Another ceasefire is in tatters. But America keeps reaching out to Russia while expecting a different result.
- By Charles ListerCharles Lister is a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute and a senior consultant to The Shaikh Group’s Track II Syria Dialogue Initiative. Follow him on Twitter at: @Charles_Lister.
The latest diplomatic attempt to bring calm to Syria and pave a pathway toward peace appears to have failed. After a week of blocked aid deliveries and cease-fire violations, Russian aircraft on Monday reportedly bombed a joint U.N.-Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) aid convoy and warehouse outside Aleppo, killing nearly half of its staff, including a SARC regional aid director.
The attack came just minutes after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime declared the cease-fire dead. Several dozen more people were then killed and wounded in heavy air and artillery strikes on the besieged rebel-held districts of Aleppo city.
The remains of a Russian air-dropped OFAB-type fragmentation bomb have been discovered in the wreckage of the SARC warehouse, and U.S. investigations have concluded that Russian Sukhoi Su-24 jets were responsible. Speaking after the incident, U.N. humanitarian chief Stephen O’Brien said the bombing — which lasted nearly two hours — could be a “war crime.”
None of this should come as a surprise, even as the consequences are potentially devastating. The Russian government, much less the Assad regime, has never been a reliable partner for peace in Syria. But even after Russia’s alleged bombing of the aid convoy, U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration is still plowing its energies into a deal that aims to work with the Russian government.
Despite the flagrant violation of international humanitarian law, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry stood in New York on Tuesday and maintained that the “cease-fire is not dead.” The Obama administration appears to believe that the escalating fighting elsewhere in Syria — including the targeted airstrike on a medical facility in the town of Khan Touman late Tuesday, which killed 13 people — is just a figment of the world’s imagination.
On Wednesday, Kerry told the U.N. Security Council that Russia’s denial of responsibility for targeting the aid convoy was evidence that it lived in a “parallel universe,” but, even so, he proceeded to call for another go at the very same deal that failed only a week prior.
The Obama administration has viewed the Syrian crisis through the lens of counterterrorism. But diplomatic failures such as this one continue to embolden extremist actors like al Qaeda, which has purposely presented itself as a reliable and necessary opposition ally, seemingly dedicated only to the cause of ridding Syria of the Assad regime. By so deeply embedding within Syrian revolutionary dynamics and claiming to fill the vacuum left behind by insufficient foreign support or protection, al Qaeda’s narrative is constantly strengthened by perceptions of American inadequacy. Thus, U.S. failures do not exist in a vacuum — our adversaries quickly translate them into their own victories.
It is long past time for the United States to reassess its shameful approach to the Syrian crisis. Both the Islamic State and al Qaeda are symptoms of the conflict, and the conflict itself is a symptom of fundamentally failed governance. In choosing to treat the symptoms, Washington continues to reduce its chances of resolving the larger issues at play in Syria.
It should now be patently clear that contrary to the hopes of some, the Russian government is not the key to controlling the Assad regime’s heinous behaviors. For a week straight, the Syrian government consistently ignored Moscow’s demands and destroyed a cease-fire deal that had been largely of Russia’s making. The regime also reinforced its troop positions around Aleppo and amassed forces opposite the strategic northern town of Jisr al-Shughour, and its aircraft were blamed for bombings around Aleppo, north of the city of Homs, and in parts of southern Daraa governorate. And after the Assad government declared the cease-fire over, Russia ferociously destroyed an aid convoy intended for 78,000 civilians.
The Syrian regime’s decision to scuttle the latest diplomatic effort should drive home one simple point: Bashar al-Assad does not intend to step down from power, and he will use any means at his disposal to prevent that from happening. From industrialized arrest, torture, chemical weapons, barrel bombs, and incendiary and cluster weapons to medieval-style sieges — no method is too severe if it helps him pursue his goal. Beyond feeble public appeals and a 2013 agreement to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons, which appears to have left some behind and ignored the regime’s chlorine gas attacks, the United States has never chosen to challenge such brazen brutality. And that’s why these tactics remain decidedly in use by the Assad regime.
The United States can no longer continue its meek attempts to contain the Syrian crisis’s effects. Five years ago, Syria was a local problem; today it is an international one. U.S. indecision, risk aversion, a total divergence between rhetoric and policy, and a failure to uphold clearly stated “red lines” have all combined into what can best be described as a cold-hearted, hypocritical approach. At worst, Washington has indirectly abetted the wholesale destruction of a nation-state, in direct contradiction to its fundamental national security interests and its most tightly held values.
