North Africa, West Asia

The Syrian impasse: navigating hard truths and the road forward

US diplomatic efforts to quell violence in Syria have been halfhearted and ineffective.

Karim Dewidar
31 May 2015

Majid Almustafa/Demotix. All rights reserved.

Last March marked the fourth anniversary of the Syrian uprising, now civil war, and it is perplexing that this bloodbath has unfolded without any meaningful attempts by the US to stop it.

People in the US have been disillusioned by the Obama administration, saying that it has been doing everything it can—though it obviously has not. The air campaign against ISIS, although beneficial to the US, only strengthens the Assad regime and will not end the conflict. Also, diplomatic efforts have left much to be desired.

Furthermore, the US’s much lauded humanitarian efforts are overstated and in fact, countries with much fewer resource capabilities, such as Sweden and Lebanon, are leading the way. We, here in America, need to own up to these truths so that it inspires us to take bold new steps towards mitigating the conflict.

Humanitarian efforts put forth by the US for the Syrians has been woefully inept. Over the last 4 years the US has provided a total of $2 billion, or .01 percent of just one year’s GDP (2014). Conversely, the U.K.’s commitment is about $911 million, which is a lot comparatively, considering that the UK’s 2014 GDP is only 14 percent of that of the US.

Moreover, the US has taken in just 546 refugees from Syria since 2011, or .006 percent of the 9 million people displaced from the conflict. This equates to .000002 percent of the total US population. Sweden, which has a population of 9 million, has taken in over 81,000 refugees. Lebanon, which is smaller than the state of New Jersey, has taken in 1.2 million refugees, which has led to a population increase of 25 percent. Syria’s Arab neighbors and a few European countries have led the humanitarian effort, not the US; make no mistake about it.

The US’s diplomatic efforts to quell the violence in Syria have been equally halfhearted and ineffective. To date, the UN and Arab League sponsored Geneva I and II conferences have been the only serious attempts at negotiations.

The talks were doomed to be ineffective because of pressure by the US on the UN to ban certain parties from attending the talks. Notable was the lack of representation from Iran, Hezbollah, ISIS, Jabhat Al Nusra, and the Islamic Front. All of these groups are running the show on the ground, so how can there be talks without them?

The administration may also point to its efforts of working through the Security Council to reach either a military or diplomatic solution, but Russia has remained an obstacle to getting anything meaningful passed. The ability to get UN authorization in 2011 for intervention in Libya shows that if compelled to, the US can overcome Security Council opposition or trepidation.

The US army has been very active in the Levant for about nine months now, mainly via its air campaign on ISIS. Many will use this fact to dispute the claim the US has done nothing for the Syrians. The problem however, is that this policy is meant to help Iraq to protect us, the US, from the presumed threat ISIS poses to America. Any benefits to the Syrians are ancillary.

The conflict in Syria began in 2011 and ISIS has been around since then, but the US only intervened recently. It shows that the US was content with ISIS so long as it remained in Syria. While the US has been stingy with humanitarian aid, it has splurged on its bombing campaign. In less than a year, it has spent $2.44 billion. The 2015 budget has allocated another $5.6 billion.

Even though the US has focused its efforts on defeating ISIS, this costly endeavor has yielded little. Operation Inherent Resolve, primarily a bombing campaign, has just been a means to buy time until the Arab states can carry out the necessary ground operations.

Back in August 2014 when the campaign began, then Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel speaking about defeating ISIS said: “it isn’t going to just come as a result of airstrikes…strategically there are limits to how much you can accomplish with airstrikes.” This has shown to be true as US operations have not been able to contain, let alone push back, ISIS. The recent capture of the Iraqi city of Ramadi and Palmyra in Syria exemplify this. Just as in the summer of 2014, ISIS still holds one third of Iraqi territory and has since increased its presence in Syria now controlling fifty percent of the country.

The US has failed in all of its efforts regarding Syria and ISIS, so what’s next?

The US has to be less hesitant in arming Syrian rebels. Efforts so far have been limited by the State Department’s stringent criteria of what constitutes a “moderate” group. Losses on the battlefield will leave Assad with less leverage.

The US will then need to utilize the goodwill it has accumulated with Iran from the ongoing nuclear negotiations to pressure Assad. Secretary of State Kerry said in a March 16th interview “[the] US eventually must negotiate with Assad.” Iran is Assad’s lifeline so pressure from them may bring the Syrian regime to the table for sincere talks. This is the direction it must take if it is going to help the Syrians suffering under the Assad regime and also the way forward to then deal with ISIS.

We must stop perpetuating the myth that we have been doing all we can for Syria. The sooner we realize this harsh truth, the sooner we will muster the courage to take bold action.

Placing pressure on the regime is possible without the US firing a single shot. This is not a call for another war. Although flawed US polices have helped exacerbate the situation, this should not be an excuse to check out completely. Our moral imperative is to demand an affirmative stance on the Syrian conflict and our legitimacy ultimately rests upon this. 

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