With the Syrian peace talks failing in Geneva and President Obama calling for a review of policy options, a much needed reset may have begun on how to solve the world's most complex humanitarian crisis.
The bloodletting in Syria has unfolded with deliberate relentlessness. Eight and a half million Syrians have been displaced from their homes and almost 150,000 have died. President Assad’s regime continues its campaign of bombing, torture, and starvation of the Syrian people, while foreign jihadists carve out safe havens in the North. Countless political prisoners rot in Assad’s jails and children remain under siege.
The opposition has regained some credibility after declaring war on Al Qaeda and participating as constructive partners in the Geneva peace process, but deep divisions of leadership remain. Nearly three years since this crisis began, no credible prospect for a Syrian peace is on the horizon. But the situation isn’t hopeless.
The current paralysis is driven by the simple fact that Assad will do anything to stay in power, and the opposition would never accept a peace deal that allows him to stay. Neither side is strong enough to win, or weak enough to lose. Minor concessions from the Assad government have only been granted in the face of credible threats of force, but the international community has effectively removed that threat. With his monopoly on air power and support from the Russians and Iranians, Assad feels no pressure to negotiate with the armed opposition, which has received tepid and inconsistent support from the U.S., even as it fights a second front against well-armed foreign jihadists.
Amidst this brutal stalemate, there are glimmers of hope. Assad’s extreme tactics and intransigence, even on humanitarian access, has created distance with the Russians. At moments when Assad’s fall looked likely, some Alawite leaders expressed more interest in joining a pluralistic transitional government than going down with the ship. The armed opposition has gained ground against extremists and the political opposition has gained some credibility at Geneva. Tireless efforts by Secretary of State Kerry have maximized the limited leverage we have, and anti-atrocity voices may be gaining ground. The international community has learned some important lessons and laid the groundwork to turn new conditions on the ground into a stronger Syria policy.
Those who supported early intervention in Syria, including myself, see the current crisis as a “worst case scenario” and proof of the human and security cost of our inaction. Those who opposed intervention in Syria see this chaos as proof that we were right to keep our distance from the conflict. But the “if only we had” and “thank God we didn’t” arguments both turn our gaze backward and suggest it is too late to have any constructive impact in Syria. But the stakes and circumstances have shifted in ways that should drive a new approach towards the crisis, not simply a sense of resignation.
The starting point for any strategy must be acknowledging that Assad is the primary barrier to peace. Assad has been unwavering in his use of terror and starvation to consolidate power. The intensification of Assad’s barrel bomb campaign, an improvised explosive munitions carrying shrapnel capable of injuring civilians for miles around, compelled Secretary Kerry to say, “Each and every day that the barrel-bombing of Aleppo continues, the Assad regime reminds the world of its true colors.” Sir Desmond de Silva, my former colleague from the Special Court for Sierra Leone, recently detailed the “industrial-scale killings” perpetrated by the regime within their prisons. There is consistent evidence of Assad’s direct targeting of civilian populations that have been deemed “pro-opposition”, including Human Rights Watch’s report detailing first-hand accounts of the massacres in the towns of al-Bayda and Banyas. Assad’s agreement to relinquish his arsenals of chemical weapons only came after he gassed his own people, and even now the regime is slow rolling destruction of its chemical weapons.
Further, while Assad claims to be fighting terrorists, the Syrian dictator is in fact supporting them. In addition to his alliance with Hezbollah and Iran, Assad made the Machiavellian decision to release Sunni terrorists from his prisons to discredit a moderate and popular revolution. Multiple sources on the ground report that Assad consistently targets opposition fighters whenever they reclaim territory from terrorist organizations, while leaving the headquarters of ISIS, the al-Qaeda affiliated Islamist terrorist group untouched. A recent Frontline documentary showed FSA fighters retaking the town of Atareb from ISIS control, only to show that Assad’s bombing of the town resumed as soon as extremists were ousted. Assad’s strategy for survival requires convincing his base and the world that any alternative to him will be worse, even if that means enabling the alternative himself.
Second, time is not the ally of peace. We consistently face policy options worse than a few months earlier yet still better than we inevitably face down the road. Some say we should stay the diplomatic course and hope for peace, but failed talks have a cost. The fragile legitimacy of the Syrian Opposition Coalition (SOC), bolstered briefly by a better-than-expected performance in Geneva, erodes each time Assad uses another round to play for time. When the SOC sits with a regime that refuses to stop killing its own people, even in the midst of negotiations, their credibility with Syrians erodes. This lack of urgency is further complicated by Assad’s intention to orchestrate an election in the near future. The U.S. and UN need to impose tight timelines for the peace process and demand that conditions that make credible talks possible, such as a ceasefire, are demanded ahead of the next round.
