What the US Owes Syria

Syria today is gripped by a human tragedy of staggering proportions--with Russian airstrikes and the American decision to send Special Operations forces only the latest stories to dominate the headlines. The ongoing war has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and left nearly half the country internally or externally displaced, with a population exodus destabilizing the Middle East and swamping Europe. Many here view this as some faraway and insoluble problem that is not of the U.S.'s doing. But this is not the case.

The United States has been involved in Syria from the start, with the recent decision to put a small number of boots on the ground only the latest in a set of choices that have dramatically escalated the violence. It therefore bears real responsibility for the humanitarian tragedy and must engage in both immediate and more long-term efforts to find a political settlement and to address the exodus. To date, on both counts the U.S. can only be described as part of the problem.

Beginning in late 2011, the Obama Administration pursued a strategy of arming local proxies in the hopes of militarily defeating Syria's authoritarian leader, Bashar al Assad rather than supporting a negotiated settlement. It wrongly believed that with enough pressure a tipping point could be reached and the Assad regime would fall. This ignored the obvious fact that Syria's centrality to Iranian and Russian regional security interests meant that these countries would not allow the regime to fall without being given a stake in the future governing arrangement. Militarization therefore led to stalemate--as external actors backed their internal proxies--and inevitably to the fracture of the country.

To make matters worse, the Administration largely outsourced the coordination of the flows of arms to Gulf states like Saudi Arabia, which viewed the uprising against Assad in sectarian terms as an effort to promote an anti-Iranian agenda and to strengthen Sunni militias. The result has not only left neighborhoods consumed in inter-militia sectarian violence but also created a political space open to the rise of extremist Sunni groups like the Islamic State (IS).

At this point, Assad is little more than the strongest militia leader in the country and the conflict has morphed well beyond a traditional uprising or even civil war--with the U.S. pursuing bombing raids on IS that have not uprooted the group but have further deepened the violence. The Russian intervention only aggravates a logic set in motion by the American anti-IS coalition. The American strategy, especially of hoping to remove the Assad regime by force, has been a failure and the long proxy war in Syria is now in danger of degenerating into a direct confrontation between NATO forces and Russia.

Even as it pursued its military strategy to defeat Assad through proxies on the ground and to attack ISIS from the air, the U.S. also took charge of the political negotiations to end the conflict. Beginning in 2012 the White House set two conditions for such talks: that Assad "must go" and that Iran could not be included. As a result, two prominent international statesmen charged by the United Nations with forging political settlement in cooperation with the U.S.--Kofi Annan and Lakhdar Brahimi--resigned from the position noting that the conflict could not be resolved without bringing all parties to the table. The U.S. has now, belatedly, dropped its preconditions but today, unlike 2012, political settlement is at best a medium term option since negotiating with Assad and his backers only brings a fraction of the vying power centers to the table.

What would remain is finding a representative body or bodies for the other fragmented militias and jihadist groups committing violence across the country. But these militias are not acting in concert and may not even be united in opposition to the Assad regime, with which IS, for one, does not seem particularly preoccupied. Stunningly, the only organized group on the ground that has consistently fought both Assad and IS--the Syrian Kurds--has now been betrayed by the US, which is facilitating Turkish aerial bombardment against them under cover of a purported campaign against IS.

If the U.S. is truly committed to promoting a settlement, what it can do is to rein in the actions of the Sunni Gulf states and Turkey while negotiating a bilateral end to airstrikes with Russia. Instead to date the United States has enabled Turkish belligerence and allowed Saudi Arabia in particular a wide berth to pursue its own security interests from Syria to Bahrain to Yemen. And unsurprisingly, Saudi Arabia has deployed a sectarian logic to assert Sunni hegemony by force, supplying jihadist groups in Syria among others. Russia's intervention is in part motivated by the growing jihadist presence at the foot of the Caucasus that has resulted from facilitating the flow of arms and funds from the Gulf to Syria. At this point, a settlement in Syria is a non-starter as long as the U.S. refuses to confront Turkish and Saudi aggression.

But American obligations do not stop there. Even if a political settlement were achieved tomorrow, the profound destruction of civilian infrastructure in much of Syria and the absence of a central body capable of ensuring public order, let alone reconstruction, is so great that repatriating refugees and internally displaced persons is not possible at present. In some ways, the talks in Vienna (and possibly Moscow) are a diversion from the more pressing humanitarian crisis confronting the international community.

The overriding and immediate obligation of those actors complicit in Syria's destruction is the resettlement of refugees outside of Syria and the provision of basic needs--subsistence, shelter, health and education--to the nearly eight million displaced within Syria. The U.S. should follow its own past practices when civilians have fled conflicts the country was itself involved in. For instance, 400,000 Vietnamese were resettled in the U.S. Given our role in Iraq and our participation from the beginning in ratcheting up violence in Syria, the Obama Administration should similarly commit to taking 400,000 Syrians over four years (a figure that is less than 10% of the number currently absorbed by neighboring countries). It should also raise the lion's share of financing (some of it from the Gulf) for UN and international agency relief efforts for those in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt. And finally, it must organize international burden sharing arrangements to support frontline host countries and secondary countries at EU borders. Russia and Iran, in turn, must be called upon to persuade Assad to facilitate the provision of humanitarian assistance to internally displaced persons (IDPs) within Syria.

The tragedy in Syria is not some distant affair. It is partly the product of the disastrous Iraq war compounded by foreseeable errors made by this Administration. It is therefore up to the leadership in Washington to fulfill its responsibility. This means providing immediate assistance to millions of refugees and IDPs, negotiating bilaterally with Russia to end airstrikes on all sides, confronting the belligerence of its own Gulf and Turkish allies, and working towards an inclusive political settlement. That task is no doubt a very tall order. But as the last four years prove, it will only get taller if the Administration persists in treating Syria--and the civilians in harm's way--as a chess piece in a flawed regional game.


Professor Bâli is Professor of Law at the UCLA School of Law. She joined UCLA in 2009 from the Yale Law School where she was the Irving S. Ribicoff Fellow in Law, and coordinator of the Middle East Legal Forum. Bâli's current research interests focus on public international law, arms control, human rights and international humanitarian law. She also has a strong interest in the comparative law of the Middle East. Aziz Rana is a scholar of constitutional law and national security. He teaches at Cornell Law School and is the author of The Two Faces of American Freedom, out in paperback from Harvard University Press.