIA at the time, went on the record stating this was a “willful decision” by the Obama administration.

    And then there’s CIA top honcho John Brennan recently testifying that the CIA was “alert” to the emergence of the fake “Caliphate” — and had “correctly” assessed its power by 2012. Good job! And yet by early 2014 – when ISIS/ISIL/Daesh had already captured Fallujah and parts of Ramadi — Obama was still deriding them as “a junior varsity of al-Qaeda.”

    So neither the CIA nor Obama nor any node in the acronym soup of US intel really gave a damn about ISIS/ISIL/Daesh. Willful decision. Let them wreak havoc. Thus the long convoy of gleaming white Toyotas crossing “Syraq” to take Mosul undetected by the most sophisticated satellite surveillance system ever.

    Everyone who knows anything about the “Syraq” theatre knows there are no “moderate rebels.” And now Moscow is showing how you fight the whole Wahhabi/Salafi-jihadi matrix; a mix of drones, sigint aircraft, and on the ground intel (of which the coalition of dodgy opportunists is sorely deprived.) It’s progressive — starting near the urban areas in the east and moving to the western desert. And it will be relentless, to include direct ground support to the Syrian Arab Army when the “recapturing of territory” phase picks up, side-by-side with aerial support. You are leaving the American sector.

    Expect the information war, from now on, to be absolutely vicious. The neocon, neoliberalcon, “humanitarian” imperialist galaxy will be madly trying to sell global public onion a monster “dreaming collective”; as in Russia is “evil” because they bomb “our” rebels and — horror of horrors — kill civilians! We would never commit such unspeakable acts!

    And then there’s the prime slapstick effect to coronate the farce; Saudi foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir – in the role of proverbial Empire of Chaos lackey — adamant that the House of Saud petrodollar hacienda would never accept the Russian effort to keep Assad in power. And if there’s no political solution, there will be further weaponizing of the non-existent “moderate” rebels.

    Now that’s a flick to watch: the fearful/paranoid House of Saud picking a fight with the Russian Air Force. But leave that to kindergarten — and let’s see why the Empire of Chaos itself is even more paranoid than usual.

    This Friday the “Normandy 4” format is back discussing that bankrupt IMF colony, Ukraine. Normandy 4 is France and Germany plus Russia and Ukraine. At stake is the EU possibly relaxing sanctions on Russia in early 2016.

    The Empire of Chaos simply cannot allow the EU to support Russia in Syria – no matter the seriousness of the refugee crisis in Europe (precipitated, by the way, by Turkey, which released its “holding camps” en masse). The EU now wants – and needs – a Syria solution. The Obama administration still dreams of regime change; ISIS/ISIL/Daesh + refugees remain just a pesky detail.

    Now imagine the EU eventually supporting Russia in Syria – if there is clear, substantial progress on the ground – and on top of it relaxing or ending those painfully counterproductive Ukraine-related sanctions; cue to inter-galactic fear and loathing trespassing the neocon, neoliberal, “humanitarian” imperialist combo.

    But enough of this fake “dreaming collective.” So much to do. The Botticelli expo at the Gemaldegalerie. Revisiting the spectacular Asian collection of the Pergamon. A long stint at the Lubitsch café, under the sign of the cigar-smoking master and his doppelganger. Lubitsch said that a good film is “a mysterious film, with unsaid things.” If only we had a neo-Lubitsch to chronicle what’s left unsaid in all those regime change dreams. Heaven can’t wait.


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    • Kiza
      October 9, 2015 at 00:36

      I always have a giggle at the propaganda construct “moderate rebels”, those with guns and bombs fighting the legitimate Syrian Government. According to the same criteria then the Oklahoma bomber would also have been a moderate – he could have bombed the whole of Oklahoma City instead of just the FBI building. Definitely a moderate rebel. Well, we all know what the US Government did to this “moderate”.

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