How U.S. can help Syria
March 28th, 2014
05:47 PM ET

How U.S. can help Syria

By Faysal Itani, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Faysal Itani is a resident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. The views expressed are the writer’s own.

Three years into Syria’s civil war, the United States has demanded the regime shut down its U.S. embassy. But this month’s long overdue gesture is just the latest low-cost substitute for a meaningful U.S. policy in Syria, and is symptomatic of the U.S. approach to Syria’s tragedy, which prioritizes diplomatic posturing over engaging with realities on the ground. Indeed, as the United States focuses on international summits such as the recent Geneva II conference, it is ignoring the nature of the opposition in Syria itself.

It isn’t too late to change this approach, and to transform the U.S. goal of political transition in Syria from wishful fantasy to realistic goal. But to do this, American thinking needs to move from Geneva to the villages, towns, and cities of Syria

Early last year, Syrian rebels captured the northern city of Raqqa. After bickering with local councils over how to run the province, the U.S.-backed opposition coalition in exile (the Etilaf) named Abdullah Khalil, a human rights lawyer, to head an interim authority. On May 19, 2013, masked men reportedly kidnapped Khalil, and he has not been heard from since. His disappearance shows how the opposition, backed by the United States and its allies, has failed to build on its early successes in liberated territory, allowing the regime to survive.

The United States and its regional allies contributed to the opposition’s failures. They funneled money and weapons to individuals or families – often based on their political affiliations – instead of building broad local coalitions. Even worse, by failing to arm and finance them, they left their allies vulnerable to regime and rebel violence. They apparently didn’t realize that unprotected civilian councils stood no chance against the regime or extremists. As a result, whatever progress people like Abdullah made disappeared when they did. The moderate opposition’s collapse in Raqqa left a power vacuum that was quickly filled by the transnational jihadist group the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The city’s luckless population traded the regime’s secular tyranny for a religious one.

There is a more effective way to help the Syrian opposition, alternatives to the single-minded, futile U.S. focus on high-level diplomacy. As Nathaniel Rosenblatt and I argue in a new Atlantic Council Issue Brief, a far more useful approach would be for U.S. policymakers to zoom in on Syria’s local realities in order to better understand the nationalist opposition and protect it against both the regime and sectarian radicals.

A closer look at Syria itself reveals there are no national-scale institutions that can make and enforce decisions on Syrians’ behalf. Beset by successive failures, disappointments and perceived abandonment by their ostensible Western allies, Syrians overwhelmingly reject the legitimacy of the U.S.-backed Etilaf, which claimed to represent them at the Geneva II conference. In civil wars, those doing the fighting and dying call the shots. In Syria, these include radical Islamist groups such as Ahrar al Sham and the al Qaeda-affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, who have succeeded because of strong financial and military support from states and wealthy individuals sympathetic to their abhorrent ideology. U.S. policy will either have to engage with these radical militia or help build fighting coalitions capable of absorbing, coercing or destroying them.

Unless the United States prefers to let current rebel dynamics play out as they will – and the results thus far are not encouraging – its only alternative is to empower groups less unpalatable to U.S. interests and values. This would mean identifying, arming, training, funding, and advising select individuals and groups, in a manner that accounts for and works with, rather than against, local circumstances including tribal, family, sectarian, and other social realities. Only a broad rebel coalition with a strong on-the-ground presence would have the capability, agency, and incentive to bring about a political transition in Syria. Pretending the Etilaf is that coalition while bullying it to attend fruitless summits is unfair and dangerous.

Nurturing an opposition capable of fighting and negotiating on behalf of Syrians won’t be easy. It would take months to change the balance of power in Syria. Weapons and money aren’t enough: the opposition needs training and guidance on coordination, planning, tactics, and strategy. U.S. policymakers, meanwhile, would need to invest more time, resources, and energy in tracking and analyzing local developments, and asking difficult questions: Which rebel groups control which areas? Are they capable of holding them? How do rebel-rebel and regime-opposition relations vary across regions, or even neighborhoods? Which tribal leaders, influential personalities, groups, and institutions enjoy local respect and authority, and why? Are they protected from violence?

President Obama may not adopt this approach anytime soon given his ambivalence towards the utility of U.S. power and aversion to involvement in the Middle East. Yet there’s no other way to achieve political transition and weaken jihadist groups in Syria. If the president insists on focusing exclusively on low-cost, low-reward diplomatic theatre, Syria will continue descending into lawlessness and terrorism, causing untold suffering for Syrians, threatening neighboring countries, and fuelling regional sectarian violence.

