The Syrian Crisis: A Case for Greater U.S. Involvement | Freedom House

The Syrian Crisis: A Case for Greater U.S. Involvement

By Charles Dunne, director of Middle East and North Africa Programs

with research assistance by Isabel Nassief, program associate for Middle East and North Africa


It is no longer a confrontation between the rulers and the ruled, but a looming multilateral struggle between varied strains of Islamists, secular democrats, and authoritarian remnants, with the very identity of Syria, and its future as a potential democracy, at stake.

Over the past two years, Syria has experienced an explosion of decades of pent-up rage against the Assad regime. Faced with a vicious response by government forces, the initially nonviolent uprising has progressively changed into an armed rebellion and civil war. Nevertheless, the regime has intensified its policy of brutality and intransigence. Nearly 70,000 people have died in the conflict to date, and one million refugees have fled into neighboring countries, with another 5,000 joining them every day, according to UN estimates. Two and a half million Syrians are internally displaced. The states of the Middle East and all other interested powers now have a crisis on their hands that rivals those of the 1967 and 1973 Arab-Israeli wars.

Much of the international community has stood by to watch, whether cynically, perniciously, or helplessly. Meanwhile, Iran has actively assisted President Bashar al-Assad’s war effort, and Russia, in addition to continuing its arms sales to Syria, has worked hard with China to protect the regime’s interests at the United Nations. Although Gulf monarchies including Saudi Arabia and Qatar have provided arms to opposition forces, the United States has been more reticent, contemplating the day after the fall of the regime but doing little to bring it about or influence the long-term outcome.

To its credit, the administration of President Barack Obama has been vocal about the need for Assad to leave power and has seriously engaged the international community—both at the United Nations and through ad hoc diplomatic groupings, such as the “Friends of Syria”—to push for a political transition. It has committed $385 million in humanitarian aid to alleviate the refugee crisis. And in a significant policy change, the new secretary of state, John Kerry, recently announced that the United States would provide nonlethal assistance directly to the armed opposition, including food and medical aid. The United States also sponsors political and governance programs designed to assist Syrian activists, carried out by, among others, Freedom House.

However, the administration’s approach, even with the newer components, has come under criticism. It is seen in many quarters as too little and too late, failing to stem growing anger at the United States among Syrian opposition forces. The fact that Washington refused to call for Assad’s ouster for several months after other governments did so, and continued to pursue diplomatic efforts through the United Nations long after they had proven futile, has added to the sense of abandonment. Secretary Kerry’s recent promise to encourage a negotiated solution—the time for which has long since expired—can only exacerbate the impression that the United States still lacks a sense of urgency about ending the crisis, two years after it began.

To date, the administration’s concern about the humanitarian disaster and widespread human rights violations has not outweighed its wariness of the potential domestic political problems and national security threats associated with a forceful intervention. Negative congressional and public reactions to a more robust policy, rooted mainly in the expense and war weariness from Afghanistan and Iraq, are key factors. Moreover, the U.S. intervention in Libya, for all its genuine merits, drew congressional pique over a lack of adequate consultation, and active U.S. involvement in Syria could generate far more intense scrutiny and political opposition as a result.

A military intervention in Syria would also face external obstacles that the Libya action did not. Russia and China, frustrated by the de facto shift in the Libya mission from no-fly zone and civilian protection to outright regime change, would veto any UN Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force. Syria, not least in its air defenses, is a much more formidable military challenge than Libya under Mu’ammar al-Qadhafi. And there are strong concerns that a post-Assad Syria would descend into an even more destructive state of chaos than already exists.

The Situation on the Ground

Currently, the Syrian crisis is characterized by the government’s gradual loss of control and an underlying competition for influence among regional powers.

Over the last year, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the principal military coalition opposing the Assad regime, has significantly improved its capabilities, developed access to better weapons, and benefitted from defections from the Syrian army. Large swaths of the country, primarily in the north, seem to have been abandoned by government troops or taken over by opposition

forces. The city of Raqqa has recently been liberated by the FSA, marking the first time a major city and provincial capital has fallen to the rebels. Government soldiers cling to certain strongpoints and key transportation arteries, but they have been immobilized in many parts of the country and lost key bases and airports. In response to these FSA advances, the Assad regime has lived up to its historical legacy by meeting opposition with escalating brutality. It has resorted to airstrikes and even ballistic missile attacks, as in the case of a recent well-publicized strike in Aleppo. The regime has also aggressively pursued a displacement strategy, using sectarian massacres and military force to drive whole populations that are perceived as hostile from their homes.

