If the U.S. government has learned one lesson in Syria, it must be this: Things can always get worse.
Since the beginning of February, more than 80,000 Syrians have massed in Bab al-Salama, across from Turkey’s Öncüpınar border crossing. Following a relentless campaign of Russian bombing, Bashar al-Assad’s regime forces advanced in Aleppo’s countryside, cutting supply lines from Turkey to opposition forces in Aleppo and across Idlib province. Anticipating the regime’s favored tactics of siege, starvation, and airstrikes, tens of thousands more are fleeing toward the border. With continued U.S. nonintervention, a generalized humanitarian catastrophe might give way to a new large-scale civilian massacre at NATO’s doorstep.
Meanwhile, U.S. partners Saudi Arabia and Turkey continue to affect — and be affected by — the conflict. The months following Turkey’s decision to shoot down a Russian jet produced more rhetoric than retribution, but Russia has returned to violating Turkey’s airspace, inviting escalated conflict with the Turks. To entice the United States, the Saudis have offered ground troops to fight ISIL — no doubt seeking to support anti-Assad opposition fighters alongside anti-ISIL efforts. In the run up to the failed Geneva process, the Saudis and the Turks — staunch opposition supporters both — counseled opposition groups not to abandon preconditions for negotiations with the regime.
Despite these looming threats, U.S. policy remains static. Secretary of State John Kerry — incensed at Geneva’s failure to launch — may have blamed the opposition entirely and thrown up his hands at the impending Russia- and Assad-fueled destruction. While more than 100,000 Syrians bear down on the Turkish border and several hundred thousand more try to escape death in Aleppo, Washington shows more concern for sealing Turkey’s border with ISIL-held territory.
Shifting realities on the ground in Syria inspired a new round of policy proposals for solving the conflict. Yet most simply accepted the conflict’s grim present conditions. Whether they advocate Lebanon-style, sectarian-reifying federalism or accept Russia’s aggression and the continuation of the Assad regime, they present disturbing visions of the future. Without a realistic path to deescalating violence, that might militate in favor of their reluctant adoption.
Many still argue that the Assad regime is unimportant in the scheme of U.S. strategic interests. These arguments are no less fallacious today than before. Without an equitable resolution of the Syrian civil war, ISIL will continue operating freely in Syria and expanding its brand with ease to other destabilized countries. Without a durable peace, refugees and internally displaced persons have roiled Syria’s neighborhood — and fueled radical right-wing politics worldwide. Successful peace negotiations are impossible as long as the Assad regime — and the Russians — see no credible threats to his continued rule.
It is long past time for a new U.S. strategy in Syria — one designed to bring about conditions for a truly negotiated peace and organized to transform inchoate, stand-alone policy actions into a coherent strategy. By crafting supportive and aligned policies with regional partners, confronting Russian aggression, and incorporating all transitional actors in the fight for a new Syria, the United States might belatedly effect positive incremental change in a conflict ensnaring the world.
1. Convert CIA’s “Vet and Arm” Into Official U.S. Policy
Though the CIA’s arming and equipping of vetted Syrian opposition groups is an open secret, U.S. policy does not publicly recognize the covert operation. It may seem strange to fully and publicly back the opposition at the very moment of the opposition’s greatest setback in Aleppo. Yet, merging covert and official policies would represent an initial show of seriousness that Washington is committed to a viable Syrian opposition. Hasan Mustafa, among others, has tracked and publicized which groups receive American arms, described their backgrounds, and explained their areas of operational activity. Such a public stance would also facilitate intensified negotiations with Turkey and Saudi Arabia about which opposition groups merit unified, massive support from all three countries — even if such support cannot be provided feasibly today.
