A New Phase for U.S. Policy on Syria

Additional support for the Syrian opposition and regional coordination are urgently needed.

President Barack Obama arrives in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, Friday, June 14, 2013, where he hosted a Father's Day luncheon. Speaking about Syria, the president said its use of chemical weapons crosses a
President Barack Obama arrives in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, Friday, June 14, 2013, where he hosted a Father's Day luncheon. Speaking about Syria, the president said its use of chemical weapons crosses a "red line," triggering greater U.S involvement in the crisis. (AP/Evan Vucci)

Syria’s ongoing civil war is both a humanitarian catastrophe and a major threat to U.S. national security interests at a time of great uncertainty and turmoil in the Middle East. The conflict continues with no end in sight; growing numbers of refugees are flowing into neighboring countries; and the instability within Syria threatens to spread throughout the region. The United States has sought Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s removal from power without the result of a failed state. More than two years into the conflict, however, the state is collapsing, the country is fragmenting, and Assad remains in power.

Given the negative evolution of the Syrian conflict, current U.S. policy is not sustainable and does not effectively advance U.S. regional interests and values, as witnessed last week when three senior American Progress staff—Michael Werz, Tom Perriello, and Winnie Stachelberg—took a weeklong trip to the region.

It is time for a change in policy. The United States needs to increase its assistance to the Syrian opposition with the goal of supporting an alternative opposition government that is better organized than at present.

During the past two years, the Obama administration has adopted a pragmatic approach to Syria, carefully weighing the costs and benefits of a range of policy options. But now the costs of maintaining the current U.S. posture appear to outweigh the benefits.

The situation in Syria has reached a tipping point. The current U.S. policy has produced tangible outcomes: a more unified Syrian opposition—though it still faces significant internal divisions—and a more coordinated framework with other countries to help some elements of the armed opposition become more organized and capable on the battlefield. Secretary of State John Kerry announced today that the Obama administration has pledged to provide $60 million in direct nonlethal aid to the Free Syrian Army. This is a positive step, but current U.S. policy has not yet produced a reasonable prospect for ending the conflict on terms that are favorable to U.S. interests and that effectively deal with the humanitarian consequences.

The United States has five core national security interests in Syria:

  1. Preventing the spillover of conflict into neighboring countries, including mitigating the effect of refugee outflows
  2. Ensuring the security of Syria’s chemical-weapons stockpile and preventing their use
  3. Eliminating the space for Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups to operate inside Syria
  4. Safeguarding against further state collapse, which would cause an even larger humanitarian crisis
  5. Preparing the groundwork for a political and economic transition to a new regime in Syria in the foreseeable future

Currently, the most viable option for the United States to advance these interests is to build on its already considerable efforts to support a more unified and capable political and armed opposition in Syria. Without such organization, the opposition will neither be able to break the current stalemate nor overcome the challenges of a post-Assad Syria. So far, the organization of internationally recognized Syrian opposition forces remains weak, although it has improved.

There are several options for the United States to examine in seeking a viable means to its ends of stability and security in Syria following the latter’s regime change.

  • Incentivize further organization of recognized opposition political and military groups. The National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces has already taken steps toward a more cohesive organizational structure for its armed groups, installing a Supreme Military Council and naming a chief of staff last December. These moves have likely facilitated the recently reported flow of Saudi-purchased weapons through Jordan to rebel groups in southern Syria. Having refrained from providing Syrian armed groups with weapons thus far, the United States is in the position to offer weapons as incentives for further consolidation and organization of the embryonic rebel command structure. The U.S. intelligence and military communities should give the White House their best assessments of the organizational deficiencies of the forces currently operating under the direction of the Supreme Military Council—and provide counsel on what steps the Supreme Military Counsel could reasonably take to bring more cohesion to its forces. The United States could then offer to provide arms via the National Coalition and the Supreme Military Council if it meets these organizational incentives. In offering this assistance, the United States should take steps to ensure that it is not undermining its third security interest: eliminating the space for Al Qaeda and affiliated groups to operate.
  • Offer advice and training to Syrian opposition. The United States—together with allies and partners in Europe and the Persian Gulf—could offer to train and possibly equip units under the command of the Supreme Military Council outside Syria—perhaps in Jordan and Turkey. Such training could help recognized Syrian opposition forces be more effective against regime forces today—and, if necessary, against extremists in a future post-Assad environment. The United States and its partners could also send personnel to serve as strategic advisors to the Supreme Military Council command structure operating outside Syria in order to better coordinate the Supreme Military Council’s military campaign.
  • Support special-operations intervention by regional allies. Another option for the United States is encouraging regional allies to insert intelligence and special forces into Syria to advise and coordinate rebel forces. These forces could also introduce weapons such as man-portable surface-to-air missiles—shoulder-launched missiles used to take down low-flying aircraft—into the fighting. The United States and other countries have been reluctant, however, to see these more powerful weapons proliferate in Syrian rebel units over which they have no control.
  • Provide humanitarian aid through the National Coalition and the Supreme Military Council. Sending humanitarian aid through these offices would provide a concrete test of their organizational capacities and would provide a way for these groups to give essential goods and services to a population wracked by two years of internal conflict.
  • Better coordination with regional allies and NATO. All of the above options assume a high level of coordination with regional allies on Syria policy that has not been entirely apparent thus far. Regardless of the policy it chooses going forward, the United States should aim for a more robust level of cooperation with regional allies who largely share its analysis of the conflict. Such coordination may already be occurring far from the public eye, but it nonetheless remains essential to achieving American objectives in a post-Assad Syria.