The intensification of violence in Syria is exacerbated by the interference of outside actors, most notably Iran. The Iranian regime is giving Damascus multifaceted forms of support, ranging from financial aid—at least $1 billion pledged, if not delivered—and military training to logistical help in tracking down and eliminating online activists. The Washington Post reports that up to 50,000 militia fighters are being armed and trained by Iran to fight alongside the regular Syrian military. It is widely believed that their primary purpose is to preserve Iranian interests in Syria if Assad falls, securing an air or sea hub that will allow Tehran to continue supplying Hezbollah in Lebanon, or at the very least undermining the formation of an anti-Iranian government in a post-Assad environment. Iran has also provided the Syrian regime with on-the-ground military help from the Qods Force, an arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) that is responsible for external operations.

There have been hopeful developments in Syria at the local level. Local councils have taken over basic municipal services in a number of cities and towns from which the government has retreated, and committees of technocrats are administering hospitals and other public institutions. While such signs of progress suggest that the rudiments of post-Assad civilian governance are coming together, other factors are working to destroy the possibility of a peaceful post-Assad reality.

The regime has deliberately stoked ethnic and sectarian tensions to divide and conquer the populace. The dreaded shabiha militias, largely composed of young thugs from Assad’s Alawite minority, have been used to terrorize Sunni Muslim populations through wholesale killing, rape, and property destruction. These militias appear to be proliferating with external support from Iran and Hezbollah. Meanwhile, on the opposition side, Sunni Islamist fighters are becoming increasingly important in the war effort, exploiting superior financing to siphon off fighters from other, more secular groups and even setting themselves up as a small but nevertheless competitive alternative to democratic civilian rule after Assad. Most significantly, Assad’s diminished territorial control gives the misleading impression that his fall is imminent. His stronghold is now a corridor that connects Damascus, Homs, and the Mediterranean coast. While this area is geographically limited, it provides a stable and dependable base of operations from which he can continue to fight, setting the stage for a protracted and even bloodier civil war.

The narrative that has characterized other Arab Spring countries is beginning to unfold in Syria, though in a far more violent form. It is no longer a confrontation between the rulers and the ruled, but a looming multilateral struggle between varied strains of Islamists, secular democrats, and authoritarian remnants, with the very identity of Syria, and its future as a potential democracy, at stake.

Geopolitical and Regional Risks of Continued Conflict

1. The war in Syria threatens to spill over into the broader region. The UN secretary general’s special envoy for Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, told the Security Council in January that two big risks are looming. The “first is the transformation of Syria into a playground for competing regional forces, governments and non-state actors alike.” The second is the “full-fledged regionalization of the Syria war.”

To an alarming extent, this process has already begun. In October, Turkey engaged Syrian forces in cross-border shelling; in January, Israel bombed a convoy on the outskirts of Damascus that was allegedly bringing Syrian arms to Hezbollah in Lebanon; and recently the FSA threatened to carry out attacks on Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. The risk of actions that inadvertently or deliberately draw in Israel—through confrontations on the Golan Heights, cross-border assaults from Lebanon, or both—must be taken seriously. The possibility that chemical weapons could be transferred to Hezbollah or independent terrorist groups, or used against civilian populations by the regime, adds another very dangerous ingredient to the mix.

Even without a military spillover, the refugee crisis has placed unprecedented burdens on the resources of neighboring states. The most recent UN estimates indicate that the conflict has caused a 10 percent population increase in Lebanon. Turkey has spent at least $600 million building refugee camps, Iraq has taken in over 100,000 refugees, and Jordan’s energy, water, health, and education services are being stretched beyond capacity. The domestic financial, social, and political strains caused by refugees in neighboring countries pose as great a threat to regional stability as any cross-border military engagements.

2. Syria’s sectarian violence could spread to Iraq and Lebanon. Lebanon’s Sunni and Shiite communities have in large part taken opposite sides in the Syrian conflict, with dozens if not hundreds of Hezbollah fighters crossing the border to help defend the Syrian regime, and some Sunni fighters aiding Syrian rebels or clashing with Alawites in Lebanon. In Iraq, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shiite-dominated government fears that the overthrow of Assad’s regime in Syria by mainly Sunni rebels would embolden its domestic foes. Indeed, anti-Maliki demonstrations now sweeping Sunni areas of Iraq have called for his ouster, with many of the protesters waving the flag of the FSA. Furthermore, the ongoing chaos has bolstered prospects for Kurdish minorities in Syria and Iraq to declare their independence.

3. The Syrian state might disintegrate. This increasingly realistic possibility could result in an Iran-supported Alawite enclave along the Mediterranean coast, with interior regions fought over indefinitely by competing and well-armed militias. This environment would provide both a rich breeding ground and an ideal staging point for international terrorism.