Time is also not on the side of the Syrian people as foreign extremists continue to spread across the North, cutting off humanitarian access and targeting journalists, activists, and moderate leaders. Earlier this year, the rebels boldly stood up to AQ affiliates throughout Syria, but remain under vicious ISIS suicide attacks. Without greater international support, these gains are already receding, and ISIS will reassert brutal control over population centers. To put their brutality and unpopularity in perspective, even Al Qaeda has begun to distance themselves publicly from these groups. Already, ISIS has regained full control of Raqqah province from rebel incursions and is making a comeback in vital areas of Aleppo. If either ISIS or Assad gain control of this rebel-held stronghold in the heart of Syria’s second largest city, the humanitarian consequences would be severe. The risks to Syria’s territorial integrity and the long-term damage to Syrian civil society presented by these foreign extremists cannot be overstated.
Third, daylight has again appeared between the Russians and the Assad regime. Russia has proven its ability to alter regime behavior when the diplomatic cost gets too high, most notably during the chemical weapons deal and its recent steps to allow some marginal humanitarian relief into Homs after the Assad delegation’s outrageous performance in Geneva. The U.N. Security Council appears to be revisiting a resolution to impose humanitarian access without conditions, which would force Russia to veto such a position publicly. If vetoed, the General Assembly should consider a non-binding resolution demanding immediate access of food and medicine without conditions to all areas of Syria. A victory on this resolution would have immediate humanitarian consequences, and a defeat would raise the diplomatic cost to Russia of propping up Assad.
Fourth, the regime elements that could join a pluralistic transitional government are most likely to do so if they believe Assad’s fall is likely. If the international community remains unwilling to threaten force, it can support the opposition to a level that threatens the survival of the regime. The remnants of the Free Syrian Army and the moderate Islamic battalions who are currently battling both ISIS and the Assad regime have yet to receive such a level of support.
In my trips to the border, there has consistently been a clear preference for moderate battalions and rejection of foreign fighters, particularly those backed by Al-Qaeda. The refugees and civilian leaders believe the illiberal rhetoric from their armed allies reflect fundraising, not ideology. People in Washington should be sympathetic to “following the money,” and when the money and guns are coming from the Saudis and Qataris, one should not be surprised to see public statements take on sectarian or theocratic tone. Currently, fighting for the moderate Free Syrian Army pays one-fifth of what the more ideological groups offer, and they have been known to run out of bullets. Syrians believe that the recruitment levels of different groups represent the relative investments of proxy powers and not the ideology of the fighters, much less the people. Our intelligence agencies report that current shipments from the U.S. to more moderate rebels in the south are not enough “to defeat Assad.” This aid needs to be increased if they are to appear significant enough to threaten Assad’s handle on the conflict, and keep apace with those funding more extreme fighters.
Finally, the young people who began this revolution continue to risk their lives for a Free Syria and do not believe the U.S. has had their back. These courageous, creative young people, who marched against Assad only to be met by machine gun fire from police, are still preparing the foundations for a pluralistic, democratic Syria through civil society, conflict resolution, and education. The long game is investing in this generation of civilian leaders, thinkers, organizers, and journalists. State Department officials have worked hard to support such leaders, but cumbersome vetting restrictions and other factors have burned almost as many bridges as they have built. When Congress sets bureaucratic standards of zero risk, the only thing we guarantee is that the U.S. alienates potential allies and loses leverage at the table. We must offer more support more quickly to those who share our deepest values and have lost faith that the world cares.
But these peaceful activists were clear that the support they need most is whatever it takes to stop Assad from bombing their homes and stop terrorists from taking over their towns. They want the international community to take out Assad’s airfields and ISIS strongholds, or to give the opposition the ability to do so. The status quo in Syria is a humanitarian and strategic crisis that will only become more polarizing with time. After exhaustive diplomacy, Sec. Kerry got the major players to recommit to the Geneva Communiqué that outlines a transition to a post-Assad Syria. We need to reset our commitment to isolating Assad, both through greater support to those who present a credible threat and greater costs to those who support the regime. There are no guarantees on Syria, except that our options only get worse with time. As a young Syrian woman told me via Skype this week, “There are still plenty of good Syrians left, but if the world waits long enough to help us, there won’t be.”