A New Start To U.S. Policy In Syria Can Save Lives

While policymakers are increasingly resigned to stalemate in Syria, the United States can still take action to aid moderate groups. We just have to act soon.

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 declaringwar on Al Qaeda and participating as constructive partners in the Geneva peaceprocess, but deep divisions of leadership remain. Nearly three years since thiscrisis began, no credible prospect for a Syrian peace is on the horizon. Butthe situation isn’t hopeless.

The current paralysis is driven by the simple fact thatAssad will do anything to stay in power, and the opposition would never accepta peace deal that allows him to stay. Neither side is strong enough to win, orweak enough to lose. Minor concessions from the Assad government have only beengranted in the face of credible threats of force, but the internationalcommunity has effectively removed that threat. With his monopoly on air powerand support from the Russians and Iranians, Assad feels no pressure tonegotiate with the armed opposition, which has received tepid and inconsistentsupport from the U.S., even as it fights a second front against well-armedforeign jihadists.

Amidst this brutal stalemate, there are glimmers of hope.Assad’s extreme tactics and intransigence, even on humanitarian access, hascreated distance with the Russians. At moments when Assad’s fall looked likely,some Alawite leaders expressed more interest in joining a pluralistic transitionalgovernment than going down with the ship. The armed opposition has gainedground against extremists and the political opposition has gained somecredibility at Geneva. Tireless efforts by Secretary of State Kerry havemaximized the limited leverage we have, and anti-atrocity voices may be gainingground. The international community has learned some important lessons and laidthe groundwork to turn new conditions on the ground into a stronger Syriapolicy.

Those who supported early intervention in Syria, includingmyself, see the current crisis as a “worst case scenario” and proof of thehuman and security cost of our inaction. Those who opposed intervention inSyria see this chaos as proof that we were right to keep our distance from theconflict. But the “if only we had” and “thank God we didn’t” arguments bothturn our gaze backward and suggest it is too late to have any constructiveimpact in Syria. But the stakes and circumstances have shifted in ways thatshould drive a new approach towards the crisis, not simply a sense ofresignation.

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 facepolicy options worse than a few months earlier yet still better than weinevitably face down the road. Some say we should stay the diplomatic courseand hope for peace, but failed talks have a cost. The fragile legitimacy of theSyrian Opposition Coalition (SOC), bolstered briefly by a better-than-expectedperformance in Geneva, erodes each time Assad uses another round to play fortime. When the SOC sits with a regime that refuses to stop killing its ownpeople, even in the midst of negotiations, their credibility with Syrianserodes. This lack of urgency is further complicated by Assad’s intention toorchestrate an election in the near future. The U.S. and UN need to imposetight timelines for the peace process and demand that conditions that makecredible talks possible, such as a ceasefire, are demanded ahead of the nextround.

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 andthe Assad regime. Russia has proven its ability to alter regime behavior whenthe diplomatic cost gets too high, most notably during the chemical weaponsdeal and its recent steps to allow some marginal humanitarian relief into Homsafter the Assad delegation’s outrageous performance in Geneva. The U.N.Security Council appears to be revisiting a resolution to impose humanitarianaccess without conditions, which would force Russia to veto such a positionpublicly. If vetoed, the General Assembly should consider a non-bindingresolution demanding immediate access of food and medicine without conditionsto all areas of Syria. A victory on this resolution would have immediatehumanitarian consequences, and a defeat would raise the diplomatic cost toRussia of propping up Assad.

Fourth, the regime elements that could join a pluralistictransitional government are most likely to do so if they believe Assad’s fallis likely. If the international community remains unwilling to threaten force,it can support the opposition to a level that threatens the survival of theregime. The remnants of the Free Syrian Army and the moderate Islamicbattalions who are currently battling both ISIS and the Assad regime have yetto receive such a level of support.

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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 continueto risk their lives for a Free Syria and do not believe the U.S. has had theirback. These courageous, creative young people, who marched against Assad onlyto be met by machine gun fire from police, are still preparing the foundationsfor a pluralistic, democratic Syria through civil society, conflict resolution,and education. The long game is investing in this generation of civilianleaders, thinkers, organizers, and journalists. State Department officials haveworked hard to support such leaders, but cumbersome vetting restrictions andother factors have burned almost as many bridges as they have built. WhenCongress sets bureaucratic standards of zero risk, the only thing we guaranteeis that the U.S. alienates potential allies and loses leverage at the table. Wemust offer more support more quickly to those who share our deepest values andhave lost faith that the world cares.

But these peaceful activists were clear that the supportthey need most is whatever it takes to stop Assad from bombing their homes andstop terrorists from taking over their towns. They want the internationalcommunity to take out Assad’s airfields and ISIS strongholds, or to give theopposition the ability to do so. The status quo in Syria is a humanitarian andstrategic crisis that will only become more polarizing with time. Afterexhaustive diplomacy, Sec. Kerry got the major players to recommit to theGeneva Communiqué that outlines a transition to a post-Assad Syria. We need toreset our commitment to isolating Assad, both through greater support to thosewho present a credible threat and greater costs to those who support theregime. There are no guarantees on Syria, except that our options only getworse with time. As a young Syrian woman told me via Skype this week, “Thereare still plenty of good Syrians left, but if the world waits long enough tohelp us, there won’t be.”