2. Respond to Russia’s Threats Against Turkey
The U.S. government worked to avert escalation when Turkey shot down a Russian jet. The United States has also expressed clear public support for Turkey’s right to defend its borders. But now that Russian aircraft have resumed testing Turkey’s southeastern border, more must be done. The United States itself should call a new meeting of NATO under Article IV’s consultative provision. November’s extraordinary NATO meeting focused on Turkey’s explanation of the downed jet and called for new measures to avoid conflict with Russia. A new meeting presents a forum for Washington to publicly and proactively discuss Russia’s new aggression with the alliance and strongly support Turkey in defending its border. The United States has lost its partner’s confidence. Undoubtedly, Turkey’s questionable support for Salafist and jihadist actors undermined Washington’s faith as well. Yet, despite these frictions, Turkey remains a central actor in Syria. Only restoring confidence in the partnership can create space for difficult negotiations to reconcile still-divergent approaches to the conflict.
3. Defend the Opposition and Civilians in Aleppo
The consequences of Aleppo’s fall are grave. Russian airstrikes have directly enabled the Assad regime’s breakthrough in northwest Aleppo and cut supply lines from Turkey to the Syrian opposition. A regime siege is likely next. As Emile Hokayem recently argued in Foreign Policy, a siege would represent a dual strategic failure. The opposition’s 2015 defense of Aleppo coincided with advances against the regime across Syria; its defeat in the city would be a staggering blow. Moreover, rerouted supply lines go through Idlib Province, where al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra is strongest. The loss of the Azaz corridor is a blow not only to the opposition writ large, but to the moderate opposition specifically.
The United States need not declare a no-fly zone to support civilians and the opposition in Aleppo; however, it must confront Russian aggression directly and accept the attendant risks. The United States should state its intentions to defend civilians and the opposition from regime predations around Aleppo. This means setting — unilaterally, if necessary — new rules of engagement with Russia. While direct military engagement with Russian forces remains highly undesirable, no change is possible without a credible threat. The United States must declare its intentions to expand its area of operations and follow through if Russia does not back down.
In such a scenario, expanded airstrikes would target the Assad regime. bombing runways and air strips to ground its aircraft. Airstrikes would also target regime advances and new positions in northwest Aleppo with the objective of reopening the Azaz corridor for the Syrian opposition. Standing by as Aleppo starves and Assad crushes the opposition should be unconscionable for a government ostensibly committed to humanitarianism.
4. Coordinate Intensified Opposition Support with Turkey and Saudi Arabia
Through the CIA-supported Military Operations Command in Reyhanlı, Washington has worked closely with regional partners to provide weaponry to vetted Syrian Arab opposition groups. The United States must now elevate and expand these discussions, while massively increasing the amount and potency of materiel furnished.
A public agreement among the United States and its partners coupled with more, and more powerful, arms would strengthen the relative power of U.S.-backed groups. Regional support for Syrian Salafist and global jihadist groups may continue, but a U.S.–Turkey–Saudi agreement would only increase support for vetted groups. In time, expanded airstrikes could extend further to defend more opposition-controlled areas. The United States should not allow coordinated operations with radical groups on the ground to preclude increasing the relative strength of vetted opposition groups in the conflict. Such support represents the only way to secure the role of moderate opposition voices in Syria’s future.
Negotiated peace still represents the best resolution of the Syrian conflict. Yet, with Assad as strong as he is today, achieving terms acceptable to the opposition is impossible. Strengthening the opposition in the field enough to threaten the regime makes negotiated peace more — not less — readily achievable.
5. Advance Discussions about the Kurds’ Role in Syria’s Transition
U.S. support for the Democratic Union Party (PYD) in northeast Syria has been a tactical success against ISIL, but a broader strategic failure. The PYD is the Syrian affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) — a designated terrorist organization by Turkey and the United States. The PKK has fought for more than three decades with the Turkish state, first for Kurdish independence and more recently for localized Kurdish administration within the framework of unified Turkey.
The U.S. government has found the PYD a reliable and effective partner on the ground in northern Syria, and thus Washington has repeatedly resisted Turkey’s pressure to cease support for the PKK-affiliated group. Following Brett McGurk’s recent visit to PYD-controlled Qamishli, Turkey intensified its pressure on the U.S. government. Turkey’s objections grow more regular and more strident — President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan recently blamed U.S. support for the Syrian Kurds for a “sea of blood” in Syria. Yet, Washington has done nothing to bridge the policy gap — hampering both countries’ objectives in the Syrian conflict.
