The Obama administration’s Syria policy has collapsed under the weight of a brutal assault on Aleppo by the forces of President Bashar al-Assad and Russia. Shrugging off global condemnation, Russia and Mr. Assad have dispatched their aircraft to attack schools and hospitals, singling out civilian targets to make the city uninhabitable and force its remaining population to flee.
Secretary of State John Kerry and other world leaders are now calling for Russia and the Assad government to be investigated for war crimes. But for the past year, Mr. Kerry had held firm to the belief that only through cooperation with Russia could the United States pressure the Assad government, reduce violence in Syria and move the country toward a political transition. The United States is now struggling to respond to the reality that Russia has little interest in a political settlement.
With an election days away, the Obama administration is reluctant to do anything that might tie the next president’s hands. Mr. Obama himself remains as resistant as ever to increasing involvement in Syria’s war. But continuing his hands-off approach will have crippling effects on his successor’s ability to make diplomatic progress.
Two steps are needed to advance America’s Syria policy. The first is to move beyond a discussion limited to no-fly zones or increased support to the armed opposition; the second is a cleareyed, fact-based assessment of just how risky further American involvement might be. Both are possible between now and when the next president takes office.
There is little that matters more to Mr. Assad or to Russia than the regime’s claim that it represents the legitimate, sovereign government of Syria, a claim that Russia and Iran use as legal cover for a murderous campaign against civilian targets and political moderates. This claim of legitimacy is the basis on which Russia and Iran defend their military presence in Syria, and refuse to hold the Assad government accountable for violations of international law.
Five years have passed since Mr. Obama — rightly — described Mr. Assad as illegitimate. Yet the United States and other countries continue to treat Mr. Assad as Syria’s president and his government as the country’s official representative in international bodies like the United Nations.
The most effective diplomatic means for the United States to regain leverage in Syria is for Washington to lead an international effort to undermine the Assad government’s claims and recognize a different government as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.
The best candidate for recognition is the little-known Syrian Interim Government, or S.I.G. Unlike many other opposition groups, which are based in Turkey, the S.I.G. is based inside Syria, with offices in Idlib and scattered throughout opposition-held territory. Its prime minister, a politically independent heart surgeon named Jawad Abu Hatab, was elected in May by a large majority of the General Assembly of the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, an important opposition group in exile.
Mr. Abu Hatab and his cabinet operate alongside of and are exposed to the same risks as ordinary Syrians. The S.I.G. has engaged in routine functions of local government, for example certifying school exams for Syrian graduates. Yes, the S.I.G. is threadbare and it struggles to provide essential services. Like many opposition groups it has also struggled to secure its legitimacy among ordinary Syrians. But Mr. Abu Hatab and Syrian sources say that since the S.I.G. moved inside Syria, its credibility has improved.
Recognizing the S.I.G. as the legitimate interim government of Syria would also give the international coalition fighting the Islamic State a credible partner for local governance in the areas it liberates in coming months, including Raqaa, the Islamic State’s major Syrian stronghold.
Alongside such political steps, the administration should also rethink how it uses air power to advance diplomatic objectives. One way to do so is to protect United Nations-authorized humanitarian relief efforts and prevent further attacks against convoys like the one in September that killed aid workers and destroyed supplies that would have fed nearly 80,000 people in need. This carefully modulated use of air power for specific, temporary purposes carries far fewer risks than establishing a permanent no-fly zone.
The White House and its supporters seem to believe that this kind of operation will provoke counterattacks from Russia or the Syrian government, which could cause the conflict to spiral. But there’s already clear evidence that this doesn’t have to be the case: In August, the Pentagon warned the Assad regime not to conduct airstrikes on Kurdish forces in areas where American troops were operating. Instead of escalating into a war, the regime complied, as did the Russians.
This incident shows that careful, limited use of air power can not only effectively defend American forces but also protect Syrian civilians and address urgent humanitarian needs.
These are not the only options available to the Obama administration. Earlier this year, the House Foreign Affairs Committee introduced a bipartisan bill, the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act of 2016, to sanction the Assad regime and its supporters, including Russia. The administration should throw its weight behind the bill and help enact it into law before the end of the year, proving to Russia that there are real costs to supporting the rogue Syrian regime.
Together, these steps are just a start. But the White House should be concerned about handing the next president a Syrian crisis in which diplomatic possibilities have been all but foreclosed. These are concrete, practical steps it can take to equip the incoming administration with tools to regain leverage and revitalize diplomatic efforts to end Syria’s bloody war.
Steven Heydemann is a professor of Middle East studies at Smith College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy.