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

UN Fears Rights Violations in China-backed Projects

UNHCHR investigates link between financing development and ignoring safeguards for human rights More

Boko Haram Violence Tests Nigerians’ Faith in Buhari

New president has promised to stem insurgency; he’s scheduled to meet with President Obama at White House July 20 More

Social Media Network Wants Privacy in User’s Hands

Encryption's popularity in messaging is exploding; now it's the foundation of a new social network More

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.
Making Music, Fleeing Bombs: New Film on Sudan’s Internal Refugeesi
X
Carolyn Weaver
July 06, 2015 6:47 PM
In 2012, Sudanese filmmaker Hajooj Kuka went to make a documentary among civil war refugees in Sudan’s Blue Nile and Nuba Mountains region. What he found surprised him: music was helping to save people from bombing raids by their own government. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more.
Video

Video Making Music, Fleeing Bombs: New Film on Sudan’s Internal Refugees

In 2012, Sudanese filmmaker Hajooj Kuka went to make a documentary among civil war refugees in Sudan’s Blue Nile and Nuba Mountains region. What he found surprised him: music was helping to save people from bombing raids by their own government. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more.
Video

Video Rice Farmers Frustrated As Drought Grips Thailand

A severe drought in Thailand is limiting the growing season of the country’s important rice crop. Farmers are blaming the government for not doing more to protect a key export. Steve Sandford reports from Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Video

Video 'From This Day Forward' Reveals Difficult Journey of Transgender Parent

In her documentary, "From This Day Forward", filmmaker Sharon Shattuck reveals the personal journey of her transgender father, as he told his family that he always felt he was a woman inside and decided to live as one. VOA’s Penelope Poulou has more.
Video

Video Floodwaters Threaten Iconic American Home

The Farnsworth House in the Midwest State of Illinois is one of the most iconic homes in America. Thousands of tourists visit the site every year. Its location near a river inspired the design of the house, but, as VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, that very location is now threatening the existence of this National Historic Landmark.
Video

Video Olympics Construction Scars Sacred Korean Mountain

Environmentalists in South Korea are protesting a Winter Olympics construction project to build a ski slope through a 500-year-old protected forest. Brian Padden reports that although there is strong national support for hosting the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, there are growing public concerns over the costs and possible ecological damage at the revered mountain.
Video

Video Xenophobia Victims in South Africa Flee Violence, Then Return

Many Malawians fled South Africa early this year after xenophobic attacks on African immigrants. But many quickly found life was no better at home and have returned to South Africa – often illegally and without jobs, and facing the tough task of having to start over. Lameck Masina and Anita Powell file from Johannesburg.
Video

Video Family of American Marine Calls for Release From Iranian Prison

As the crowd of journalists covering the Iran talks swells, so too do the opportunities for media coverage.  Hoping to catch the attention of high-level diplomats, the family of American-Iranian marine Amir Hekmati is in Vienna, pleading for his release from an Iranian prison after nearly 4 years.  VOA’s Heather Murdock reports from Vienna.
Video

Video UK Holds Terror Drill as MPs Mull Tunisia Response

After pledging a tough response to last Friday’s terror attack in Tunisia, which came just days before the 10th anniversary of the bomb attacks on London’s transport network, British security services are shifting their focus to overseas counter-terror operations. VOA's Henry Ridgwell has more.
Video

Video Obama on Cuba: This is What Change Looks Like

President Barack Obama says the United States will soon reopen its embassy in Cuba for the first time since 1961, ending a half-century of isolation. VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.
Video

Video Hate Groups Spread Influence Via Internet

Hate groups of various kinds are using the Internet for propaganda and recruitment, and a Jewish human rights organization that monitors these groups, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, says their influence is growing. The messages are different, but the calls to hatred or violence are similar. VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports.
Video

Video Blind Somali Journalist Defies Odds in Mogadishu

Despite improving security in the last few years, Somalia remains one of the most dangerous countries to be a journalist – even more so for someone who cannot see. Abdulaziz Billow has the story of journalist Abdifatah Hassan Kalgacal, who has been reporting from the Somali capital for the last decade despite being blind.
Video

Video Rabbi Hits Road to Heal Jewish-Muslim Relations in France

France is on high alert after last week's terrorist attack near the city Lyon, just six months after deadly Paris shootings. The attack have added new tensions to relations between French Jews and Muslims. France’s Jewish and Muslim communities also share a common heritage, though, and as far as one French rabbi is concerned, they are destined to be friends. From the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, Lisa Bryant reports about Rabbi Michel Serfaty and his friendship bus.

VOA Blogs