Finding a way forward in Syria

March 16, on the fourth anniversary of the Syrian conflict, the Middle East Institute convened a panel discussion focusing on the way forward for Syria. Led by MEI’s vice president Paul Salem, the panel featured resident scholar and former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, senior political advisor to the Syrian American Council Mohammed Alaa Ghanem, deputy director and fellow at CNAS Dafna Rand and fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Michael Eisenstadt.

Paul Salem reminded the audience about the somber development of the Syrian crisis.  The conflict has cost the lives of an estimated 300,000 Syrians, has injured many more and has displaced another 9 million. The economy has been devastated, and will likely take 30-40 years to return to pre-crisis levels. Moreover, fallout from the conflict threatens both the region and the world at large. Salem argued that the US and its allies have so far been unable to cope with these challenges, as they have yet to produce a strategy that deals with the root cause of the conflict: a regime that refuses to budge or compromise.

Ambassador Ford argued that current US policy falls short of the intended goal of containing and eventually rolling back the Islamic State (ISIS). In particular, Ford noted that recruitment of Syrians to ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra continues unabated – driven by the brutality of the Syrian civil war. The bombing campaign against ISIS might be helpful as a stop-gap measure, but it will not succeed in rolling it back.

To achieve this, the US must instead push for a political transition process, Ford argued. This requires that the opposition accept negotiations with the Assad regime and that they provide war-weary regime supporters with a vision of Syria that is neither Assad’s nor the Islamists’. It also requires increased material support to the moderate opposition so that the regime feels compelled to negotiate. Ford concluded by pointing out that support for the opposition in Syria is about bringing both parties to the table, not about toppling the regime.

In a similar vein, Mohamed Alaa Ghanem argued for a more robust American response to the Syrian crisis. Ghanem pointed out that in October 2011 Syrian protesters had come out in large numbers to demand the establishment of a no-fly zone in Syria. He argued that if a no-fly zone had been established in July 2012, when the Free Syrian Army controlled a majority of populated areas in Syria, it could have meant the effective end of the regime. Similarly, Ghanem argued that the current US train-and-equip program would flounder if these forces did not have protection against the regime’s aerial bombardments. He therefore urged the US to support Turkish proposals of an air exclusion zone – a limited form of no-fly zone that would shield Aleppo and allow some space to the moderate rebels.

He also urged more significant support to the rebels, noting that the FSA-affiliated ‘Southern Front’ that is currently making progress pays their fighters about $85 per month, as opposed to Jabat al-Nusra’s $300 and IS’ $500-1000. Ghanem warned that de Mistura’s plan of local freezes would likely free up regime forces for the offensive in the south, and argued that the only framework for a political settlement acceptable to Syrians was the Geneva communique.

On a slightly more optimistic note, Daphna Rand said that the US policy of fighting the ISIS could be helpful in pushing for a transition process, provided it was leveraged the right way.  Rand suggested four reasons why the two goals were related. First, the current battle map of Syria requires the removal of IS from the the North-West – particularly from the Turkish border, in order to create governing space for the opposition. Second, recent opinion polls show a significant increase in public support for intervention in Syria after the anti-ISIS campaign was announced in October 2014. Third, experience from previous interventions suggests that the US-led anti-ISIS campaign will not remain in its current limited form. Intervention will require the US to pick a side, as indicated  by the current training of a non-jihadist, non-regime force. Finally, the architecture of the anti-ISIS coalition suggests that the current intervention might overcome the strategic disparity that characterized early efforts by the US and its allies, when the support for widely different groups helped fragment the Syrian opposition.

Michael Eisenstadt argued that the US policy in Syria amounts to supporting an insurgency. Since insurgencies are inherently political, this requires coordination between political and military efforts. Such coordination so far has not been forthcoming, in part due to muddled thinking about the use of military power. Obama’s mantra on Syria has been that there are no military solutions to the conflict – an approach that the Assad regime clearly disagrees with.

According to Eisenstadt, it is clear that some form of military action is required to bring about a diplomatic solution to the Syrian conflict. Moreover, US Syria policy appears to be held hostage by the ongoing nuclear negotiations with Iran. Eisenstadt stressed that these negotiations should not constrain US options in Syria and pointed to the fact that the Iranians themselves do not appear to be notably constrained in their Syria policy.

The US needs to recognize its role in perpetuating the conflict. US inaction has been a recruitment bonanza for ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra and encouraged the perceived passive alliance with Iran in Iraq. The fact that early airstrikes protected minority groups but not Sunnis has helped cement a view of the US as opposed to the Syrian revolution. Einsentadt concluded by warning against separating US policy in Syria from Iraq. Without according equal weight to efforts in both countries, the US cannot succeed in defeating ISIS.

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