The only logical option for the US of those Gemayel lays out is the second—support change. Figuring out how to proceed isn’t rocket science.
Here are two ways:
The first is to go all in and back the moderate elements of the Free Syrian Army right now. Give them guns, training, air support, or some combination. It’s risky, of course, and there are trade-offs. Hezbollah and Iran might escalate. Some American aid would almost certainly end up in the hands of bad actors who will later use it against us and our friends no matter how careful we are. It’s not obvious who’s who in the field right now. But the advantage of such a forthright move is that the anti-Assad phase of the war will wrap up more quickly. Syria will spend less time functioning as a terrorist magnet, and Jabhat al-Nusra will have less time to gain traction and become a formidable post-Assad force.
The second option is to wait for Assad to fall and then back the Free Syrian Army. Everyone in Syria knows the moderate elements of the anti-Assad opposition will clash with the Islamists when the government falls. At that time it will be easy to separate the Islamists from everyone else because the Islamists will be fighting everyone else.
If we go with the second option, Jabhat al-Nusra is not at all likely to take over Syria. The entire country—the Alawites, the Christians, the Druze, the Kurds, the liberal Sunnis, the moderate Sunnis, the nationalist Sunnis, the mainstream conservative Sunnis, and the tribes in the hinterlands—will be against them. And if the West backs all of those factions, that’s it. It’s all over for Jabhat al-Nusra. They’ll be able to blow things up and wreak havoc, for sure, but they will not rule.
And the United States can gain back some of the soft power and moral authority we’re losing right now in the region. Those angry with us for our de facto support of Assad and for our de facto support of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt will see the United States on their side for a change.
“Assad will fall,” says Jean-Pierre Katrib, a Beirut-based university lecturer and human rights activist. “This is the course of history. Even the Soviet Union, with all its robust organization and rigid infrastructure, only lasted for seven decades. No oppressive regime can forever resist the tide of history which has been moving toward greater freedom and representation. That may sound too philosophical or naïve, but that’s how I see it.
Post-Assad Syria won’t be democratic, however. That will take time. It’s going to be messy.”
He’s right, and we shouldn’t kid ourselves. Post-Assad Syria will be a disaster. There is no getting around it. Just look at the last Arab country the West intervened in. Libya has a serious problem with Islamists and terrorists, but at least they aren’t ruling the country as they were in northern Mali before the French intervened. What would we rather see? A post-Assad Syria that looks like a messier version of Libya? Or a post-Assad Syria that looks like Mali did last year?