The United States has also avoided strong support for Turkey with respect to Russia and the Syrian opposition. While the connection is not intuitive, this has rendered serious discussion of the Kurds’ wider role impractical. With a stronger U.S. commitment to Turkish strategic interests — countering Russia and bolstering the opposition — the U.S. will gain the standing necessary to negotiate over the Syrian Kurds’ role.
In absence of reliable international support, the PYD has avoided direct confrontation with the Assad regime and advanced its own position on the ground. Following the regime’s advances northwest of Aleppo, preliminary reports suggested Kurdish-backed Syrian Defense Forces (SDF) have expanded out from the isolated Kurdish canton of Afrin to a new front line outside Marea. The SDF have proposed to take control of the town from Salafist opposition forces without fighting, but the sides have yet to strike an agreement. Still, forces aligned with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) are poised to control both eastern and western fronts with ISIL.
Ankara’s intransigence and Washington’s disregard of Turkish-Syrian Kurdish hostility have yielded both stronger Kurdish territorial positions and volatile responses from Turkey — including artillery fire against YPG positions. The United States must intensify its engagement with Turkey to induce direct negotiations with the PYD. Greater coordination between Turkey and Syrian Kurds could alter the Syrian conflict’s dynamic. With stronger Turkish and American support, SDF forces could facilitate for the Syrian opposition, increase pressure on Assad regime advances northwest of Aleppo, and enable new supply routes from Turkey via SDF-controlled territory. More broadly, deescalating conflict with the PYD and YPG could reap gains for Turkey’s domestic security. But such developments are impossible so long as Turkey shows such hostility to Syrian Kurdish concerns, and the United States attends narrowly to the anti-ISIL fight.
6. Place Civilian Protection Increasingly at the Center of U.S. Policy
If the United States intensifies its support for the opposition, it must also concern itself with adequate, fluid provision of services and aid to civilians. Humanitarian aid workers routinely criticize many opposition factions’ obstructionism in bringing essential services to at-risk populations. The moral compulsion expressed by Michael Ignatieff and Leon Wieseltier is quite real; however, the moral authority drawn from military efforts on behalf of civilians must not serve as mere pretext. An expanded military campaign dramatically increases the responsibility to focus on how civilians are — or are not — being served on the ground. If U.S. kinetic action increases the opposition’s maneuvering space, the United States must accentuate the importance of access to services with its operational partners on the ground.
7. Adopt Inclusiveness — and not Secularism — as the Standard for U.S. Support
For American civic democracy, the vexing challenge of the Arab uprisings has been how to engage with democracy that does not mirror our own version: institutional, liberal, and secular. Scholars like Shadi Hamid have diagnosed a problem that endures more than five years after the first Arab uprisings. Syria represents only the most glaring example that whatever emerges from this hellacious civil war will differ starkly from democracies Americans recognize and to which the U.S. relates.
The secularism–piety continuum has proven a poor test of suitability for U.S. support. Syria can only hope to escape an Assad-dominated or Lebanon-inspired future through inclusiveness. Are right-wing Islamists willing to work — on the battlefield, on delivering services, and on political institution-building — with non-Islamists? Are Arab opposition groups willing to work with Syrian Kurds, and conversely, are Syrian Kurds willing to work with Arab opposition elements they can’t dominate? Will all of these groups protect civilians — including minorities — in their midst? The United States stood to the side in Syria for years, and the answers to these questions progressively worsened. It is long past time the United States works to prevent Syria’s further descent into oblivion.
Dov Friedman is a specialist on Turkey and Kurdistan. He serves as U.S. director for Middle East Petroleum, a British-Turkish energy company. The views expressed are the author’s alone, and do not represent the positions of his employer. Follow Dov on Twitter: @dovsfriedman.
Photo credit: Petty Officer 2nd Class Dominique A. Pineiro, U.S. Navy