Syrian military aircraft. Flickr

The Syrian Civil War Is Entering a Second, Darker Phase

The Obama administration wants Assad to lose, but doesn’t want the rebels to win

Sunday, the Wall Street Journal wrote a long overview of President Barack Obama administration’s winding, head-spinning path to its current Syria policy. Indeed, the whiplash from Obama urging the need for strikes, to seeking approval from a skeptical Congress, to finally seeking common cause with a determined rival can make the last month of diplomacy on Syria seem incoherent, even amateurish. But what if it’s something else: What if Obama just can’t figure out how to balance two negatives?

It’s clear that Obama does not want to see Bashar Al Assad remain in power for the long run. In August of 2011, during the heady days after the fall of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, Obama called on him to resign, saying “The future of Syria must be determined by its people, but Pres. Bashar al Assad is standing in their way.”

Since that statement, the real question has always been how the White House would try to get Assad out of power, not whether. But there’s been a problem: the rebel groups, who would normally receive lavish U.S. money and weaponry to hasten Assad’s fall, were not terribly attractive either. Not only was the White House wary of carrying out another war — this time without U.N. approval, which was impossible after NATO reneged on the U.N. resolution authorizing their participation in Libya’s civil war — were particularly nasty people.

It is a bit of historical revisionism to say the prominence of hyper-violent jihadists in the Syrian opposition is a recent phenomenon. They are absolutely more powerful and dominant than they were even a year ago, but jihadists were worrying (and prominent) among the opposition from very early in the rebellion.

So the Obama administration faces two contradictory, equally unpalatable goals: removing the Assad regime while also denying Damascus to the very jihadists it has spent the last decade fighting at horrendous cost.

Can those two negatives ever be balanced? It is a question gnawing at policymakers as they try to make the chemical arms securement deal with Russia work.

Whatever the Obama strategy in Syria is, it is missing a critical question: what happens next? Few chemical weapons experts can envision a way to secure Assad’s weapons stockpiles without thousands of troops on the ground.And it remains unclear how the delicate balancing of two negatives that Obama has pursued to assiduously can result in any favorable outcome.

If one thing seems clear, it is that whomever wins the current phase of the war — and it could be either side right now — will face a second phase, one that will almost certainly be bloodier and more brutal. The normal C2 (Command and Control) systems that have provided some minimal control for the rebel groups are breaking down and being displaced by radicalized jihadists. And the Assad regime is increasingly relying on militias, rather than the uniformed military, to carry out the fighting.

The fracturing of Syria’s militants, both pro- and anti-regime, is a terrifying prospect for everyone interested in ever settling the conflict. Yet without a sense of where Obama’s strategy is going to wind up — apart from not-Assad and not-the-rebels — it’s impossible to say if the current balancing act will secure anyone’s interests.

Subscribe to War is Boring: