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US Needs New Strategy for Syria

U.N.-Arab League envoy for Syria Lakhdar Brahimi addresses the media after a meeting at the Geneva Conference on Syria at the United Nations European headquarters in Geneva, Feb. 15, 2014.

U.N.-Arab League envoy for Syria Lakhdar Brahimi addresses the media after a meeting at the Geneva Conference on Syria at the United Nations European headquarters in Geneva, Feb. 15, 2014.

Reports that UN special envoy for Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, is considering resigning should not surprise anyone.

Two rounds of “peace talks” in Geneva between the Syrian regime and émigré opposition figures produced no progress toward a political solution of the conflict, which this month marks a third grim anniversary.

Brahimi, 80, a veteran international mediator who took on the assignment after former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan resigned the post in 2012, apologized to the Syrian people after the recent talks for accomplishing so little to end their agony. With more than 140,000 dead – including victims of regime “barrel bombs” and bitter opposition infighting – and half the population internally displaced or refugees, Brahimi has ample reasons for being apologetic.

Two US-based analysts argue that the United States and the international community need a fresh approach. Instead of putting representatives of the Assad government and the externally based Syrian Opposition Coalition in the same room together again, Faysal Itani and Nathaniel Rosenblatt say the United States should “zoom in” and seek to identify local actors within Syria who have garnered respect and support and are not unremittingly hostile to the United States.

“We’ve been thinking about this through the wrong lens,” Itani, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, told a Washington audience on Wednesday (March 5). “We don’t have the appropriate participants in the process. Geneva was diplomatic theater without substance” that was “not only useless but harmful.”

Itani said the strategy should be to identify opposition nuclei in different parts of Syria, bolster them and gradually try to mesh them into a coherent national force.

Rosenblatt, who has done extensive analysis of local sentiments in Syria and found scant backing for the government or the external opposition, said it was possible to identify more popular and effective actors even though the opposition is evolving daily and currently appears dominated by Islamist groups.

Frederic Hof, a former US official who is now with the Atlantic Council and who moderated Wednesday’s discussion agreed that “the top down approach by the US government is essentially bankrupt.”

Officials in the Barack Obama administration have praised the Syrian Opposition Council for behaving in a dignified manner in Geneva – in contrast to representatives of the government of Bashar al-Assad who spent most of their time vilifying their interlocutors. But US officials such as Secretary of State John Kerry have also acknowledged the lack of progress and hinted that they are looking for a new approach.

The US has stepped up efforts to coordinate covert support for selected rebels, with senior officials from Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar and Jordan meeting in Washington last month. The Saudis have reportedly sidelined Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the former ambassador to the US, who is blamed for funneling aid to jihadists, and replaced him with Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the interior minister, who survived an al Qaida attempt to assassinate him in 2009 and has a more jaundiced view of al Qaida-linked groups in Syria.

There are no guarantees, however, that a beefed up strategy of overt and covert backing for local actors will resolve the conflict any sooner. Indeed, the more money and weapons sent into Syria from the outside, the bloodier the war is likely to become in the short and medium term. The United States and the Saudis also have a poor track record of identifying responsible actors in failed and failing states, judging from mistakes made in Afghanistan in the 1980s and ‘90s and US support for feckless Iraqi exiles before the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Hopes to enlist more cooperation toward a political solution from Russia, one of Assad’s two key foreign backers, also are evaporating given the new Cold War between Russia and the West over Ukraine.

However, the US, Russia and other interested parties -- including Iran -- could do more to push for humanitarian access to displaced Syrians, building on a UN Security Council resolution passed last month – the first that Russia has not vetoed since the conflict began.

The Obama administration has provided more than half the humanitarian aid going to Syrians -- some $1.7 billion – and sought to enhance Syria’s neighbors’ capacity to deal with a deluge of refugees. But Syria is still hampering access to about 3.3 million people within the country, according to Anne Richard, the assistant secretary of State for population, refugees and migration, and another quarter million are in places that are under siege by Syrian government forces.

Francois Stamm, the head of the North American delegation of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), said Wednesday at a symposium at the Aspen Institute that the Syrian government is forcing aid agencies to choose whether to operate out of the Syrian capital or from neighboring states.

“We try as much as we can to cross the lines,” Stamm said, saying that the ICRC was working from Damascus. “It’s very difficult to get to besieged areas.”

He also complained that the Syrian government has blocked the ICRC from visiting political detainees, a number he estimated is in the “tens of thousands.”

Aid workers also face enormous challenges negotiating access with opposition forces. Stamm said that three ICRC workers are still missing after being kidnapped in rebel territory last October.

Richard urged Saudi Arabia and other wealthy Arab states such as the United Arab Emirates to follow the example of Kuwait and funnel contributions through UN and other international aid agencies which are doing the bulk of humanitarian work. She added that she wished the American public – apart from Syrian Americans, who are very active – would pay more attention to this unprecedented unfolding tragedy.
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    Barbara Slavin

    Barbara Slavin is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center and a correspondent for, a website specializing in the Middle East. She is the author of a 2007 book, Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the US and the Twisted Path to Confrontation, and is a regular commentator on U.S. foreign policy and Iran on NPR, PBS, C-SPAN and the Voice of America.

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