The conflict in Syria has been transformed over the last year -- and American policy has to change, too. Almost exactly one year ago, I recommended a set of measures designed to pressure President Bashar al-Assad's regime to support a negotiated political transition while avoiding limited military intervention. This was motivated by fears of a "hard landing" -- a failed state riven by ethnic and sectarian slaughter, what international envoy Lakhdar al-Brahimi warned in late December could mean the "Somalization" of Syria.
I believe the United States got key policy decisions right over the last year -- not intervening militarily, opposing the arming of the rebels, pushing for a political solution. But critics rightly pushed back on the question of alternatives: If not arming the rebels, then what? Today, I've released a new CNAS Policy Brief, Syria's Hard Landing, that tries to lay out just such a political and humanitarian alternative, because Washington needs to do more, even as it continues to resist military involvement. The perception of American inaction may be unjustified, but it's the sort of perception that can really matter as it hardens into an enduring political fact.
First, I agree with the bipartisan group of senators (and some humanitarian aid organizations) who have recently advocated direct aid to rebel-controlled areas. Washington should push for a new U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing the United Nations to deliver aid to north Syria from across the Turkish border, and if that fails it should ramp up such aid anyway. This could not only help a large number of people in extreme need -- it could also change the strategic landscape.
The United States should not shy away from explicitly tying the push for cross-border aid to a political strategy to strengthen the opposition. American humanitarian assistance thus far, while considerable, has achieved remarkably little in terms of advancing its strategic goals or gaining influence within Syria. While traditional humanitarian organizations should play a role, significant parts of the aid should be channeled through the emergent Syrian opposition coalition to strengthen opposition forces against both Assad and against their Islamist rivals. This will provide them with the resources to begin to build the core of a post-Assad transitional government.
Here's where that new Security Council resolution comes in. The narrow focus on humanitarian relief could be more difficult for Russia to block than some of the other more expansive proposals that have foundered in the council, given Moscow's recent admission of the urgency of the humanitarian situation and overtures to the Syrian opposition. The consistent, urgent appeals from within the U.N. documenting the appalling magnitude of Syrian suffering could also help the resolution gain traction. The implicit threat to carry out such relief efforts without the U.N. Nations -- perhaps on the basis that Syria has lost effective sovereign control over these territories -- would be more credible than threats of military action. But this should not be cast as a back-door path to military intervention. A multilateral, legitimate operation would be far preferable both politically and operationally to unilateral actions.
Efforts are well underway to secure additional international support for humanitarian relief, most notably the $1.5 billion pledged at the Jan. 30 Kuwait donors conference. The United States has committed a total of $385 million over the course of the conflict, making it the single largest donor to humanitarian relief efforts. This aid has primarily been coordinated with recognized NGOs and the Syrian government, and only a small portion has reached rebel-controlled areas where the humanitarian situation is particularly dire.
These ideas are very much in the air these days. According to U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos, the United Nations has begun working with local organizations on the ground in rebel-controlled territory, but thus far little seems to have materialized and approval from Assad's regime has reportedly not been forthcoming. EU foreign ministers have recently opened the door to such direct aid. The United States should also do more.