FPI Bulletin: Five Years of Disaster in Syria

By Evan Moore

Foreign Policy Institute

March 16, 2016


Tuesday marked the fifth anniversary of the uprising against the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Though the revolution began with peaceful nationwide protests, it is now a multi-sided conflict that has left the country in ruins and the region in chaos. While regime and rebel negotiators are now meeting in Geneva in an attempt to secure a political transition, there is little reason that this third attempt to do so will succeed where the previous two have failed. Instead of pressuring the rebels to negotiate from a position of weakness, the Obama administration should finally take actions that it has long refused: protecting Syrian civilians and giving moderate opposition forces the support they need to hold their own.
Russian Intervention Rescues Assad
In a surprise announcement Monday, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the “main part” of his country’s military forces in Syria to withdraw, citing the “overall completion” of Russia’s objectives. Before the Russian intervention in September 2015, the Damascus regime appeared to be on the brink of collapse. Instead, Assad “now sits within reach of several of his military objectives, including the encirclement and isolation of Aleppo City and the establishment of a secure defensive perimeter along the Syrian Coast,” according to a recent analysis by the Institute for the Study of War (ISW).
Despite a so-called “cessation of hostilities”, pro-regime forces have encircled the moderate opposition stronghold of Aleppo in northern Syria, and are threatening to mount a protracted siege of the city. ISW notes that the rebels in Aleppo remain “strong and relatively independent from Jabhat al-Nusra [al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate] at present, with many groups receiving covert U.S. support.”  However, if Aleppo were to fall it “could spur many to turn away from the U.S. in favor of the assistance provided by Salafi-jihadist groups on the battlefield. The U.S. will quickly find itself deprived of options to engage in Syria on acceptable terms.” Meanwhile, the 320,000 Syrians who are trapped in the city will be the ones who will bear the direct cost—either through mass-starvation or by becoming refugees.
Syria’s Humanitarian Crisis
It is difficult to overstate just how gravely the Syrian people have suffered over the past five years.  The Assad regime has forcefully suppressed peaceful protests, imprisoned and tortured activists, and employed chemical warfare against civilians, including the August 2013 attack that killed more than 1,400 people in a Damascus suburb.  Despite Western protests, the chemical attacks continue. As CNN’s Clarissa Ward chronicled in an undercover report from opposition-held areas, the Syrian people feel increasingly bitter and abandoned by the outside world, having subjected to the daily horror of attacks by Assad and his allies.
A February report by the Syrian Center for Policy Research found that 470,000 Syrians have been killed in the conflict.  In all, the report finds, 11.5% of the population has been killed or injured since the conflict began.  The United Nations estimates that more than 4.8 million Syrians have fled to neighboring nations, whereas 6.6 million are internally displaced–nearly eleven and a half million refugees out of a total population of 18.5 million.
If the Russian military is indeed withdrawing from Syria, the United States should seize this opportunity to provide a measure of protection to Syrian civilians.  The President should authorize the creation of humanitarian safe zones—supported by No Fly zones—along Syria’s borders with Turkey and Jordan to provide areas where the Syrian population can be free from Assad’s attacks.  Former U.S. ambassadors Nicholas Burns and James Jeffrey argue that safe zone would “be the most effective way to support Syrian civilians and to diminish the flow of refugees to neighboring countries and Europe. It would strengthen our ability to work closely with our key regional NATO ally, Turkey, which has long advocated this step. For the first time, it would restrict the operations of the rampaging Syrian air force — the largest killer of civilians in the conflict. It would also hinder the use of military power by Russia, Iran and Hezbollah against the resistance.”
Al Qaeda in Syria
The ongoing civil war has facilitated the rise of Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, in addition to the emergence of the notorious Islamic State (also known as ISIS, ISIL, and Daesh). Whereas the Islamic State advertises its atrocities and inhabits a so-called caliphate, al-Nusra presents a more subtle threat because it has thoroughly enmeshed itself within opposition groups in western Syria.  As ISW’s Jennifer Cafarella writes, “Jabhat al-Nusra is leveraging its battlefield contributions to create relationships with civil society, civilian populations and other Syrian opposition groups. … And it directly targets U.S.-backed groups, and defeats them when it can, in order to ensure that moderate forces do not find footing in a new Syria.”
The safe havens controlled by al-Nusra are an important asset for al-Qaeda, beyond their role as means of exerting influence in Syria. “Already, al-Qaeda devotes significant resources to its Syrian base, including having sent a team of veteran operatives to advise, train, and share strategic and tactical expertise,” according to a new report by ISW and the American Enterprise Institute (AEI).
If the United States and its allies focus exclusively on defeating ISIS without targeting al-Nusra, then it “is poised to benefit from the defeat of ISIS while consolidating its position among rebel groups.” Yet the U.S. and its allies cannot defeat al-Nusra without doing more to protect the Syrian population.  The AEI-ISW report argues, as long as “those people still face an imminent threat to their survival,” then convincing Sunnis to break with al-Nusra “will be impossible.” Thus, the humanitarian and strategic challenges in Syria remain inseparable. The only way forward is to address both of them.
The High Price of Inaction
Throughout the course of the Syrian conflict, President Obama has repeatedly refrained from taking significant action to stop the war or protect its victims, lest America slowly be drawn into an expensive ground war.  In The Atlantic, Jeffrey Goldberg concludes that this is because “Obama has bet, and seems prepared to continue betting, that the price of direct U.S. action would be higher than the price of inaction.”  In light of the utter devastation laid upon Syria, the enormous flood of refugees to the Middle East and Europe, the loss of American credibility, and the rise of Russian influence, it should now be clear to Obama that passivity is not wisdom.
The President should remember that his Democratic predecessor faced a situation similar to the Syrian crisis in 1999, resulting in armed intervention in Kosovo to stop Serbian forces from initiating yet another round of ethnic cleansing.  During his speech announcing the intervention, President Clinton warned, “inaction in the face of brutality simply invites more brutality, but firmness can stop armies and save lives.”  He added, “I am convinced that the dangers of acting are far outweighed by the dangers of not acting—dangers to defenseless people and to our national interests,” and recognized “I have a responsibility as President to deal with problems such as this before they do permanent harm to our national interests.” Two decades later, President Obama and his successor would do well to heed this wisdom and act accordingly.