Here’s Your Plan B
Arming the rebels isn’t the only way the United States can help Syria.
The conflict in Syria has been transformed over the last year — and American policy has to change, too. Almost exactly one year ago, I recommended a set of measures designed to pressure President Bashar al-Assad’s regime to support a negotiated political transition while avoiding limited military intervention. This was motivated by fears of a "hard landing" — a failed state riven by ethnic and sectarian slaughter, what international envoy Lakhdar al-Brahimi warned in late December could mean the "Somalization" of Syria.
I believe the United States got key policy decisions right over the last year — not intervening militarily, opposing the arming of the rebels, pushing for a political solution. But critics rightly pushed back on the question of alternatives: If not arming the rebels, then what? Today, I’ve released a new CNAS Policy Brief, Syria’s Hard Landing, that tries to lay out just such a political and humanitarian alternative, because Washington needs to do more, even as it continues to resist military involvement. The perception of American inaction may be unjustified, but it’s the sort of perception that can really matter as it hardens into an enduring political fact.
First, I agree with the bipartisan group of senators (and some humanitarian aid organizations) who have recently advocated direct aid to rebel-controlled areas. Washington should push for a new U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing the United Nations to deliver aid to north Syria from across the Turkish border, and if that fails it should ramp up such aid anyway. This could not only help a large number of people in extreme need — it could also change the strategic landscape.
The United States should not shy away from explicitly tying the push for cross-border aid to a political strategy to strengthen the opposition. American humanitarian assistance thus far, while considerable, has achieved remarkably little in terms of advancing its strategic goals or gaining influence within Syria. While traditional humanitarian organizations should play a role, significant parts of the aid should be channeled through the emergent Syrian opposition coalition to strengthen opposition forces against both Assad and against their Islamist rivals. This will provide them with the resources to begin to build the core of a post-Assad transitional government.
Here’s where that new Security Council resolution comes in. The narrow focus on humanitarian relief could be more difficult for Russia to block than some of the other more expansive proposals that have foundered in the council, given Moscow’s recent admission of the urgency of the humanitarian situation and overtures to the Syrian opposition. The consistent, urgent appeals from within the U.N. documenting the appalling magnitude of Syrian suffering could also help the resolution gain traction. The implicit threat to carry out such relief efforts without the U.N. Nations — perhaps on the basis that Syria has lost effective sovereign control over these territories — would be more credible than threats of military action. But this should not be cast as a back-door path to military intervention. A multilateral, legitimate operation would be far preferable both politically and operationally to unilateral actions.
Efforts are well underway to secure additional international support for humanitarian relief, most notably the $1.5 billion pledged at the Jan. 30 Kuwait donors conference. The United States has committed a total of $385 million over the course of the conflict, making it the single largest donor to humanitarian relief efforts. This aid has primarily been coordinated with recognized NGOs and the Syrian government, and only a small portion has reached rebel-controlled areas where the humanitarian situation is particularly dire.
These ideas are very much in the air these days. According to U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos, the United Nations has begun working with local organizations on the ground in rebel-controlled territory, but thus far little seems to have materialized and approval from Assad’s regime has reportedly not been forthcoming. EU foreign ministers have recently opened the door to such direct aid. The United States should also do more.
The objections to this approach are clear, and should not be lightly dismissed. Such cross-border assistance in the absence of U.N. authorization would take place in an uncomfortable legal grey zone. Many fear it could open the door to military intervention and undermine longstanding international legal norms governing humanitarian neutrality. Humanitarian organizations object to the politicization of relief, which threatens to undermine the imperative to provide aid solely on the basis of need. They worry that the Syrian opposition currently lacks the capacity to handle or effectively deliver the aid, and would do so less efficiently than established organizations.
Meanwhile, groups currently working quietly on the ground fear that a public push for such aid could threaten existing channels. Aid could be captured by local warlords and used as an instrument for intra-opposition political battles. It could make aid workers a military target. And it could rupture existing aid networks and end Syrian government cooperation with humanitarian relief operations.
But unlike with military options, the benefits here outweigh the costs. The sheer magnitude of the humanitarian crisis and the failures of the current system provide overwhelming incentives. The aid currently allowed in by the Syrian government disproportionately helps people in government-controlled territory, leaving the vast numbers of Syrians in rebel-controlled areas in desperate need. This has the pernicious effect of strengthening Assad’s control of his territory while undermining the emergent opposition leadership. It is simply not clear that the current system of small-scale, quiet relief efforts is worth preserving.
Direct humanitarian aid to local organizations, channeled through Syrian opposition institutions, would not only alleviate immediate suffering, but would also be a major step toward the development of meaningful and effective alternative governance. The institutional capacity for delivering aid, which is now unfortunately lacking, is the same institutional capacity needed to effectively govern. Pushing the humanitarian assistance through opposition channels is the best way to strengthen them, to show progress toward improving conditions in rebel-controlled areas, and to give the opposition something to demonstrate its relevance on the ground.