All of these options entail some risk, but at this point in the conflict, all options—including the current policy—entail risk.

Broader U.S. regional security interests and U.S. values at stake in Syrian conflict

As its third year looms, Syria’s civil war is becoming increasingly sectarian. Outside Islamist extremist groups such as the Al Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra are gaining ground in the country, and the regional influence of the United States—including our strategic partnership with Turkey—is suffering as Syrian refugee populations swell, testing the capacity of several U.S. regional allies. Maintaining our current policy will likely erode our existing influence over the recognized Syrian opposition and increase the vacuum available for extremists to fill. Other potential problems include:

  • A humanitarian crisis and Turkish concern of radicalization in refugee camps. There are currently 940,000 total Syrian refugees—281,000 in Turkey; 283,000 in Lebanon; and 252,000 in Jordan. The growing number of Syrian refugees will increasingly test the humanitarian capabilities of these countries to house, feed, and manage the overwhelming influx of people on their borders. The influx of a quarter of a million mostly Sunni refugees also risks destabilizing the delicate sectarian balance in Lebanon, whose population is deeply divided over the Syrian civil war.
  • The conflict becoming sectarian. The remnants of the Syrian security services and pro-Assad militias could become an Alawite militia. This is not yet the case, but no one can predict if or when a Yugoslavia- or Iraq-style scenario might develop. The presence of salafi-jihadist groups with links to al Qaeda in Iraq—such as Jabhat al-Nusra—could further inflame the post-Assad environment.
  • Undermining of U.S. standing in the region. Our standing is being undermined by the perception that the Obama administration does not stand by the insurgency. Turkish politicians are taking all the credit for supporting Syrian refugees and the opposition. If this continues, the Syrian conflict has the potential to undermine the longstanding U.S.-Turkish partnership in the region.
  • The first multidimensional proxy war in the post-Cold War era. Several regional and international powers are simultaneously attempting to steer the conflict, and it is important to ensure that this proxy war cannot be “won” by Iran, Russia, jihadists, or any other bad actors—to ensure that it is decided by and for the Syrian people.
  • Complication of the transnational Kurdish issue. The Kurds are an ethnic minority spread over Syria, Turkey, Iraq, and Iran. Cross-border links between Kurdish militants—the Kurdistan Workers’ Party in Turkey and northern Iraq and the Democratic Union Party in Syria—could inhibit efforts to peacefully resolve the status of Kurds in Turkey, Iraq, and the region as a whole.
  • High potential for spillover. In addition to refugees, the conflict could spread beyond Syria’s borders into Lebanon, where the Free Syrian Army has threatened to attack Hezbollah over its intervention on behalf of the Assad regime; into Iraq, which appears to be a conduit for weapons and extremists; and into Europe, which has already seen some its citizens and residents join extremist organizations.

Together, these considerations argue for a more active U.S. policy that provides more direct support to the recognized Syrian political and military opposition.

Rudy deLeon is Senior Vice President of the National Security and International Policy team at the Center for American Progress. Michael Werz and Brian Katulis are Senior Fellows at the Center. Tom Perriello is Counselor to the Center. Winnie Stachelberg is the Executive Vice President for External Affairs at the Center. Peter Juul is a Policy Analyst with the National Security team at the Center. Ken Sofer is a Research Associate with the National Security team at the Center.

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Rudy deLeon

Senior Fellow

Michael Werz

Senior Fellow

 (Brian Katulis)

Brian Katulis

Former Senior Fellow

Tom Perriello

President & CEO of the Center for American Progress Action Fund, Counselor to the Center for American Progress

Winnie Stachelberg

Former Executive Vice President, External Affairs


Peter Juul

Former Senior Policy Analyst

Ken Sofer

Senior Policy Adviser