These failures began in the early days of the Syrian uprising. Though the Obama administration first proclaimed that Assad had lost his legitimacy in July 2011, it took more than a year after that to develop a meaningful policy to assist the opposition. Even then, U.S. support consisted only of providing food and nonlethal equipment. Later, the CIA’s vet, train, and equip program to the Free Syrian Army found some minimal success, but U.S. commitment remained negligible when compared with our often uncoordinated regional allies, such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar. It seems U.S. officials wanted Assad out but wanted others — whom administration officials would say in private they did not trust — to do it for them.
The result? Nearly half a million people dead, more than 1 million people living under siege, and 11 million people displaced. Catastrophic refugee flows have led to an anti-immigrant backlash in Europe and the rise of far-right politics while Syria is now home to perhaps the greatest concentration of jihadi militants in any single country ever. Put aside the threat posed by the Islamic State for a second: Syria now hosts a thriving de facto al Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham — formerly the Nusra Front — the most capable, politically savvy, and militarily powerful al Qaeda movement in history. Al Qaeda’s central leadership has also revitalized itself inside Syria, with the international terrorist organization’s newly named deputy leader almost certainly residing in the country. The correlation is simple: U.S. shortcomings equal al Qaeda’s success in Syria.
After several years of ignoring this threat, U.S. policymakers finally turned their attention to al Qaeda this year. It was too late. Washington’s repeated failures had already given the jihadis the time and space to shape the dynamics of the war such that any attack by the United States or Russia would only further undermine U.S. influence and empower al Qaeda. Unfortunately, it is indisputably true that most Syrians living in opposition areas now view al Qaeda as a more trustworthy and capable protector of their lives than the United States. If there were ever a sign of policy failure, this would be it.
Faced with this situation, the United States must consider addressing its Syria policy shortcomings, beginning with five key points. First, Assad is not and can never be the solution for Syria. There is simply no scenario in which any meaningful portion of opposition society will ever give in to his rule. The longer Assad remains in power, the more extremists will benefit.
Second, there will be no purely military solution to Syria’s conflict — a negotiated settlement is the only feasible path toward stability. However, Assad will never treat a political process with any level of seriousness until placed under meaningful pressure, which the United States has thus far done everything in its power not to do.
When it comes time to design that negotiated settlement, diplomats should keep in mind a third key point: A partition would not only fail to solve Syria’s conflict, but it would also likely exacerbate the existing drivers and create new ones. Opposition to partition is arguably the single issue that unites communities supportive of and opposed to Assad.
Fourth, combating al Qaeda in Syria cannot be done solely with bullets and bombs. Defeating it is instead an issue of providing a more attractive and sustainable alternative to the jihadi group’s narrative. Given its successful efforts to embed within the opposition and build popular acceptance as a military (not a political) ally, al Qaeda does not represent a conventional counterterrorist problem. Adopting conventional means such as airstrikes will fail to defeat the group, and instead we must out-compete it.
Finally, although the Islamic State may be an adversary the United States can fight largely in isolation from the broader Syrian crisis, it remains an asymmetric and opportunistic terrorist movement. By its very nature, it can be counted on to exploit the continued conflict in Syria for its own ends. If Assad remains in place indefinitely and the conflict continues or worsens, the Islamic State will undoubtedly live to fight another day.
When questioned on the failure of the current U.S. policy in Syria, senior members of the Obama administration — and indeed the president himself — have repeatedly and cynically proclaimed: “What’s the alternative?” as if to say there are none. In fact, there are alternatives, and they all require a more determined use of U.S. hard and soft power.
Civilian protection should remain the core focus of any broad-based strategy, but it must be backed up by real and discernible consequences for violators. Given the five-year U.S. track record, the Assad regime knows all too well Washington’s hesitancy to threaten the use of anything close to force, and Damascus has repeatedly reaped the rewards of that impotent stance. If the United States hopes to develop an effective Syria policy, that has to change quickly.
Many Syria experts and commentators claim that it is either too late to rescue the country or that we must now wait for a new president in Washington. The first claim is not yet true, but the latter may end up ensuring that it eventually becomes so. Skeptics of a more assertive approach to the Syrian crisis can deride their critics as much as they want — but one would hope that after five years of failures, they would at least admit that they have got something wrong. In the meantime, we will have to watch the results of the shameful U.S. approach play out on our television screens — until the day when those results might hit us at home.
Photo credit: ANDREW RENNEISEN/Getty Images