See also: Next Steps in Syria: A Look at U.S. Priorities and Interests by Ken Sofer; Helping Syrian Refugees in Lebanon by Haydn Welch; What Drives Russia’s Unrelenting Position on Syria? by Nicholas Kosturos
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to Turkey this weekend publicly signaled that the United States has entered a new phase of its policy on Syria—one in which the United States is working more actively to accelerate the downfall of the Assad regime in Syria while dealing with the risks resulting from the continued conflict.
In announcing a formal U.S.-Turkish bilateral team consisting of military, intelligence, and political leaders to conduct “very intensive operational planning” for policy options on Syria, Secretary Clinton sent the message that the United States is stepping up its cooperation with regional partners and will remain deeply engaged in responding to the continued violence in Syria.
These intensified planning measures are not likely to satisfy administration critics who have argued for more direct U.S. military involvement in Syria. But these steps demonstrate that the Obama administration remains pragmatic in its approach, assessing the likely implications and possible risks of all actions it might take. As CAP’s Ken Sofer argues in this policy brief, the United States is taking a comprehensive, integrated approach to dealing with a conflict that has no easy solutions.
During the past year, U.S. policy in Syria has focused on multiple tracks. First, it aimed to isolate and weaken the Assad regime through diplomatic and economic measures and promote a political transition. The United States continues to work with other countries to implement sanctions aimed at undermining the financial support for the Assad regime, but the international diplomatic efforts have stalled in large part due to the stonewalling by Russia and China at the United Nations.
The U.N. peace effort has not gained traction because of the Assad regime’s unwillingness to cooperate, resulting in the resignation of the U.N. peace envoy Kofi Annan earlier this month. The United States has also been a leader in the multilateral Friends of Syria group to coordinate an international coalition supporting a peaceful political transition in Syria, but those efforts have not produced results with the lack of progress in the United Nations.
Second, the United States has become increasingly involved in offering support to the Syrian opposition. Under the leadership of U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford, the United States has been actively supporting greater cohesion and coordination among the political opposition. In recent weeks it has increased “non-lethal” support to the armed opposition aimed at enhancing their internal communications and command-and-control capabilities.
Third, the United States has also increased its support for refugee assistance and other measures aimed at dealing with the spillover of Syria’s conflict across the borders to neighboring countries. In her visit to Turkey this weekend, Secretary Clinton announced an additional $5.5 million in humanitarian assistance for refugees, which will help in places such as Lebanon where Syrian refugees are growing and facing new challenges.
All of these measures have not yet ended the conflict in Syria, where the death toll continues to rise. But they are essential building blocks for managing a political transition that looks increasingly inevitable in Syria.
The fact that Secretary Clinton and other administration officials have not ruled out imposing a “no-fly zone” over Syria or other proposals demonstrates that the United States is examining all options. Reports that rebel fighters downed a Syrian fighter jet yesterday morning will likely increase calls for a no-fly zone, but the Obama administration understands that such an operation is easier said than done.
The efforts to enhance U.S.-Turkish formal policy coordination on Syria represent another important step toward deeper U.S. involvement in Syria. Turkey’s territory has already become a hub for Syrian opposition forces, and Turkey will remain a pivotal country shaping events inside Syria.
This step-by-step engagement is necessary if the United States wants to continuously assess the benefits and risks of proposed policy options. This gradual approach may frustrate some people, but it is a necessary process to ensure any steps the United States takes in Syria help advance regional security and U.S. policy interests.
Brian Katulis is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.