What is the United States Doing in Syria?

Syria has been one of the worst policy failures of the Obama presidency and for good reason – there are no good options.  The civil war, which has been raging for over three years, has attracted thousands of foreign fighters and created several battle fronts in which the Assad regime is fighting rebels and extremist groups, rebels are fighting the Assad regime and extremist groups, and extremist groups are fighting other splinter extremist groups in addition to everyone else involved.  Military intervention was not the right course of action for the administration but clearly, setting a “red line” and not being willing to enforce it severely weakened the hand of the United States.  However, the United States has been able to rid the nation of all declared stock piles of chemical weapons, which have been shipped out of the country already – a major breakthrough and victory for diplomacy.

Despite this feat, the war still continues with no clear end in sight.  Meanwhile the Islamic State continues to gain followers and territory across the region and al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra continues to wage deadly attacks against those involved.  Many lawmakers have been critical of President Obama’s policy in Syria and the region such as Senator Bob Corker (R-TN) who has claimed the president has no policy in Syria.  That being said, what is the administration doing to relieve the tensions, deal with the humanitarian crisis, and address the waning security situation in Syria?

On Friday, Ambassador Rick Barton, Assistant Secretary of State for Conflict and Stabilization Operations (CSO), released a newsletter outlining a unified, multinational pilot program to help stabilize the security vacuum in some rebel held regions of Syria in which there is a very limited police presence.  Currently, portions of Aleppo that are held by rebel factions are trying to garner a volunteer police force to bring forth some order and stability with hopes of creating some semblance of normalcy once again.  As announced by Ambassador Barton, the United States and Denmark will pay stipends to 1,300 Aleppo policemen, who are working on a volunteer basis currently, “along with operating funds, uniforms, vehicles, equipment, and resources for the police to engage local communities.”

The effort by the United States and other nations aims to improve governance on the ground coupled with economic relief and education – all staples of a stable society.  The United States has maintained that they are committed to a “strategy to support moderate elements in the opposition.”  The CIA had been covertly training small vetted rebel factions in Jordan for some time, however, the administration has been wary about providing arms to large swaths of rebel groups, fearful these weapons will fall into the hands of radical jihadists.  The State Department’s pilot program also vets recipients before aid is provided.  “[P]otential recipient institutions must demonstrate basic competency, pass counterterrorism and human rights vetting, commit to financial and public transparency, and pledge to operate in accord with international standards of human rights, including protections for women and minorities,” said the newsletter.

“Police are not the only ones eligible for assistance. Lawyers, judges, local and provincial councils, and community groups are, too,” Ambassador Barton’s newsletter went on to say, though the newsletter noted that the judicial sector is not “ripe” for assistance just yet.

The newsletter stated that the program to provide stipends to police forces and aid to other judicial and security sectors was only the first part of a four line “effort to bolster the Syrian opposition.”  The second line provides assistance to local and provincial council members and provides training in practices of good governance.  The third line provides funding to 13 different independent media outlets in an effort to bolster “the voice of the Syrian opposition.”  Finally, the fourth line provides non-lethal aid to the Free Syrian Army (FSA), one of the largest rebel organizations.  Secretary of State John Kerry also announced last week that the United States would be providing nearly $378 million in additional aid to Syria.  This aid, again, would be non-lethal and reaffirm the commitment of the United States as the largest monetary donor to the humanitarian crisis in Syria.

Furthermore, there have been reports this week about potentially bringing war crimes charges against members of the Syrian government.  As the Wall Street Journal reported last week, “In May, Russia and China vetoed a U.S.-backed resolution at the United Nations Security Council to refer the Syria conflict to the International Criminal Court.”  The hopes of establishing an international tribunal through the United Nations is hopeless given the veto power Russia and China enjoy on the UN Security Council.  However, nations are potentially seeking to try certain individuals under a doctrine in which “individual countries already have jurisdiction—those involving their own nationals or dual citizens who may have been victims or perpetrators in Syria,” stated a report from the Wall Street Journal.

The potential for the new war crimes prosecutions comes after a defector from the Syrian government testified at a hearing last week on Capitol Hill and provided thousands of pictures he took as part of his job with the Syrian military that provided proof of torture and inhumane treatment of Syrian citizens by the Syrian government.  In terms of prosecuting individuals charged with war crimes by individual countries, including the United States, the Wall Street Journal report stated, “U.S. jurisdiction over a case could be triggered if an American is identified as a perpetrator or a victim—even a U.S. citizen who went to Syria to fight. Should a suspected war criminal pass through the U.S., American authorities could prosecute him under the federal torture statute even if no Americans were involved in the crime.”

There is no questioning the commitment of the United States in assisting the Syrian citizens who have been subjected to some of the harshest treatment in recent history.  Aside from light arms shipments to vetted Syrian rebel groups and training camps for small regiments, the United States has done little to affect the hand of rebels militarily in the fight against the Assad regime and radical Islamist fighters.  Humanitarian and governance programs are immensely important and the programs outlined by the State Department newsletter are initiatives incumbent on those who control a particular territory to bring order and dissuade terrorism.  There are no good options in the Syrian crisis.  There are several fronts on which this battle is being waged.  Direct military assistance by the United States may commit them more fully to a post-conflict responsibility as seen in Libya and Iraq, which the United States does not necessarily want.  Only time will tell if these humanitarian programs will instil some form of order in small rebel held regions though the problem still exists that the war is not over and these rebel held regions may still fall to either pro-Assad forces (less likely) or the ever stronger radical Islamist groups (more likely).