Is Syria revival about boots on the ground?
Is the answer to the conflict in Syria sending in American soldiers to fight? Or should the focus be on confronting the forces driving the conflict there
By Ghassan Michel Rubeiz
US foreign policy for Syria needs to change. Washington must address Saudi-Iranian relations squarely, improve the quality of partnership with the Arab states and take a long term view of state re-building.
The US should press Saudi Arabia to reduce the Kingdom’s reliance on its external allies for lasting security. An artificially emboldened Riyadh is taking great risk in confronting Iran on several fronts. Sectarian tension and competition for regional dominance fuel conflict in Syria – and in other hot spots; tension and competition divert precious resources. Largely ethnic power games start among rulers at the top and germinate into fratricide between and among communities of essentially the same faith. Tehran supports the Alawite Damascus regime and Riyadh provides aid to the opposition Sunni groups.
Lebanon was dragged into the Syrian conflict when Hezbollah, on behest of Iran, went to war to defend the Syrian regime. Iraq is much hurt by the Syrian crisis for related sectarian dynamics. Iran and Saudi Arabia are engaged in a treacherous, proxy war in Yemen. The forces of these two central Middle East nations, which are much needed to defeat the Islamic State, have been destroying another Arab country for several months. How could Washington condone and support a Saudi-led war in Yemen and assume leadership in peace-making in Syria?
The state rebuilding in Syria must also address the underlying causes of unrest and alienation, such as state oppression, religious intolerance and widespread unemployment. It is necessary to devise an international plan of security, reconstruction and rehabilitation for Syria. This process would need at least ten years of stabilization in which (Marshall-like) economic recovery is a foundation. The US should further support the renewal of the region’s educational system through a comprehensive cultural exchange program. Resource exchange should replace a dysfunctional system of palliative foreign aid, massive US sales of arms and commitments to guarantee the security of close allies. Most of the region is not lacking seriously in economic resources; what the Arab states need most from the West is human investment partnerships, not self serving military alliances.
Washington has approached the Syrian conflict as if it were a simple matter of poor governance. The US message is simple: remove President Assad, install an inclusive, transitional government and initiate dialogue among all Syrian factions to arrive at a solution. Based on Washington’s short term paradigm of manufacturing security for broken states, the Vienna talks are likely to fail the way Geneva did before it.
The latest international agreement, forged in Vienna on November 14, is essentially a reformulation of the Transition Plan of the Geneva Conference of June 30, 2012. The flaws of Geneva 2012 were not properly addressed in Vienna 2015. In this recent plan the future of President Assad is as vague as it has ever been. The selection of the participants in the Vienna process has not been agreed upon yet. The international actors on the diplomatic scene have always been more important than the local ones. The Syrian spokesmen residing abroad receive more attention than the fighters and advocates on the ground. The major state actors have their own self serving agenda: US focused on “war on terrorism”; Saudi Arabia on ousting Assad; Iran and Russia on continuity of regime; Turkey on limiting Kurdish power; and Europe on stemming tide of refugees. Conflict resolution proceeds without concentration on the Islamic State and coordination of military action.
In the Vienna formula the Syrian crisis is expected to be resolved within a span of 18 months. On January 1, the Syrian regime is supposed to start dialogue with the opposition. In January 2016 a cease fire would allow the formation of an interim, inclusive government representing the regime and opposition. The interim government would prepare a new constitution within a year. In the following six months national elections would be called for to determine future leadership of the country and to form a parliament. This is a rushed process, perhaps an outcome of panic thinking.
It will take more than eighteen months to prepare this divided and devastated country for a countrywide general election. After four years of bloodshed the opposition groups occupy over three quarters of the country; a self proclaimed Islamic State controls a large section of eastern Syria and western Iraq. The Kurdish Syrian community now has aspirations of separation from Damascus. Syria is now home to scores of local and external militias.
The focus of military intervention should not remain on air power but on a regional, indigenous campaign of ground troops, to be backed by an external, multinational, coordinated force. After the Islamic state is defeated, hopefully by local forces, a decade or a generation would be needed to reunify Syria and cement the rebuilding of structures and attitudes. Talk of establishing democracy soon is not realistic. A multinational regional force for protecting the peace would be required for some time.
US policy makers should play fair with the main regional actors, focus on human investment and project long term planning. There is no reason to believe that Washington is ready to change its course in Syria; much of the debate remains focused on how many “boots on the ground” are needed.