What about the war? The best way for the United States to affect the course of the conflict is not to arm the rebels. Instead, it is to more forcefully coordinate the military and civilian aid that Syria is already receiving. Since the conflict has already regrettably been militarized, and there’s clearly no going back, a coordinated flow of arms is better than an uncoordinated flow of arms.
Currently, military aid to the rebels flows through Gulf and regional governments and private citizens directly to local commanders and fighting forces, while humanitarian aid is channeled primarily through NGOs operating with the consent of the Syrian government. This generates a distinctive political economy of war that has distinctly pernicious effects — encouraging the fragmentation of the opposition, deepening geographic and political divides, discouraging a coherent political strategy, and creating rent-seeking incentives for ongoing warfare. The uncoordinated, often competitive, financing of favored proxies by outside players has actively contributed to emergent warlordism, intra-rebellion clashes, and the absence of a coherent political strategy.
American diplomats already urge their allies regularly to coordinate their support to the rebels, but with little success. Critics of American policy argue that it fails because it does not have any "skin in the game" — that is, it is not providing arms to the rebels and so cannot presume to dictate conditions to others who are.
The "skin in the game" argument, however, underestimates the centrality of politics. The real obstacle to coordination is that players in Syria do not particularly want to be coordinated: They have their own priorities, their own networks, and their own strategic visions. Some countries do not exert centralized control over the aid flowing from their territory — Saudi Arabia, for example, has long been notorious for the uncoordinated private funds lavished on Islamist groups across the region. Many of the external backers view their putative partners as rivals.
Simply adding American arms to the bazaar without a new strategic vision would just bring one more bidder to the market. Instead, the United States needs to show these players why it’s worthwhile for them to change the way they do business. That’s going to require a convincing alternative strategy for accelerating a political transition in Syria in ways that would benefit the players involved more than what they are currently doing. At the moment, they have little confidence that the United States has a workable strategy that would justify surrendering any control over the aid flows to their own proxies. But this could change. Saudi Arabia and Qatar have repeatedly signaled that their provision of aid would benefit from Western "political backing, coordination, equipment and advice."
For any of this to matter strategically, all forms of aid need to be channeled through more effective opposition institutions. The United States and others have been working hard for months to encourage new organizations such as the Syrian Opposition Coalition and the Supreme Military Council, organized in December to coordinate rebel groups. But those efforts were inexplicably handicapped by the failure to immediately put significant new resources at their disposal to demonstrate their worth. And by most accounts, they have withered on the vine. Opposition figures complain about unfulfilled promises of financial or military support, while regional players have shown little interest in changing their current approach. For instance, one member of the Supreme Military Council recently complained that "we were promised that if we unified our ranks that we would be given legitimacy as well as salaries and heavy weapons, but from that day we have gotten nothing."
That can’t happen again. Plans must be established in advance to distribute meaningful aid through these channels immediately after they are created. The failure to deliver on such promises badly damaged U.S. credibility and made it less likely that others would continue to cooperate. The push to coordinate aid flows must be accompanied by immediate, sizable, and strategically relevant material payoffs to demonstrate that the plan can work and is worth pursuing.
There’s also a major role for planning and diplomacy. It is far too late to avoid a hard landing in Syria, but every effort must be made to ensure the rapid establishment of authority and order following Assad’s fall. Syria cannot afford the years of drift that have bedeviled almost every other transitional Arab country. The moment of transition will be critical: If Assad falls without measures in place to produce a reasonably smooth transition, then fighting will likely continue for years. Efforts to build a representative and inclusive Syrian Opposition Coalition, with some degree of authority over armed groups and legitimacy on the ground, will pay dividends during a transition. Planning efforts, such as those developed by the U.S. Institute of Peace’s "Day After" project, should also be supported politically and materially.
And then there’s diplomacy. I’ve been skeptical about the value of the current U.N. diplomatic efforts since the collapse of Kofi Annan’s mission, but I’ve been persuaded that they are nevertheless worth pursuing. Since a full military victory by either side seems highly unlikely, a diplomatic channel will almost certainly be necessary at some point. The tentative outreach between opposition coalition head Moaz al-Khatib and the Syrian regime are only the most public of the growing signs that parts of the opposition and parts of the Syrian regime are finally reaching the point where they could contemplate a deal. The diplomatic track is a very important element of a more credible political strategy for accelerating and managing the endgame. A combination of private "track two" meetings and ongoing shuttle diplomacy, whether by Brahimi or by other mediators, should conduct escalating and intense consultations toward this end.
Syria’s Hard Landing also offers a number of thoughts on post-transition planning, International Criminal Court war crimes indictments, and transitional justice mechanisms. I have no illusions that any of these will quickly or decisively end the conflict. But I don’t believe that military options would offer any easy solutions, either. I hope that these proposals at least spark some new thinking about a political strategy going forward.