4. An unstable post-Assad Syria may become an engine of long-term regional turmoil and a perennial headache for the international community. When the regime falls, as is likely, a power struggle can be expected to ensue among the rival opposition military groups, and armed elements of the former regime could continue to wreak havoc. There may be cycles of ethnic and religious revenge attacks, which could approach the levels of Iraq in 2006 and 2007. Authoritative governance will be very hard to establish, as will central control in Damascus. The world will most likely have to contend with a period of internal instability in Syria and the threat of frequent regional crises for some years.

Should any or all of these outcomes materialize, prospects for a peace deal in the Arab-Israeli conflict would be set back by years and possibly decades.

While U.S. reluctance to become involved is not entirely indefensible, its half-hearted approach to date will backfire if unchecked instability or conflict spills over into neighboring countries, creating consequences as bad or worse than those currently cited as reasons not to act. In the meantime, the United States has ceded influence to others, such as Saudi-backed Islamists, who are hostile to its interests.

Benefits of Deeper U.S. Involvement

In addition to the simple prevention of negative outcomes, there are potential benefits to further U.S. involvement in Syria.

1. Ending the Assad regime would break the ironclad alliance between Iran and Syria. This alliance, which forms the core of opposition to U.S. policy in the region, has engendered numerous military conflicts and acts of terrorism and has persistently posed an obstacle to Arab-Israeli peace.

2. Iran’s own prospects for extending its regional influence would be severely hindered. Far from being the hegemon of a so-called “Shia Crescent,” as King Abdullah of Jordan put it in 2004, Iran would suffer a powerful blow to its regional ambitions if the Assad regime were defeated. Hezbollah and Tehran’s other client militias in the Arab world would be increasingly isolated, and Palestinian factions’ drift toward alternative patrons—already under way since the beginning of the Arab Spring—would accelerate, incidentally toppling a key ideological pillar of the Iranian regime’s domestic legitimacy.

3. Although remote, prospects for a representative government in Syria would increase. The experience of fighting and successfully overthrowing an authoritarian regime, particularly with decisive if belated U.S. assistance, would increase support for democratic rule among the Syrian public. In addition, the creation of a more representative government in Syria could profoundly affect hopes for democratic change in Jordan, Iraq, Palestine, and the Gulf monarchies, boosting forces across the region that seek real political pluralism and respect for human rights.

Recommendations for U.S. Policymakers

Achieving these goals and forestalling the more destructive scenarios will require bold leadership from the United States and a more active involvement than has been evident so far.

First, the United States must do a much better job of supplying the armed opposition. It should thoroughly map the different units, identify their needs, and provide them with what they require—financially and militarily—to defeat regime forces. This will buy a measure of influence and help strengthen those who would prefer an eventual democratic government in Syria. Such involvement would amount to a military intervention—but one many grades short of those pursued in Libya and Iraq, and one that stands a reasonable chance of affecting the outcome.

Second, the United States must articulate a clear vision for a post-Assad Syria, predicated on the establishment of a broadly representative government that respects the rights of ethnic and religious minorities. This vision should become the cornerstone of U.S. engagement with Syria’s external political opposition, the Syrian National Coalition, and of the American message directed toward the Syrian people. The United States should also organize international support for a future free and democratic Syria.

Third, the United States should coordinate more effectively with allies who are already supplying arms and financing to the opposition. The United States should make clear to countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar that it not interested in an undemocratic, Sunni fundamentalist state in Syria, and that it will oppose arms supplies to extremist groups. Recent reports that a coherent effort to coordinate support to the FSA as a “moderate” group in the conflict is encouraging, but this effort needs to be reinforced strongly at senior diplomatic levels.

Fourth, the United States should join the Arab League in recognizing the Syrian National Coalition as the sole diplomatic representative of Syria, work to strengthen its organization and capabilities, and provide financial and diplomatic assistance for the formation of a provisional government. A key part of this effort would be to help the coalition strengthen its ties with political and military opposition elements inside the country, without which its writ cannot extend beyond a few hotel suites in foreign capitals.

Fifth, funding must be expanded significantly for programs that work with civil society activists and local leaders to promote good governance, a strong and transparent judicial system, and other democratic institutions. Budget constraints are obviously a concern, but this sort of funding would be a tiny fraction of what the United States could expect to spend on direct military involvement, not to mention the indirect costs of indefinite regional unrest. Support for civil society would enable Syrians to improve their own
capabilities and construct a truly representative and inclusive government that can ensure long-term stability.

Most of these options will be difficult. But they are also necessary. The worst-case outcomes are much more likely if the United States fails to take on a more robust role.

In a January 2013 speech commemorating International Holocaust Remembrance Day, President Obama said, “The United States, along with the international community, resolves to stand in the way of any tyrant or dictator who commits crimes against humanity, and stay true to the principle of ‘Never Again.’” It is time to apply this long-standing U.S. commitment to Syria.