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

Muzaffar Salman/Reuters
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.

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.

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