The Middle East Channel

A coordinated U.S. strategy on Syria

A coordinated U.S. strategy on Syria

The growing reports of increased U.S. support for the armed opposition in Syria with the training of Free Syrian Army (FSA) militias in Jordan and the facilitating of arms shipments into the country through Turkey mark an increase in overall U.S. assistance over two years into the conflict. While such actions are tempting in efforts to bring an end to Syria’s deepening civil war, a military solution for either side has not been achievable these past two years. What is needed, instead, is to combine military assistance with a coordinated strategy of capacity building within the opposition, which can then have measurable results and reinforce international efforts to find a political solution to the crisis.

A better-trained, organized opposition that is able to make political and military gains could change not only the situation on the ground, but also the perception of the crisis in Russia and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s inner circle. Based on our conversations with former senior members of the Assad regime and individuals in contact with the regime presently, Assad is still confident that he can manage to suppress the uprisings and bring the opposition to the table to negotiate on his terms. 

While these actions carry risks, the threats to America’s national interests argue for a more robust and carefully strategized policy. The civil war’s costs to the country and the region’s stability amplify by the day. The estimates to rebuild Syria exceed $60 billion dollars, and these costs will soar as the fighting continues in the capital Damascus. Despite slow opposition military gains in the south, Assad still controls the majority of the population centers in the country that are vital to his rule. The fighting in Syria has also seeped farther into the Bekaa Valley this week further endangering Lebanon’s fragile stability as its confessional factions seek to form a new government in Beirut after Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s resignation in March.

To support this initiative, U.S. leadership can address the following areas: engaging Russia, building the capacity of the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) and the FSA, and safeguarding neighboring states vulnerable to Syria’s civil war. The United States, working with the international community, can take these steps to bring substantive change to the situation in Syria and help secure its future without, importantly, committing to open-ended obligations both militarily and financially that the United States cannot afford and that the U.S. public does not support.

The United States should engage in high-level talks with Russia to find a common diplomatic position from which to work together to secure an end to the violence in Syria. The United States and Russia should jointly sponsor a U.N. Security Council resolution that reflects both countries’ concerns and offers a roadmap to secure a stable Syria. This resolution can be based on the Geneva Communiqué, which was signed in June 2012 aimed at putting an end to the conflict, and which Moscow continues to support. Additionally, a complementary approach should be made to China in this respect.

To build trust, the European Union and the United States should help broker negotiations between the opposition coalition and the Russian government. While many promises have been made by members of the coalition and Russian leadership to engage one another on their respective interests, there have been few signs of developing trust on either end.

These negotiations should focus on contractual agreements between Syria and Russia, and other long-term interests of the state. Specifically, the United States should encourage the coalition to address key Russian interests, including the Russian naval base in Syria’s port of Tartus, the protection of Russian citizens in Syria, trade agreements, and the inclusion of minorities. Such an agreement has promise, as members of the opposition have expressed mutual interests with Moscow.

The United States should urge the coalition to broaden its numbers to include underrepresented groups, including the Alawites and Christians. Drawing lessons from the dismantlement of the Iraqi Baath party, the coalition should also take necessary steps to avoid the collapse of the civil service, the security apparatus, and other key institutions. To do so, the coalition should incorporate former Syrian civil servants into the coalition who will help identify institutions of the state to preserve in a post-Assad transition.

In addition, the United States should work with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the Arab League, and the EU to create a unified international funding source for the coalition. The administrators of this international fund, preferably a joint EU-GCC initiative, should work closely with the coalition to ensure adequate allocation of these funds.

At present, despite broad financial commitments made at the Friends of Syria meetings, the coalition has yet to receive all committed funds. A new structure will provide an element of accountability from key funders such as Qatar, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, France, Britain, and the United States. Moreover, a funding source will empower the coalition to build stronger links with the civilian opposition on the ground and help address the military inequality that is handicapping the opposition forces.

Members of the FSA have expressed that heavier weaponry to defend against armor and aircraft attacks are the single greatest need of the armed opposition. To encourage the FSA to disassociate itself completely with the Islamist al-Nusra front, which has been designated by the United States as a terrorist organization, the United States, along with France, Britain, Turkey, and members of the GCC, should provide vetted FSA leaders with military equipment. However, this military assistance should exclude man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADS) and stinger missiles, which would present significant security risks to the region if these weapons fall into hands of extremist groups. This needed support should help the FSA protect Syrian civilians terrorized by the regime’s aerial and ground attacks, offset the appeal of tactical alliances with extremists such as al-Nusra front, and improve the credibility and the image of the United States in the eyes of the Syrian opposition.

To ensure the effective use of this military assistance, the joint special operations command, working with the FSA’s Military Council and opposition supporting regional states, should supervise the distribution of weapons from arms supply centers to vetted militias. This command will dis-incentivize individual countries from arming commanders in various armed militias separately from this established process, and thus weaken the legitimacy of a larger FSA command structure. 

This command should also provide international trainers for leadership training and observation purposes. These observers can create safeguards to decrease the risk of non-FSA units acquiring this weaponry, train the FSA in the international laws of war, and help the FSA enact regulations to punish and prevent unjust killings and reprisals. This training can take place in adjacent countries to avoid an enlarged military footprint within Syria.

These efforts are needed to ensure that a new FSA structure can effectively distribute a stable flow of arms to appropriate commanders in areas of operations, assist with the training of FSA units with the use of Russian and Western weaponry, and help improve coordination and discipline in the FSA.

Washington should lead the efforts of the international community to buttress neighboring states in the Levant, in particular Jordan and Lebanon, which are vulnerable to political and economic turmoil as a result of the deepening civil war in Syria. Building upon U.S. President Barack Obama’s commitment of $200 million dollars in humanitarian aid to Jordan, the United States should convene a Fri
ends of Jordan conference that can provide a substantial international aid package to the Jordanian government to address the rising public debt associated with the massive influx of displaced persons into Jordan.

The United States should also prepare for the potential political crisis that may engulf Lebanon if the Assad regime falls or if the fighting continues. The United States, EU, and GCC countries should monitor the sectarian strife throughout the country, especially in the northern city of Tripoli, and lend the Lebanese government political and mediation support to prevent a breakdown of the fragile political system in Lebanon. Moreover, a larger question on the future role of Hezbollah in Lebanon must be considered as a potential security vulnerability to the state and the region.

Finally, the United States should consult closely with Israel on the evolving security situation on the Israeli-Syrian border. As the situation evolves in Syria, the United States and Israel should monitor the security situation on the border as well as the movements of arms shipments from Syria to Hezbollah. Washington should also encourage the Israeli government to halt the development of a permanent security fence in the disputed Israeli occupied Golan Heights, which could hinder potential openings for the resumption of peace negotiations in a post-Assad era.

Without sustained, proactive U.S. leadership, Syria could emerge as a failed state that will assuredly bring about power struggles between various armed militants fighting along sectarian lines. The results of Syria collapsing into such a state at the heart of the Middle East, with an al Qaeda affiliate potentially exploiting the political and security vacuum, represent a threat to the international peace and security of the region.

Edward P. Djerejian is the former U.S. Ambassador to Syria and to Israel and founding director of the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University. Andrew Bowen is the Baker Institute’s Scholar for the Middle East. Djerejian and Bowen recently published "Syria at the Crossroads: U.S. Policy and Recommendations for the Way Forward."