Five guidelines for US role in Syria

The civil war in Syria has reached a stalemate. At this stage, there is little expectation of negotiation between the two sides – the rebels, which include factions of Islamist fighters as well as the Free Syrian Army (FSA), and the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Meanwhile, the UN reports that it has "reasonable grounds" to believe that chemical weapons have been used, and accuses both sides of committing war crimes. The death toll is estimated at 94,000.

Talk of a worst-case scenario is redundant; the United States needs to understand that it is already facing one. While strategic military steps like arming the opposition or establishing a no-fly zone present complications, there are several things the US can do right now to address the conflict – to bring aid, support the opposition, undermine Mr. Assad, and counter a rising Islamist influence.  

Here are five guidelines for the US in addressing the conflict in Syria:

1.Follow the example of independent aid organizations

Members of the Free Syrian Army talk as they sit with their weapons in a damaged street in the Karm al-Jabal district of Aleppo, Syria, June 3. (Muzaffar Salman/Reuters)

The entire economy of rebel-held Syria is a black market. Most traditional government and nongovernmental aid packages are unlikely to have any meaningful impact in these circumstances. Syrians in rebel-held areas have all but completely lost faith in traditional charity organizations. Multimillion-dollar aid packages to the exile opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), are helpful but have done little for people on the ground.

A number of independent aid organizations have already established a rapport with the population proving successful where governments have failed. “Don’t Forget Syria” is an explicitly non-political aid organization founded by a 22-year-old Dutch aid worker who has been able to bring more than $100,000 of aid into Syria. Aid organizations already on the ground have an accurate idea of the journey that the aid takes from donor to those in need. The US government and other traditional aid groups should pay close attention and take advice from existing groups to deliver humanitarian aid as needed.

The only truly effective aid channels to Syria are those that have already been set up. There are many Westerners already working with Syrians in the country and, as a matter of policy, the American government, nongovernmental organizations, and private aid organizations should pay attention to how they have managed to do this and model their own outreach based on these existing efforts. 

Patrick Hilsman is a freelance journalist who has worked in Syria and Lebanon since 2012. He has reported for Syria Deeply, an independent digital media organization focused on the Syrian conflict. He appeared on the BBC from Aleppo, Syria.

Use intermediaries like Egypt

Egypt is a unique partner for the US in dealing with the Syrian crisis. Egypt is seen as largely cooperative in the West, yet the country also carries a great deal of clout in Islamist circles. Working with the Egyptians to bring food and medical aid to Syria could help counterbalance the influence of the radical Islamist Jabat al-Nusra group – an affiliate group of Al Qaeda in Iraq – now on the rise in rebel-held areas in Syria.

Islamist factions have essentially hijacked the bread delivery in Aleppo. And while it would be easy politically for the Islamist factions to balk at American aid for bread delivery, it would be much more difficult to scoff at Egyptian aid. The US provides Egypt more than $1 billion in aid each year. Egypt is a respected partner that is likely to be received more positively than the US by the Syrian people.

Further, Egypt’s stake in participation in this task is great, as the Egyptian military is largely dependent upon US funding. Washington can call in a few favors, especially on a critical issue like the Syrian war – a conflict in which the US and Egypt share some similar views and even similar fears.

The US need not concern itself with creating a visible presence in humanitarian aid in Syria. By operating through Egypt’s resources, the US can more effectively break the unnatural stranglehold that Jabat al-Nusra has imposed on aid. Essentially, as long as the aid is coming from outside of the al-Nusra front, the US will not only serve the long-suffering Syrian people, but will also serve its own interests in slowing the momentum of this dangerous and powerful minority.

Understand the costs of hesitation

Diplomatic efforts  – such as the proposed Geneva conference – are futile for the time being, as neither the opposition nor the Assad regime is willing to concede its position. Ultimately, there will be a victor in this war. To attempt to negotiate an agreement or maintain the status quo simply won't work and will lengthen the war, leading to more death, radicalism, and injustice.

