Syria: A Hard Pill to Swallow

Little more than two weeks after the latest ceasefire fell apart, the U.S. has cut off talks on Syria with Russia, at least for the time being.

Little more than two weeks after the latest ceasefire fell apart, the U.S. has cut off talks on Syria with Russia, at least for the time being.

This decision comes after a pair of hours-long Syrian or Russian” air strikes on a UN aid convoy and Syrian Arab Red Crescent Warehouse. More than 400 civilians in Aleppo were killed in the following week alone as Syrian and Russian bombardment of the still-highly populated city has risen to record intensity — seeing also the increased use of illegal and exceptionally destructive bunker-busting bombs and incendiary weapons. Photos and stories from Syrian better match the satirical hell from Slaughterhouse-Five than any real war zone in recent decades.

And still, five sickening years in, the U.S. tiptoes around the outside looking in, cringing as it bears witness to what has widely been called the worst humanitarian crisis of our time. Unable to ignore it out of humanitarian and political concern—and even out of guilt —  it reaches hesitantly into the concentrated chaos with little consequence.

However, there are few alternatives. Originally worried about committing military forces abroad after winning an election on a promise of general withdrawal from the region, the Obama Administration now faces not only a spiraling civil war and ominous power vacuums, but a territorial and expansionist terrorist organization, a historically unparalleled refugee crisis, and the all-too-familiar encroachments of a complicit and eager Russia. The dilemmas facing the American government are many; the choices are the following:

  1. Ramp up military activity against both Syrian government forces and ISIL in hopes of pushing Russia beyond its willingness to continue, quickly and forcefully ending the conflict in favor of democracy: Russia, as mentioned above, shows few signs of backing down — why would it when Russian public opinion not only matters so little but moreover happens to back Putin’s government overwhelmingly? Even if executed gradually, this plan would be — put bluntly — foolish with likely disastrous ramifications, futilely escalating the conflict yet further and possibly igniting a more global confrontation.
  2. Institute an internationally agreed-upon no-fly zone and humanitarian safe zone: This proposal has become more and more implausible as the war has progressed. With Russia’s entry into the conflict and subsequent support for Assad’s air campaigns, imposing a no-fly zone would necessitate a projection of force against both Assad and the Kremlin. Combined with already low U.S. credibility, such a move would be labeled American belligerence and subverted through noncooperation and likely even aggression. A safe zone — beyond requiring non-rebel ground troops to differentiate it from rebel territory — is simply impossible without controlled airspace, and thus no more helpful.
  3. Abandon allegiances and commitments to rebels and turn to join Syrian government and Russian forces in restoring stability by ending the war and coherently combatting ISIL: This option would undoubtedly result in an acute loss of American credibility across the world. In joining the staunchly anti-democratic forces behind prolific human rights violations and war crimes to attack its previous allies, the U.S. would rightly be accused not just of strategic inconsistency but hypocrisy. However, it may succeed in ending the war and the threat from ISIL more quickly, without any significant escalation in fighting or further worsening of relations with Russia.
  4. Continue current policy: The most probable choice , a continuation of tenuous Western intervention would foreseeably watch the conflict conclude in a slow, bloody reassertion of power by Assad, followed only then by the concerted targeting of ISIL by the United States and Russia. Human rights violations would proliferate as Assad and Putin emboldened, war crimes would go entirely unpunished, and remaining traces of American credibility and moral authority in the Middle East would collapse.

There is potentially one more option: maintain (or better, refine) current military policy underneath the maximization of non-military potential — effectively smothering the conflict instead of attempting to “win” it. Such a strategy would entail three main components: improving efficiency of Western military efforts; better regulating the flow of funds, arms, and other resources into and out of the Levant; and guaranteeing the consistent delivery of aid to affected citizens.

First on the U.S. agenda should be stopping its recurring “accidents.” Even just recently, U.S. strikes have hit regime forces, its own rebel allies, and civilians en masse. Accidental or not, each such instance greatly undermines American moral authority by excusing Assad and Russia from their own war crimes and instigative behavior ,  and only fuels rising tensions in the war. Our own recklessness is directly contributing to the creation of a moral black hole in Syria.

Second, a thorough push must be made to promote global financial transparency and stricter enforcement of current embargoes. Assuming coming increases in investment both to protect increasingly vulnerable human life and check rising Russian power in the region, funds and attention should be heavily invested in isolating Syria from all but humanitarian aid and monitoring the flow of goods and funds into, out of, and through the Levant. With the release of the Panama Papers — a massive internal document leak from a single wealth management firm — earlier in 2016, it was discovered that Assad had continued to receive foreign funding, resources, and equipment through friends and relatives even after international sanctions were levied against him.

The singularity of the leak suggests that similar arrangements — involving Assad, various rebel groups, and ISIL — have yet to be uncovered, and their exposure could prove powerful in forcing a de-escalation and close to the war. Equally important, however, would be a pact with Russia to reciprocally phase out funding to actors in Syria other than UN-sponsored aid groups.

Clearly, such weakening of both opposing collectives in the civil war would demand some sort of buffer between domestic Syrian forces and an opportunistic ISIL. The creation of an international coalition force, necessarily including Russia and several Arab states, could be deployed at the perimeter of ISIL territory to relieve the Syrians on one shared front, as well as to separate the unanimous enemy in ISIL from those varying others specific to each involved nation (i.e. the Kurds to Turkey, al-Nusra to Russia and supposedly the U.S., etc.).

Lastly, secure channels for aid organizations and the assured delivery of supplies and medical treatment to civilians are paramount, each obviously threatened given mid-September’s bombings. A Russia more so disengaged from the civil war may concede to promoting international law within the Assad Regime and allowing the protection of aid caravans and stations.

The above proposition would predictably end in the dissolution of major warring parties into a tightly and transparently controlled power vacuum. Essentially to this scenario, Russia not long ago suggested that it would tolerate an Assad exit, just not in favor of a multilateral power struggle. Accepting that any newly constructed government must be friendly to Moscow, the world could finally begin to piece together a polity. With international coalition assistance in instituting order and formal processes, a diverse body of Syrian leaders from all areas of society and various countries of residence could be assembled and — with space for input reaching from the suburbs of  Aleppo to even the farthest displaced Syrians— orchestrate its state’s future.

Though an ideal solution may indeed stray from the above proposal, steps in the suggested direction — increased care in continued air strikes, maximization of non-military pressures, increased investment in and attention towards humanitarian aid, and extensive networking towards the end of quarantining and smothering the Syrian civil war — would most definitely bring us nearer to a peaceful and potentially democratic resolution.


Author: Chris Harden

Chris is a freshman from St. Louis, Missouri, studying international affairs and intending to concentrate in international development. He is especially interested in global inequality and sustainability. In his free time, he most enjoys playing soccer and guitar as well as learning rap songs in foreign languages.