Whether now or after President Obama’s term expires in 2016, the United States will be forced to engage with the Syrian conflict on a deeper level. Thinking local means accounting for reality in Syria as it actually is – that is, as Syrians are living and shaping it, and not as policymakers wish it were.


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Topics: Civil War • Syria • United States

soundoff (44 Responses)
  1. Jerry Falwell

    The best way for the U.S. to help Syria is just to simply butt out! Had we not aided and abetted the so-called Syrian "Free" Army, this mess would have ended ages ago with the Assad regime still in power. We also need to just ignore these Arab League "allies" of ours since these unsavory people(King Abdullah of Jordan, for example) have no moral principles and will sell out to the highest bidder.

    March 28, 2014 at 7:20 pm | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      What is so sad is that Bashar al-Assad now really feels indispensable. He intends to run for re-election, knowing nobody will stop or challenge him. He has the Hezbollah to thank for the recent gains, recapturing strategic sites and routes.
      Unfortunately the US does not want to get involved militarily in Syria, as the battleground there is getting crowded, with so many different fighter-groups around.

      March 30, 2014 at 2:55 pm | Reply
      • Yassmeen

        Are u kidding me. I'm sorry but clearly u don't have a clue as to what is happening in Syria or he wouldn't say such things. Syrians have lived on peace for over 3 decades and have kept peace on the boarders of Israel and Iran. It has and always will put peace and sovereignty first. Syrians didn't want this fake revolution. Outside countries did, they started this war because of the oil found off the coast of Tartous. Syria already signed a deal with Russia regarding the oil. This is a about money.NOT about Syria o

        March 30, 2014 at 8:36 pm |
    • StanCalif

      Syria is Russia's problem child, just like N.Korea is China's problem. Neither of these wanna be super powers refuse to take responsibility. Both could quickly solve these two major problems, if they really wanted to. The problem is that the Western world allows these two to avoid their responsibilities. The USA is not, and should not, be the policeman of highly supported countries that could care less about the welfare of their own people.
      The USA should immediately refuse to get involved in Syria and N.Korea. Both have their sponsors who do nothing but continue to contribute to the brutality.

      April 4, 2014 at 6:41 am | Reply

    United States America is powerful and strong enough to negotiate a PEACE DEAL for Syria. Stability and peace in the Mediterannean are important for the region and global economy. USA should not supply any new weapons or military equipment. If USA starts negotiating a PEACE DEAL, then also other NATO members, i.e. Italy, France, Turkey, ... will help.

    March 29, 2014 at 6:13 am | Reply
    • Jerry Falwell

      The problem here PEACE DEAL, is that the politicians in Washington want to become dominant in this part of the world as well as elsewhere. They're endeavoring to replace the Assad regime with a U.S. backed pseudo-democracy in Syria and that's just plain wrong!

      March 29, 2014 at 8:55 am | Reply
      • Yassmeen

        Are u kidding me. I'm sorry but clearly u don't have a clue as to what is happening in Syria or he wouldn't say such things. Syrians have lived on peace for over 3 decades and have kept peace on the boarders of Israel and Iran. It has and always will put peace and sovereignty first. Syrians didn't want this fake revolution. Outside countries did, they started this war because of the oil found off the coast of Tartous. Syria already signed a deal with Russia regarding the oil. This is a about money.NOT about Syria or Syrian people. I pray for those poor lives lost as the sake of money,greed and power. It's a good thing America stayed out. It's a mess they started hoping to have an upper hand.

        March 30, 2014 at 8:39 pm |
      • Mr.Obama syndicates war in Syria

        No, it is not correct that USA does not do war in Syria. It is from outside, with US military forces on the ground in the Middle East: *with use of south korean secret military satellites, *with south korean clandestine special insurgent forces ('hyundai military'), *with south korean weapons and military equipment. Our sources from The White House told us, that few days ago, Mr.Obama was thinking about supplying new weapons and military equipment into Syria – certainly not for PEACE. Now, with the French Peace Initiative, FRANCE stopped this delivery and will bring PEACE to this wonderful Mediterranean country Syria. There are also new requirements from EU and NATO that USA needs to STOP 'US.S.Korea military cooperations'.

