- By Mona YacoubianMona Yacoubian served as deputy assistant administrator in the Middle East bureau at USAID from 2014 to 2017.
The United States must shift the paradigm on Syria. Escalating tensions between Syria and Turkey are the latest indicator that Syria’s crisis is spiraling out of control. With Russia now pulled into the fray, the conflict has the potential to escalate significantly. Horrific violence inside Syria has dramatically increased civilian death tolls and sparked an exponential rise in refugee flows. The current policy debate largely focuses on the relative merits of providing (directly or indirectly) more sophisticated weapons to the opposition versus the establishment of a protected safe zone in northern Syria. Yet, these tactical military interventions carry significant downside risks. The deepening crisis between Syria and Turkey amid Syria’s worsening civil conflict presents an important opportunity for U.S. leadership and diplomacy. Washington should seize on these latest developments to build a coalition for bringing an end to the violence and establishing a political solution to the Syrian crisis.
Further militarization of the Syrian conflict would exacerbate an already volatile situation on the ground, deepening and protracting Syria’s sectarian civil war. Far from providing relief for innocent civilians, fueling the conflict with more arms risks further endangering civilians. The armed opposition’s inability to unify and its continued radicalization as well as enduring divisions between key patrons, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, underscore the inherent risks of this option. Differences among Syria’s various armed opposition groups, not to mention between Arabs and Kurds, could erupt into open hostilities in Syria’s mounting chaos. Meanwhile, jihadist elements, while still a distinct minority, appear to be gaining influence.
Moreover, the arming process could pose a significant threat to U.S. national security interests given the difficulty of ensuring that the arms ultimately do not end up in the wrong hands. The blowback of U.S. interventions in Iraq in the 2000s and Afghanistan in the 1980s is a potent reminder of the risks. Experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan also suggest that arming the opposition will not necessarily confer greater U.S. influence on them should they come to power. Time and again, the United States has been confronted with the limits of its influence if it was garnered solely by supplying arms and in the absence of deeper political and strategic common interests.
Nor does channeling more sophisticated weaponry to the armed rebels guarantee that they will gain a strategic edge over the regime. Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia — the Syrian regime’s primary patrons — would likely meet such an escalation with a commensurate upping of the ante. Already, Tehran has doubled down on its support for the regime since mid-July when the rebels mounted a successful attack against key elements of the regime and escalated the battle in Damascus and Aleppo. Likewise, Hezbollah has provided greater support to the Assad regime, reportedly sending fighters to train and possibly fight alongside the shabiha, Syria’s sectarian paramilitary forces.
Establishing a safe zone in northern Syria will require a significant U.S. military commitment. The United States will necessarily need to play a leading role in disabling Syria’s complex air defense systems, including batteries south of Damascus. Moreover, a safe zone will require a military presence (possibly Turkish or Arab) on the ground to defend the area. U.S. military involvement in Syria, even if limited to air strikes, likely would catalyze jihadist involvement in Syria, drawing more foreign fighters into an arena in which the United States is directly engaged.
Rather than pursue military options, the United States needs to build a broad-based coalition for a peaceful transition in Syria. It should seek to create conditions that will alter the dynamic from militarization to diplomacy. The United States must resist the temptation to join a sectarian battle that threatens to engulf the region. It should tamp down sectarian tensions across the region, not play into them by viewing Syria solely via a sectarian prism that pits the region’s Sunni powers against the arc of Shiite influence spearheaded by Iran.
Instead, the United States must rise above the violence and help provide a way out of the crisis. Washington should leverage the latest escalations — both inside Syria and regionally — to assert its leadership via NATO and the United Nations and shift the dynamic regionally and globally. It should seek to turn the real danger of a regional war into an opening for regional and global diplomacy backed by the credible threat of force via Article 5 of the NATO treaty should these efforts fail.
Several developments suggest the Syrian crisis may be at a turning point that translates to an opportunity for diplomacy. Certainly, the ratcheting up of tensions between Turkey, Syria, and Russia is the most prominent element. In addition, hostilities along the Lebanese border are mounting, while Hezbollah has deepened its involvement inside Syria. A recent threat by a Free Syrian Army commander to strike Hezbollah in its Beirut stronghold underscores the potential for broader instability. Hezbollah’s recent drone flight over Israel raises the specter of an even wider conflagration. Meanwhile, Iraq has raised concerns that Syria’s jihadist elements are invigorating Sunni extremists in Iraq (and vice versa). Jordan is bearing the stress of major refugee flows, stretching an already-taxed infrastructure and adding to the kingdom’s mounting internal pressures.
Inside Syria, recent intra-Alawite clashes in the Assads’ hometown hint at a possible shift away from the regime within the Alawite community. The internecine fighting among major Alawite clans suggests that the Alawites could be fracturing under pressure of the growing conflict with some key elements opting to abandon the regime. Unconfirmed rumors of Alawite military defections, if proven true, would be another indicator. At the same time, a softening of the opposition Syrian National Council’s (with its admittedly minimal relevance in Syria today) position on transition by allowing that regime elements "without blood on their hands" could play a role, could provide the glimmer of an opening to a broader transition process.
The United States, together with its European allies, NATO, and the United Nations, must seize on these developments to work toward reversing the destructive dynamics at play inside Syria and threatening the region. Keying off these threats, Washington should take a leading role in launching a broad international effort, including Russia and China, to cease the violence and work toward a political transition in Syria. The structure and sequencing of this endeavor will no doubt be difficult. The venue might be an international conference alongside a regional forum that leverages the "Islamic Quartet" launched by Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi. Gaining the buy-in of key stakeholders, in the region and globally, will be essential. Standing behind this diplomatic effort is the very real possibility of NATO involvement in the conflict under Article 5 if hostilities between Syria and Turkey accelerate. But if successful, this effort could shift the long and difficult process of Syria’s transition from one driven by violence to one driven by politics and diplomacy.
Mona Yacoubian is a Senior Advisor on the Middle East at the Stimson Center.