News / Middle East

    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.

    Barbara Slavin

    Barbara Slavin is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center and a correspondent for Al-Monitor.com, 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.

    You May Like

    Video As Refugees Perish, Greek Graveyards Fill

    Before burial at overflowing cemeteries, unidentified dead being swapped for DNA, in case some day relatives come to learn their fate

    Russian Opposition Leader Sues Putin for Conflict of Interest

    Alexei Navalny tells VOA in exclusive interview why transfer of $2 billion from country’s wealth fund to company with ties to President Putin’s son-in-law triggered lawsuit

    How Diversity Has Changed America

    Over the past four decades, the level of diversity in the United States has increased most in these four states

    This forum has been closed.
    Comment Sorting
    Comments
         
    by: Anonymous
    March 11, 2014 6:39 AM
    They need to go in and take him out. Russia is allowed to illegally take over countries, why cant the west go after a mass murderer?

    by: jeremy_gsl
    March 08, 2014 5:37 PM
    UN is brainstorming how to appease the U.S. administration, rather than apologise for Kofi Annan's "tweet" on Syria, which was subject of Geneva "negotiations".

    Somebody out there should suggest the president to put on the pants

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    As Refugees Perish, Greek Graveyards Filli
    X
    Hamada Elsaram
    February 11, 2016 8:01 PM
    Aid workers on the Greek island of Lesbos say they are struggling to bury the increasing number of bodies of refugees that have been recovered or washed up ashore in recent months.  The graveyards are all full, they say, yet as tens of thousands of people clamor to get out of Syria, it is clear refugees will still be coming in record numbers. For VOA, Hamada Elrasam reports from Lesbos, Greece.
    Video

    Video As Refugees Perish, Greek Graveyards Fill

    Aid workers on the Greek island of Lesbos say they are struggling to bury the increasing number of bodies of refugees that have been recovered or washed up ashore in recent months.  The graveyards are all full, they say, yet as tens of thousands of people clamor to get out of Syria, it is clear refugees will still be coming in record numbers. For VOA, Hamada Elrasam reports from Lesbos, Greece.
    Video

    Video To Fight Zika, Scientists Target Mosquitoes

    Mosquitoes strike again. The Zika virus outbreak is just the latest headline-grabbing epidemic carried by these biting pests, but researchers are fighting back with new ways to control them. VOA's Steve Baragona takes a look.
    Video

    Video Mosul Refugees Talk About Life Under IS

    A top U.S. intelligence official told Congress this week that a planned Iraqi-led operation to re-take the city of Mosul from Islamic State militants is unlikely to take place this year. IS took over the city in June 2014, and for the past year and a half, Mosul residents have been held captive under its rule. VOA's Zana Omar talked to some families who managed to escape. Bronwyn Benito narrates his report.
    Video

    Video Scientists Make Progress Toward Better Diabetes Treatment, Cure

    Scientists at two of the top U.S. universities say they have made significant advances in their quest to find a more efficient treatment for diabetes and eventually a cure. According to the International Diabetes Federation, the disease affects more than 370 million people worldwide. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video NATO to Target Migrant Smugglers

    NATO has announced plans to send warships to the Aegean Sea to target migrant smugglers in the alliance's most direct intervention so far since a wave of people began trying to reach European shores.
    Video

    Video Russia's Catholics, Orthodox Hopeful on Historic Pope-Patriarch Meeting

    Russia's Catholic minority has welcomed an historic first meeting Friday in Cuba between the Pope and the Patriarch of Russia's dominant Orthodox Church. The Orthodox Church split with Rome in 1054 and analysts say politics, both church and state, have been driving the relationship in the centuries since. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.
    Video

    Video Used Books Get a New Life on the Streets of Lagos

    Used booksellers are importing books from abroad and selling them on the streets of Africa's largest city. What‘s popular with readers may surprise you. Chris Stein reports from Lagos.
    Video

    Video After NH Primaries All Eyes on South Carolina

    After Tuesday's primary in New Hampshire, US presidential candidates swiftly turned to the next election coming up in South Carolina. The so-called “first-in-the-South” poll may help further narrow down the field of candidates. Zlatica Hoke reports.
    Video

    Video US Co-ed Selective Service Plan Stirs Controversy

    Young women may soon be required to register with the U.S. Selective Service System, the U.S. government agency charged with implementing a draft in a national emergency. Top Army and Marine Corps commanders told the Senate Armed Services Committee recently that women should register, and a bill has been introduced in Congress requiring eligible women to sign up for the military draft. The issue is stirring some controversy, as VOA’s Bernard Shusman reports from New York.
    Video

    Video Lessons Learned From Ebola Might Help Fight Zika

    Now that the Ebola epidemic has ended in West Africa, Zika has the world's focus. And, as Carol Pearson reports, health experts and governments are applying some of the lessons learned during the Ebola crisis in Africa to fight the Zika virus in Latin America and the Caribbean.
    Video

    Video Smartphone Helps Grow Vegetables

    One day, you may be using your smartphone to grow your vegetables. A Taipei-based company has developed a farm cube — a small, enclosed ecosystem designed to grow plants indoors. The environment inside is automatically adjusted by the cube, but it can also be controlled through an app. VOA's Deborah Block has more on the gardening system.
    Video

    Video Illinois Voters Have Mixed Emotions on Obama’s Return to Springfield

    On the ninth anniversary of the launch of his quest for national office, President Barack Obama returned to Springfield, Illinois, to speak to the Illinois General Assembly, where he once served as state senator. His visit was met with mixed emotions by those with a front-row seat on his journey to the White House. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.
    Video

    Video Exhibit Turns da Vinci’s Drawings Into Real Objects

    In addition to being a successful artist, Renaissance genius Leonardo da Vinci designed many practical machines, some of which are still in use today, although in different forms. But a number of his projects were never realized — until today. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Heated Immigration Debate Limits Britain’s Refugee Response

    Compared to many other European states, Britain has agreed to accept a relatively small number of Syrian refugees. Just over a thousand have arrived so far -- and some are being resettled in remote corners of the country. Henry Ridgwell reports on why Britain’s response has lagged behind its neighbors.
    Video

    Video Russia's Car Sales Shrink Overall, But Luxury and Economy Models See Growth

    Car sales in Russia dropped by more than a third in 2015 because of the country's economic woes. But, at the extreme ends of the car market, luxury vehicles and some economy brands are actually experiencing growth. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.