        March 31, 2014 at 6:56 am |
  3. ✠RZ✠

    Firstly, WHO THE FRICK SAYS IT'S AMERICA'S or any other one country's responsibility to be look after all these global problems? Everyone knows that whenever the likes of Washington, the UK, Russia, China, or pretty much whoever gets involved in resolving these issues the underlying reasons are always selfish and self-motivated. JUST LOOK AT THE END RESULT! It's always a mess and the nations at stake are the big losers. If the likes of the G20, G8 (7?) or what have you could for just once put aside their insidious greed and shameful self-motivated aspirations, and actually AGREE to adopt a righteous and humanitarian directive, and implement them by whatever collective means, peacefully or forcefully if necessary, the majority of the problems could be settled. BUT THAT'S NOT THE REALISTIC AGENDA HERE! The agenda that we keep seeing over and over again is to TAKE POLITICAL SIDES AND LET THESE POOR BUGGERS KEEP KILLING THEMSELVES. In fact, we actually encourage or promote it! WHO'S THE WINNER HERE?!? Egypt? Libya? Iraq? Afghanistan? Syria ? The Ukraine? The US taxpayer? NOT A CHANCE MAN! The winners are whomever profits by it. Everyone else pretty much get's jack squat, or much, much worse. Where considerate and responsible parents would separate quarrelling children, your governments would instead supply them with weapons to kill themselves and send you the bill. NOW ISN'T THAT ONE HECK OF AN ACHIEVEMENT FOR EVERYONE?

    March 29, 2014 at 9:46 am | Reply
    • Joseph McCarthy

      Well said, RZ. Thank you.

      March 29, 2014 at 11:54 pm | Reply
    • PEACE

      No, no, no, no killings – calm down.

      March 30, 2014 at 3:08 am | Reply
      • ✠RZ✠

        Peace is something that cannot be readily imposed upon others, but rather something that every man must make unto himself.

        March 30, 2014 at 10:26 am |
  4. bobcat2u

    Faysal Itani, yet another pundit intimating what the role of the US should be in Syria. We have all seen repeatedly how successful our interference has been in setting the governments of other countries. You have to agree that our success rate in these in these ventures has not been stellar. Hopefully we have learned from our past incursions into this field and stay out of it. The Arab League nations are the ones desiring regime change the most. Let them invest their treasures and loved ones. We have lost too many of ours.

    March 29, 2014 at 11:51 am | Reply
  5. Alireza

    Solution presented here is at best an academic and doubtful to be implemented or effective.Insteadwe should encourage both sides to negotiate and pressure the rebels to fantasy and now go for an open system to compete with government and understand nothing will be achieve with violence .Showing brutality has shown the nature of at least part of both sides in this conflict.step back,negotiate to achieve some pease for syria

    March 29, 2014 at 4:57 pm | Reply
  6. Chris

    While a peace deal would be best for Syria, the various factions involved have been fighting too long for a peace deal to last. I think what would be best to fracture Syria into regions and assign and support neighboring countries military intervention in those regions. Peacemakers.
    The southwestern region could go to Jordan. Lebanon could take friendly Damascus. Turkey could take Aleppo and build/enforce peace between Kurds and FSA. While Coastal Syria and the Orontes River valley (Homs, Hama) could be negotiated between Turkey and Lebanon.
    The central and eastern Syria is mostly badlands dominated by oil pipelines and ISIS. A US-Iraq coalition would be most interested in this area. What's in it for each of these countries is taxation, control, UN support and Peace.

    March 29, 2014 at 5:49 pm | Reply
  7. Wim Roffel

    Strange article. It claims that it is America's fault that the Syrian opposition is incapable of uniting behind a common goal. It makes more sense to turn that around: Syria's opposition has no common goal and for that reason its insurrection would have ended long ago if it hadn't been for the US keeping it artificially alive.

    March 29, 2014 at 5:52 pm | Reply
  8. Ori H

    It is a simple trade successfully proposed by Tehran: Iran backs down progress on its nuclear program, in turn the US Administration stays away from Syria. Whoever thinks Obama gives a s–t about the deaths of civilians in the Syria is dreaming. And those thinking Iran will stick to this plan are hallucinating.

    March 29, 2014 at 6:55 pm | Reply
  9. chrissy

    Agreed @ RZ especicially the "who the FRICK part" lol and also @ bobcat!

