Stanford scholar talks about the crisis in Syria - and how to resolve it

Removing President Bashar al-Assad, establishing effective governance structures and ensuring freedom for the Syrian people are critical for peace in Syria, says Stanford Professor Russell Berman.

This month the United States launched a massive military precision strike in Syria, a country that has experienced brutal violence by President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. The air strike was in response to a chemical weapons attack on civilians in Douma, Syria, a week earlier, that the U.S. and others have blamed on the Assad government.

The conflict in Syria goes beyond a fight between rebels and Damascus and has become a proxy war between the United States, on one side, and Russia and Iran on the other, says Stanford Professor Russell Berman. (Image credit: Getty Images)

The country has been in a political quagmire since a democratic uprising in 2011 as part of the so-called Arab Spring. Since then the conflict in Syria has escalated into a proxy war, with complicated and confusing international alliances. A devastating humanitarian crisis ensued.

Stanford scholar Russell Berman, a professor of comparative literature and a senior fellow at the Hoover Instittuion, has researched the conflict extensively. He recently authored an article for the Hoover publication, The Caravan, about ousting Assad.

Berman, who is the Walter A. Haas Professor in the Humanities in the Stanford School of Humanities and Sciences, recently sat down with Stanford News Service to talk about the complexities of the Syrian conflict and how peace can be achieved.

How did the conflict in Syria get so complicated?

It is not at all complicated that a popular revolt broke out in 2011 against the miserable Assad dynasty with its brutal track record. Syria could have been the Arab Spring at its best. It became complicated, however, because propping up Assad was necessary for Iranian expansionist ambitions, and this amplified the problem of a Shia-versus-Sunni conflict. What’s more, Iran’s entry took place at a point in time when the Obama administration was eager to avoid any conflict with Tehran, so it could negotiate the nuclear deal. This gave Iran and Assad a free hand. In other words, success with Tehran meant bloodshed in Damascus. But there are two more external players. Russia entered Syria in order to gain access to the Mediterranean - Syria gave Russia an opportunity for its own "reset" and to reenter the region. And of course Turkey is constantly anxious about the possibility that the Kurds might achieve sovereign nationhood. The war in Syria has been waged against ISIS, but what is really at stake now is the shape of Syria after ISIS.

Where does one even begin to resolve the conflict?

Religion in the sense of profound faith is not the issue, but - as throughout the region - affiliation with ethno-religious communities makes a big difference, especially in Syria where a minority group, the Alawites (close to Shia Islam), has dominated a Sunni majority. That is the rationale behind the barrel bombs and chemical attacks: the Assad regime is carrying out an intentional policy of ethnic cleansing (result: the "refugee crisis" in Europe) in order to achieve a demographic shift within Syria, to make it less Sunni. The problem is that there are democratic forces which, despite next to no assistance from the outside, continue to resist Assad, while the prospect of an Iranian-dominated outcome will only generate more Sunni extremism, i.e., ISIS in another form. A genuine solution would be a post-Assad Syria with democratic institutions. Getting there will not be easy. An alternative under discussion would be to bring in other Sunni troops, especially from Saudi Arabia - but that is hardly a done deal.

What are some common misunderstandings about the conflict?

There is an illusion in some places that Assad is at heart a reformer. This is sheer propaganda, part of an intentional disinformation campaign. Another misunderstanding is the dismissal of the Syrian rebels themselves, as if the only alternative to Assad were terrorism. This is also just fake news, bought and paid for. Finally, it is a misunderstanding to overlook the international dimension of the war. It is now no longer only about the Syrian rebels and the criminal regime in Damascus; it is also a proxy war between the U.S., on one side, and Russia and Iran on the other.

What steps must be in place for peace to be achieved in the region?

Getting rid of Assad, establishing good governance structures, freedom for the Syrian people. It is shameful that so many have become cynical about such a prospect. That is the work of disinformation. However, for the time being, the outcome is perhaps less likely to be full-fledged victory than ongoing war, something like Ukraine. That is to say, some stalemate at a reduced level of violence, unless something else in the region reshuffles the deck altogether, such as a revocation of the JCPOA with Iran (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, known as the Iran nuclear deal) or a major war between Hezbollah and Israel.

If air strikes and sanctions don’t work, what will?

It’s not clear at all to me that these do not work. But if it turns out that Assad uses chemical weapons again, there should be another round of attacks, much less limited, perhaps a complete elimination of his air force. But there are strategic goals that could be pursued, and for which military action is only a means to an end. The U.S. has the stronger hand and ought to develop a scheme to break up the Moscow-Tehran-Damascus axis. There are tensions among those various poles, and we should try to pry them apart.

What is a realistic time frame for U.S. withdrawal?

With 2,000 troops in Syria, the U.S. goal is not withdrawal as soon as possible; the goal is winning. It is, however, true that winning could be pursued with other troops, such as a possible Saudi contingent. I do not know if that will come to pass, but at least our relations with the Saudis have been repaired. In any case, at this point, the question of withdrawal is not about Syria; it is about whether the U.S. will withdraw from the nuclear deal with Iran. The timeframe for that is next month.