What Next For US Policy in Syria?

When national security advisor Susan Rice oversaw a Middle East policy review last summer, the guiding concept was to limit the president’s investment of time and energy in the myriad crises of the region. Considering himself to have been elected to end wars, restore the economy, institute national health care, and rebalance foreign policy in the direction of Asia, President Barack Obama saw Syria as a slippery slope leading straight down to an uncharted, inescapable quagmire. He has tried his best to treat the problem with words of warning and dollars for refugees, citing a chemical weapons agreement as an accomplishment. Yet the cancer persists and metastasizes: Bashar al-Assad seeks a new seven year mandate to do his worst; reports indicate regime use of chlorine gas in civilian neighborhoods; and Syrians continue to flee from their homes, often to neighboring countries. What is the United States to do?

The first requirement is a change of attitude. The crisis in Syria and its impact on US allies and friends in the region present a serious challenge to the national security interests of the United States. Allies and adversaries alike measure with fine granularity what Washington does and fails to do in Syria. The Assad regime’s systematic terror campaign against civilians is an affront to the conscience of a largely inert, leaderless international community.

Yet the administration sees Syria as a distraction. It hopes that something good might yet turn up. For all of the talk about a genuine, bottom-up policy review, it cannot happen unless and until the administration adopts the attitude that the United States can and should be part of Syria’s solution. The prognosis is not good. Press reports indicate White House concern that the Ukraine crisis is demanding too much of the president’s time. In an administration where key foreign policy issues are debated and decided within a tiny circle of trust, what chance does Syria have for quality time and attention if Ukraine becomes a burden in the in-box?

Yet if the Syria-as-a-distraction obstacle can be hurdled, developing a strategy to replace the Assad-Makhluf clan with a state reflecting legitimacy, pluralism, rule of law, and citizenship, will become possible. The days of wishing and hoping for Russia to spring the trap door under its Syrian client are over. If hooking this regime offstage and replacing it with a respectable act are the goals, then the overarching theme of a multi-lateral effort led by Washington should be the establishment of an alternate government on Syrian territory: one reflecting the values that the leading members of the London 11 would want ultimately to see in a government ruling all of Syria.

Until now the administration has resisted the alternate government idea. Its rationale has been consistent with its view that time spent on Syria should be minimized. For the United States to recognize an alternate government would be to assume, with allies and partners, material responsibilities having to do with resources and defense. Washington has not been prepared to do so.

Instead it has tried to make-do by recognizing (in December 2012) the Syrian National Coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people—the emptiest of rhetorical gestures. It has taken a literalist interpretation of the June 2012 Geneva Communiqué, arguing that political transition talks could only take place between a government and an opposition: not between rival governments. It has said that an entity unable to regulate air traffic cannot be a government. Yet the bottom line has been unmistakable: to encourage, facilitate, and recognize a governing alternative to the Assad regime would obligate the United States—in concert with allies and partners—to do things beyond speaking words. If it is any consolation at all to those who see Syria as a time-eater, the absence of an alternate government is not a cost-free option.

As the sole proprietor of the Syrian Arab Republic Government (SARG), the Assad-Makhluf clan decides unilaterally whether the United Nations can bring humanitarian relief to people otherwise being shelled, starved, and gassed. Indeed, the clan has the legal right to deny access to the United Nations anywhere in Syria. As photographic evidence emerges of systematic torture, starvation, and murder in regime detention centers, the United States is left in the position of recognizing the SARG as Syria’s legal governing authority. If this were not enough, the growth of al-Qaeda and other jihadist elements in parts of Syria not controlled by the regime drives home the crying need for a decent, non-sectarian governmental alternative.

For the Obama administration to take the lead in facilitating the creation of an alternate government, a conscious decision to do some very difficult foreign policy lifting is needed. As a recent Rafik Hariri Center study noted, the soundest foundation for internal alternate governance is to be found among several disconnected local committees providing services as best they can under incredibly difficult circumstances. A serious effort by the United States to arm, train, equip, and expand nationalist elements in the armed opposition can build a security bridge between local committees and Coalition officials-in-waiting, currently residing outside Syria. The idea is not to impose exile on Syrians. Rather it is to help the Syrian National Coalition and the Istanbul-based Interim Government adjust to, be supportive of, and provide linkages between existing alternate governance structures inside Syria.

To undertake such a task would transport the Obama administration well beyond its comfort zone. This would not, after all, be a strategic communications exercise managed by a small group of White House seniors. Many talented, Arabic language-capable State Department people now in Washington would have to be forward-deployed to Istanbul and Gaziantep. Detailed plans and divisions of labor must be discussed and developed with allies, partners, and opposition leaders. Congress will want to be briefed on the operational and fiscal implications of the effort. And there would be key roles for others. Turkey, for example, might well create a humanitarian enclave in northern Syria in which a government would operate. The Gulf States might well provide monetary resources enabling the new government to restore vital infrastructure and deliver services. These things will not happen without US commitment and leadership.

In the end there is no point to having an opposition if there is no intent to govern. There can be no ability to govern as long as a criminal clan is free to do as it wishes. The key to civilian protection is to enable and empower those who would protect civilians—officials and soldiers alike. For the United States, its friends, and its allies to organize themselves to build and help sustain an alternate government in Syria requires real commitment, discipline, and work. Yet the alternative is to consign Syrians and their neighbors to decades of instability and hardship. The alternative is to keep sliding down the slippery slope of failed statehood, mass murder, transnational terrorism, and ever narrowing options. The alternative is to be obliged, someday, to take action under conditions that will make today’s environment look propitious, just as the summer of 2012 seems now, nearly two years later, to have been the ideal time to act.

Related Experts: Frederic C. Hof

Image: President Barack Obama delivers remarks during his address to the United Nations General Assembly in New York. (Photo: White House)