Members of both sides of the conflict have diverse stakes in the outcome. Both the Assad regime and members of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) are aware that “giving in” could result in eradication and death. The US is one of the few powerful entities that has the unique ability to push this perpetual stalemate in favor of the FSA, freedom, and the promise of a secular, democratic government.

So far, the Assad regime has been able to prolong its inevitable demise by exploiting sectarianism and involving outside actors, such as Iran, Russia, and perhaps most significantly, Hezbollah. Another key Assad strategy has been to play on Western fears of radical Islam taking hold in Syria and as part of the opposition forces – preventing US intervention on behalf of the rebels. At the very least, the US should be more aware of these aspects of the regime’s strategy and make a greater effort not to play into them.

Policymakers, both in the Obama administration and Congress, should not limit the scope of their discussion to the dangers of political Islam taking rise in a post-Assad Syria. People are being slaughtered by the thousands, and fundamentalism is but one of many dangers for the future.

Short of taking strategic actions like establishing a no-fly zone and arming the Free Syrian Army – options that the US should not take off the table yet – there are other steps Washington can take. The US should be more clear in its ideology and politics. Despite Obama’s calls for Assad to step down, the US continues to be perceived as ambiguously neutral. This lack of clarity has fueled the rise of radical Islamists in Syria and reinforces their concept of themselves as the only legitimate opposition to the regime.

Understand the limited role of the exile opposition

The Syrian National Coalition (SNC), the fractured exile opposition, is respected within the Syrian rebellion as a means to facilitate defections and to bring attention to the cause – but for little else. Generally speaking, no one in Syria takes orders from the SNC. It is a waste of time to continue working toward negotiating any kind of deal between the regime and the exile opposition, because they do not have influence on the ground.

There has also been fierce debate as to whether the SNC should even partake in the upcoming Geneva talks with the Assad regime. The SNC should continue coordinating the refugee crisis and stop wasting resources on petty internal debate and negotiations. Any treaty between the SNC and the regime will be ignored by all factions on the ground.

The US should continue to work with the SNC, since they will play some role in the future, but the US should realize that the group is unlikely to ever comprise the Syrian government. The exile groups are most useful in helping the refugee populations outside of Syria and as a forum for activists and the collection of casualty figures. 

Help the opposition

Because the US has not offered direct military help to the rebels, the opposition has been forced to turn to Islamist groups for help. These groups have traveled from throughout the region to offer resources and men to fight the Assad regime. If the US is unwilling to arm the nationalist Syrian opposition as a counterbalance to the influence of Islamist opposition, America needs to help the rebels in other ways – with utmost urgency.

Anxiety caused by the perceived risk of arming the rebels has caused the US to miss several key opportunities. Over the last few weeks, I have personally received many messages and emails from friends in the Syrian opposition who are terrified by the rising influence of Islamists.

Concerns about the Islamist Jabat al-Nusra group stealing whatever weapons the US provides are not unreasonable, but in the manner of a catch-22, this fear has distracted Washington to a point where America has not taken any meaningful action to protect the people who oppose both the regime and the Islamists. The immediate safety and liberty of expression of the nationalist opposition leadership, including activists and journalists, is being threatened by the rising influence of these Islamist groups.

The US could certainly provide funding to help improve the well-being of secular activists. American funding could be used to increase resources, such as satellite uplinks and communications technology, small-scale training for security teams, food, and suitable shelter.

Alternatively, the US can afford to put pressure on third-party countries to grant visas to members of the nationalist opposition as well as their families. Giving families the opportunity and resources to leave Syria would significantly reduce the capacity of Islamist factions to threaten the families of active members of the secular opposition. And knowing that leaving Syria was an option for them and their families, members of the secular opposition who would otherwise be too intimidated to fight could be mobilized.

Patrick Hilsman is a freelance journalist who has worked in Syria and Lebanon since 2012. He has reported for Syria Deeply, an independent digital media organization focused on the Syrian conflict. He appeared on the BBC from Aleppo, Syria.