US Syrian Policy Not Realistic, Says Atlantic Council

Resolving the conflict with international diplomacy alone hasn't worked, say experts
March 9, 2014 Updated: March 9, 2014

WASHINGTON—As the Syrian conflict enters its fourth year, it is at a military and political stalemate with no end in sight. U.S. policy to obtain a political transition negotiated between the opposition and the regime, with Bashar al-Assad replaced, shows little likelihood of success. 

As neither side can win militarily, the Syrian people must continue to endure more deaths and violence.

The situation for the Syrian people worsens. 

The atrocities from Assad’s military are on the rise, including now the shelling and aerial bombardment of civilians. The nightly news shows the regime’s airplanes dropping barrel bombs that indiscriminately kill civilians, and it shows the encirclement of towns, starving the civilians in rebel-held territory. The opposition has failed to unite under one banner, while the entrance of Islamic rebel groups—such as Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS) and Jabhat al-Nusra—would take the country in an undemocratic and violent direction.

The Atlantic Council released an issue brief by two Middle East analysts that advises a different approach from the one the United States has been pursuing. Faysal Itani, resident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, and Nathaniel Rosenblatt, senior analyst at Caerus Associates, co-authored “Zooming in on Syria: Adapting US Policy to Local Realities,” in which they argued that the U.S. focus on international diplomacy alone ignores the more significant social, political, and military facts on the ground. 

“It’s time for a new approach,” said Itani at an Atlantic Council event on March 5. “There is no political settlement without the right opposition in Syria.”

The authors said that if the United States is to facilitate a negotiated political transition in Syria, the policymakers need to better understand how the opposition has evolved as it has and help it become an effective representative of the Syrian people’s desire for freedom and self-rule. The fragmentation of the opposition has meant that it lacks legitimacy and the capability to negotiate effectively at international summits, such as those in Geneva that have been the focus of U.S. endeavors to end the crisis.

Itani and Rosenblatt argue that the United States needs to become more forthcoming in supporting select opposition groups, and that it should take more interest in the challenges facing local rebel enclaves, such as civilian governing councils that are extremely vulnerable. 

The State Department people need a more “granular approach to what is happening on the ground,” said Itani. 

Lessons for Foreign Support

Rosenblatt used the case of Binnish, a small town in northwestern Syria, to illustrate the way foreign funding has been incorrectly dispersed, or dispersed without enough attention. Some of the early peaceful demonstrations in 2011 when the protests began—which the regime tried to thwart by sending in 400 armed thugs—were in Binnish. Residents defended themselves successfully, and as they grew more organized, local administrative councils began providing basic services, according to Rosenblatt. The Binnish council became a model of civilian governance.

However, chaos ensued when the Syrian National Council, which at the time represented the Syrian opposition, channeled funding through one of the town’s influential families. Rivalry between that family and other influential people in the town led to violence. By July 2012, the al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra and a militant Salafist group were able to bring unity to the opposition military. In October 2012, Binnish had become an early headquarters of the Salafist militant movement in northern Syria. 

The rise of the sectarian militant groups in Binnish and elsewhere is attributed in part to “misguided foreign support,” according to Itani and Rosenblatt.

When the rebels captured their first provincial capital, the northern city of Raqqa in March 2013, the hope was that more successes would follow. But Raqqa could not institute a broad coalition of local players. To be saved from total collapse, a local lawyer named Abdullah Khalil, a moderate, became the leader of the council, and the foreign funding was channeled through him. 

Khalil was abducted in May 2013, however, and has not been heard from since. Raqqa was eventually taken over by the jihadist group ISIS, which has little regard for Raqqa residents or the aims of the revolution, according to the authors.

Itani and Rosenblatt concluded that in the early stages, “civilian governance structures are extremely fragile and vulnerable to regime and extreme violence.” 

The lesson learned is that governing councils need rebel protection. Pouring money into civilian governance from abroad is futile without securing the civilian population, according to Rosenblatt, who has conducted research on local governance in Syria.

Policymakers “need to zoom in on the conflict in Syria” and track the local developments, according to the authors. They need to learn which leaders, groups, and institutions have earned local respect and authority. A shift in policy would see the United States and the allies arm, advise, and fund select individuals and groups.

No ‘Surrender’

The idea that opposition groups and the regime are so worn out that they will negotiate a peaceful end to the violence is based on flawed assumptions, according to Itani and Rosenblatt. There remains strong pro-opposition support and strong pro-regime support.

It’s a given that the regime’s side is not going to accept a political settlement when it is in a strong position militarily, but the opposition’s attitude is no less defiant. Rosenblatt referred to 20 focus groups that were conducted across the country. They asked the groups: If it were possible to go back to 2011 before the uprising, would you do so? Rosenblatt said that the answers were shocking. Nearly everyone replied ‘no.’

“A reduction in violence that preserves the regime is not acceptable to many in the opposition,” stated the authors. The consensus of the opposition is to continue fighting until the regime is overthrown.

Rosenblatt quoted a response, which he said was typical, of a man from a suburb of Damascus, which has been heavily shelled. The man said that of course they miss when they could walk safely, but “I’m with the revolution since the beginning and will be with it till the end.” 

It is wrong to assume that either the regime or the opposition would end the fighting if the foreign patrons—Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Qatar—were persuaded to cut off funding. 

“The region is awash in small arms and explosives,” and much of the funding for Sunni jihadist groups “comes from wealthy private donors and criminal networks, not states,” according to the authors.