    March 29, 2014 at 7:34 pm | Reply
  10. moloth

    kill assad

    March 30, 2014 at 12:50 am | Reply
    • David Knowles

      An hand the country over to the Islamists and Al Qaeda, great idea /sarcasm

      March 30, 2014 at 3:29 pm | Reply
  11. jake

    The definition of 'Treason' includes, "the crime of trying to overthrow your country's government or of helping your country's enemies during war" If arming "rebels" which include ISIS in Syria doesn't fall under the, "helping your country's enemies during war" clause then what is a dictionary for these days?

    March 30, 2014 at 10:01 am | Reply
    • ✠RZ✠

      The only true laws are those of the physical and natural universe which cannot be changed. All others are man made and therefore completely subject to whatever human reasoning the moment demands.

      March 30, 2014 at 10:34 am | Reply
  12. FareedZ

    Help me! I have conveniently lost my memory and ability to reason and I think YOU should do the same. I actually stated on my CNN Kool-Aid guzzling program today that no "wars" have been started by Western European countries since 1945. I conveniently forgot about all the USA wars/invasions that were named them something patriotic or cutesy. (Action in the Gulf of Sidra, Bombing of Libya, Operation Earnest Will, Second Gulf of Sidra incident, Invasion of Panama, Operation Earnest Will, Persian Gulf War, Iraqi no-fly zones conflict, Operation Restore Hope, Operation Uphold Democracy, Operation Infinite Reach, War in Afghanistan, Operation Enduring Freedom – Philippines, Operation Enduring Freedom – Horn of Africa, Iraq War, War in North-West Pakistan, War in Somalia, Operation Enduring Freedom – Trans Sahara, and LRA insurgency).

    March 30, 2014 at 10:30 am | Reply
    • ✠RZ✠

      If Zak ever made a comment like that he would likely be assigned to a remote post in Alaska reporting on texture anomalies in polar bear droppings!

      March 30, 2014 at 11:04 am | Reply
  13. Jay

    Yes we should do something, We all remember how successful and victorious we were in Afghanistan and Iraq. We brought freedom and there life's are better now , will if you exclude the car bombs , the insurgency ,AL Qaeda is now more of a problem in Iraq then it was before , be-headings , Oh and Afghanistan now is free of AL Qaeda, Nope i just read there still there and are now as strong as before.

    March 30, 2014 at 1:32 pm | Reply
  14. martincatt

    i agree with you...thanks for your idea...

    March 30, 2014 at 1:38 pm | Reply
  15. Jacks

    If you understand the MIddle East – then you need only read the Editors Note: "Faysal Itani is a resident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. The views expressed are the writer’s own". I have read enough. I already know this article is biased and therefore flawed. Leave Syria for the Syrians. Everyone just butt out.

    March 30, 2014 at 9:55 pm | Reply
  16. bobcat2u


    March 30, 2014 at 11:21 pm | Reply
  17. chrissy

    Lol @ bobcat, you passed your test!

    March 30, 2014 at 11:59 pm | Reply
  18. mero

    that is the curse of finding the gas in Syria coastline what the Americans thought is to be able to
    take control of these mining , in which the Syrian government gave the right to the Russians
    think about it USA make gas pipe line ,control Europe and Russia !
    it is the key for world upper-hand !! there is nothing to do about it USA is always been a colonized country
    what a shame !

    March 31, 2014 at 1:08 am | Reply
  19. RLTJ's

    If it is about creating a disaster for the Syrian People, then Syria is a big success.

    Syrian opposition underestimated the Assad government. It made a mistake of waging a war along ethnic-religious sectarianism. It has become a war of attrition. And since none of them is in the position to exterminate the other, this war is in fact indefinite.

    Syria's rebellion is a disaster.

    April 3, 2014 at 2:05 pm | Reply
  20. RLTJ's

    The author proposes taking sides and for intervention in Syria's internal problem.

    Which shall we kill and which shall we help?

    April 3, 2014 at 2:10 pm | Reply
  21. emil kaiypov

    PAUSE THE WAR!!!!!!!!!!! My name is Emil Kaiypov. I am a citizen of the Kyrgyz Republic, a lawyer, and a father of two children. The proposal for which I am asking your kind support is the suspension of all currently existing hostilities on Earth.

    The main goal of my entire project is to save and improve the lives of children who are suffering from the present conflicts and violence.

    The challenge is to create a moment of "pause" [a technical term from video language] in hostilities now and in the future, as well as to refusal to restart them at all. I believe that in this context, such "pause" in the war action seems do-able and practical, much more effective than the idealistic and utopian pressing of an imaginary "stop" button. In the future the first action will equate to the second: "pause" will become "stop". In order to alert the international community and potential supporters, I made a demonstration of my own at 18 October 2013 on the territory of Syrian embassy in Beirut, with poster "pause the war".

