There was nothing surprising about Syria’s presidential election this week, yet it was clarifying. Bashar al-Assad isn't leaving. The U.S. and its allies need to acknowledge this reality and focus on the millions of Syrian refugees who want to return home.
With much of the country in ruins, opposition candidates excluded and voters afraid not to be seen backing Assad, Monday’s election was pure theater; Assad won 89 percent of the vote. Yet the throngs of Syrian refugees who tried to reach the embassy in Lebanon to vote telegraphed a message: Many among Syria’s 2.8 million refugees think Assad is there to stay and want to come back, whether they have supported him or not. With an estimated 160,000 people already killed, they mainly want the fighting to end.
Supporting the refugees and the 9 million civilians in need of aid inside the country should be the main goal of any Syrian policy. The humanitarian crisis in Syria is now as bad as the one in Bosnia in the 1990s. Corridors need to be opened up to get aid to areas blockaded by the regime. Citing the United Nation’s Responsibility to Protect, the U.S. and its European and regional allies should take the initiative to circumvent the UN Security Council and put the needed military muscle on the ground.
Yes, Russia and China will be furious. So be it. They have made the situation worse through their own use of Security Council vetoes -- most recently to block Syria’s referral to the International Criminal Court for war crimes investigations.
Addressing the humanitarian crisis will work best with Assad's cooperation. At this point, it's also hard to see a rationale for excluding him from any political settlement to end the conflict.
The U.S. and its allies must recognize that their Syrian policy -- demanding Assad's removal but failing to provide the means to secure it -- has been a failure. They should acknowledge publicly that Assad is for now an important part of Syria's political landscape, and at the same time refocus on protecting civilians and ending the conflict.
Getting Assad back to the negotiating table may, for example, demand a more serious effort to support his moderate opponents to make them credible counterparts. At the moment, Assad is winning on the battlefield, and so has little incentive to talk and no one to talk with. When negotiations do begin, all of the regional powers involved in this war will also need to be at the table, including Iran.
Negotiating with Assad is not the same as backing him. He will remain an international pariah, and will be unable to reimpose his authority on large swaths of his country, Potemkin elections notwithstanding. Eventually, he will face a reckoning with his own brutalized people, just as Serbs confronted, and ejected, Slobodan Milosevic once the fighting in Yugoslavia finally subsided.
Obama was right when he said in his recent West Point speech that there are no easy answers in Syria. He has to choose some of the hard ones.
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