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, 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

US, China Have Dueling Definitions of Cybersecurity

Analysts say attribution or or proving that a particular individual or government is responsible for a hack, is a daunting task More

Snowden: I'd Go to Prison to Return to US

Former NSA contractor says he has not received a formal plea-deal offer from US officials, who consider him to be a traitor More

Goodbye Pocahontas: Photos Reveal Today's Real Native Americans

Weary of stereotypes, photographer Matika Wilbur is determined to reshape the public's perception of her people More

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
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.
Russia’s Syria Involvement Raising Concerns in Europei
Luis Ramirez
October 02, 2015 4:45 PM
European nations are joining the United States in demanding that Russia stop targeting opposition groups other than the Islamic State militants as Russian warplanes continue to conduct raids in Syria. The demand came in a statement from Britain, France, Germany, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United States Friday. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.

Video Russia’s Syria Involvement Raising Concerns in Europe

European nations are joining the United States in demanding that Russia stop targeting opposition groups other than the Islamic State militants as Russian warplanes continue to conduct raids in Syria. The demand came in a statement from Britain, France, Germany, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United States Friday. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.

Video First Self-Driving Truck Debuts on European Highways

The first automated semi-trailer truck started its maiden voyage Friday, Oct. 2, on a European highway. The Daimler truck called 'Actros' is the first potentially mass-produced truck whose driver will be required only to monitor the situation, similar to the role of an airline captain while the plane is in autopilot mode. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Video Nano-tech Filter Cleans Dirty Water

Access to clean water is a problem for hundreds of millions of people around the world. Now, a scientist and chemical engineer in Tanzania (in East Africa) is working to change that by creating an innovative water filter that makes dirty water safe. VOA’s Deborah Block has the story.

Video Demand Rising for Organic Produce in Cambodia

In Cambodia, where rice has long been the main cash crop, farmers are being encouraged to turn to vegetables to satisfy the growing demand for locally produced organic farm products. Daniel de Carteret has more from Phnom Penh.

Video Migrant Influx Costs Europe, But Economy Could Benefit

The influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants is testing Europe’s ability to respond – especially in the poorer Balkan states. But some analysts argue that Europe will benefit by welcoming the huge numbers of young people – many of them well educated and willing to work. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.

Video Botanists Grow Furniture, with Pruning Shears

For something a bit out of the ordinary to furnish your home, why not consider wooden chairs, crafted by nature, with a little help from some British botanists with an eye for design. VOA’s Jessica Berman reports.

Video New Fabric Helps Fight Dust-Related Allergies

Many people around the world suffer from dust-related allergies, caused mainly by tiny mites that live in bed linen. Polish scientists report they have successfully tested a fabric that is impenetrable to the microscopic creatures. VOA’s George Putic has more.

Video Burkina Faso's Economy Deeply Affected by Political Turmoil

Political turmoil in Burkina Faso over the past year has taken a toll on the economy. The transitional government is reporting nearly $70 million in losses in the ten days that followed a short-lived coup by members of the presidential guard earlier this month. The crisis shut businesses and workers went on strike. With elections on the horizon, Emilie Iob reports on what a return to political stability can do for the country's economic recovery.

Video Fleeing Violence, Some Syrians Find Refuge in Irbil

As Syrians continue to flee their country’s unrest to seek new lives in safer places, VOA Persian Service reporter Shepol Abbassi visited Irbil, where a number Syrians have taken refuge. During the religious holidy of Eid al-Adha, the city largely shut down, as temperatures soared. Amy Katz narrates his report.

Video Nigeria’s Wecyclers Work for Reusable Future in Lagos

The streets and lagoons of Africa's largest city - Lagos, Nigeria - are often clogged with trash, almost none of which gets recycled. One company is trying to change that. Chris Stein reports for VOA from Lagos.

Video Sketch Artist Helps Catch Criminals, Gives a Face to Deceased

Police often face the problem of trying to find a crime suspect based on general descriptions that could fit hundreds of people in the vicinity of the crime. In these cases, an artist can use information from witnesses to sketch a likeness that police can show the public via newspapers and television. But, as VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Houston, such sketches can also help bring back faces of the dead.

Video Thailand Set to Build China-like Internet Firewall

Thai authorities are planning to tighten control over the Internet, creating a single international access point so they can better monitor content. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from Bangkok on what is being called Thailand’s own "Great Firewall."

Video Croatian Town’s War History Evokes Empathy for Migrants

As thousands of Afghanistan, Iraqi and Syrian migrants pass through Croatia, locals are reminded of their own experiences with war and refugees in the 1990s. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from the town of Vukovar, where wartime scars still are visible today.

Video Long Drought Affecting California’s Sequoias

California is suffering under a historic four-year drought and scientists say even the state's famed sequoia trees are feeling the pain. The National Park Service has started detailed research to see how it can help the oldest living things on earth survive. VOA’s George Putic reports.

VOA Blogs