    The purpose of this demonstration, is to show through an example that:

    1) one person has the power to perform an action directed to the benefit of all mankind.

    2) no one should be indifferent, when war is concerned.

    3) war requires us to drop everything else, in order to stop it. Daily activities, against the background of war, look meaningless and empty.

    I believe, that this idea will resonate and supporters will wish to join it. The age of information technologies, will help to spread it around the globe. Definitely there will be supporters among the world's famous celebrities. In the event that a large number of ordinary people and celebrities join this campaign, the dream to stop all military actions on the planet will be realized. This will serve as an occasion to announce the call for volunteers in the "international army of peace". It will consist of unarmed "soldiers" who are ready at any time, to go to the hot spot to "pause" the hostilities with the fact of their presence and to encourage the warring parties to engage in dialogue. Ideally, this army should consist of a world-famous and beloved celebrities from all spheres of human activities.

    I suggest that countries be ready to support my initiative, in solidarity, by placing on the cloth of their national flags, the well-known pause symbol "II". I believe that in the course of implementation of this anti-war action, the reasons for which the suspended armed conflict began, will be resolved or continued in a civilized manner. This anti-war action will bring about a new peaceful reality, when there will be no state left, which "international army of peace" had not visited.

    The termination of all hostilities, will become the point of departure for further continuous progress in all directions.

    We are able to bring about the time, when the world will be fairly managed by a workable international organization which will be trusted by all citizens of the earth. When this happens, all kinds of weapons will be transferred to international United Nations control, the purpose of which, will be the preservation of peace and sustainable development of mankind.

    We live in a world, when the collective effort makes possible the colonizing of other planets in the foreseeable future. I believe, that we have enough strength and resources for the child born tomorrow to see a world, where uniform international standards of education, labor, pension and medical care, will be established everywhere. A world, where the primary human needs will be satisfied for free.

    A world, where nobody talks about freedom, because absolute freedom will accompany each person from the moment of birth, to his last breath. A world, where the happiness and freedom of the individual, will not happen in isolation but will include freedom and happiness of all of humanity. A world without war.

    A world without war is undisputed goal, that sooner or later humanity will definitely reach. It is the primary duty of every adult to fulfill a "world in peace"– everyone’s childhood dream. Every child surrounded by the horrors of war dreams that one day somebody will come and say "It is enough!" and by saying it bring war to an end. Then war will stop. That day has come! It's time to combine our efforts in order to make that dream come true. 

    April 3, 2014 at 4:55 pm | Reply
  22. mark longhurst

    April 4, 2014 at 2:20 am | Reply
  23. The Shadow of Communism

    That's what they do US-backed rebels (assassins) in Syria civilians (Christians)

    April 4, 2014 at 2:46 am | Reply
  24. Duke

    How can US help Syria? Well Bomb Saudi Arabia and Qatar and Alqaida!

    April 4, 2014 at 11:39 am | Reply
  25. jean paul cousin de burbure

    Why aren't we parashooting food onto homs and hama. Whats to stop us?

    April 4, 2014 at 8:05 pm | Reply
  26. Zapp

    Cut all aid and forward all calls regarding Syria to the Arab League. This is a damned if you do, damned if you don't situation. Which means it's cheaper and therefore more beneficial to get the blame doing nothing. Syrian allies should be defending and aiding Syrians as they see fit.

    Let the Muslim extremists flock to one location and kill each other off on the dime of our enemies. Muslims want to deny the fact this is a religious war while Russia and Iran are not willing to step in with direct and consolidated military action meaning the U.S. and Western "infidels" should let this war take its course.

    April 4, 2014 at 9:57 pm | Reply
  27. Skorpio

    The most pragmatic solution to reach peace in Syria and other countries is to send them an army of Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons and Hare Krishna. Islam is the source of all terrorist attacks, violence, death and destruction, unless Muslims convert to Christianity or to any other religion, except Islam, nothing is going to change.

    April 6, 2014 at 7:42 pm | Reply
  28. krehator

    When are these nations going to help themselves?

    It's the same old routine. "We hate you USA, don't forget to send us money".

    April 7, 2014 at 9:46 am | Reply
  29. Rick McDaniel

    The U.S. no longer has, the ability to handle foreign policy, at all. We have become totally inept at doing that.

    April 7, 2014 at 5:40 pm | Reply
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