Trying to have it both ways in Syria
Amid the daily reports of clashes and killings in Syria, a subtler message is emerging: America is increasingly irrelevant.
Inside Syria, opposition fighters complain that the United States is doing little to help them, according to intrepid reporting by correspondents for Reuters, the New York Times and Foreign Affairs. Instead, funds and arms from Qatar and Saudi Arabia are turning jihadists into a growing presence. Among international observers, Washington is seen as insignificant.
“On the ground, really, this administration has been essentially irrelevant, locked into its own perpetual debate on what to say and what to do,” said Peter Harling, Syria analyst for the International Crisis Group. “I think generally this administration in the Arab Spring has spent a huge amount of time trying to analyze events instead of shaping them.”
Those comments, of course, may thrill many Americans — and White House staffers. In the wake of Iraq and Afghanistan, Americans want nothing more than to get out of the Middle East. One of Obama’s primary pitches to voters this year is that he gets America out of foreign entanglements, not into them.
There are ways, though, to aid the Syrian opposition without becoming militarily entangled. One of the many tragedies of the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan is that they distort our views of how we can have influence in the region. Our options go far beyond whether to bomb or not to bomb.
America’s effort to help the Syrian opposition with non-lethal aid is a reflection of this odd moment in American and Middle Eastern history. Many Syrians think the U.S. remains all-powerful and could easily topple the Assad regime, while many Americans doubt America’s ability to do good beyond its shores and understandably call for domestic focus.
To its credit, the administration is providing $82 million in humanitarian assistance to Syrian refugees and $25 million in non-lethal assistance to the Syrian opposition. But fear of even non-lethal American aid getting into the wrong hands has created a byzantine system that dilutes its effectiveness, slows delivery and alienates our best potential allies in Syria — secular members of the opposition.
In a Washington Post story published on Monday and interviews this week, Syrian opposition members scoffed at claims by State Department officials that the United States had provided them with 900 satellite phones. The phones, which cost $1,000 each, can be used for communications between opposition forces and for broadcasting atrocities by government forces to the outside world.
“Everywhere we turn, no one is able to locate these phones,” said a member of the opposition Syrian National Council who spoke on condition of anonymity in a phone interview Thursday. “They’re definitely not getting into our hands.”
American officials said that the 900 phones and other elements of $25 million in assistance have been distributed, but members of the Syrian opposition are not given the details. In past conflicts, U.S. officials found that openly providing American assistance to opposition groups endangered the recipients, undermined their legitimacy among the local population and created rivalries between groups.
American officials are aware that as a result, the U.S. does not get credit for the assistance it provides. But they pointed out that many people in the Middle East continue to resent any American role in the region.
Even the publicly known assistance is tightly managed. In an effort to control the distribution of satellite phones, the State Department and the British government have hired a British non-profit, ARC, to vet and train opposition members before giving them the devices, the Post reported.
American officials hope that the U.S. program — known as the Office of Syrian Opposition Support — will also train Syrian activists on how to govern Syria after Assad is gone. The goal is to have a U.S.-backed group of secular Syrian moderates who can counter the influence of jihadists in a post-Assad Syria.
Syrian opposition members, who have been battling the Assad regime for 18 months, say they need no such training and that the approach has slowed distribution enormously. They also expressed resentment of the American belief that the U.S. could have influence in a post-Assad Syria after being unwilling to openly back the rebels.
“If you do not participate in the revolution to take down the Assad regime,” said the Syrian National Council member, “I find it very difficult to have a discussion with you to talk about the post-Assad Syria.”
Fighters inside Syria expressed the same sentiment. Michael Weiss, who reported inside Syria for Foreign Affairs in early August, said that fighters praised Turkey, Libya and countries that had sent aid, not the United States. They expressed exasperation at an American tendency to see all Muslims as potentially closet fundamentalists.
Abu Bakr, a Syrian rebel commander interviewed by Reuters reporter Erika Solomon in early August, was typical. He said he was a committed Islamist who was determined to overthrow Assad. But the growing numbers of radical Muslims from Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Libya, Eastern Europe and even the Pakistan-Afghanistan border who had joined the rebels in recent months alarmed him.
“Let me be clear. I am an Islamist, my fighters are Islamists. But there is more than one type of Islamist,” he said. “These men coming fought in insurgencies like Iraq. They are too extreme, they want to blow up any symbol of the state, even schools.”
He and other rebels said that they were grateful for the jihadists’ support, but worried that when the war ended, jihadists might have different aims than most Syrians.
“Our goal is to make a new future,” Abu Bakr said, “not destroy everything.”
Abu Bakr is the kind of Syrian moderate we should be backing — and trusting. If the United States is going to back the Syrian opposition with non-lethal assistance, it should do so more openly. The Obama administration’s cautious approach reduces the impact of the aid and hides American support for the Arab Spring that most Arabs cheer.
The U.S. approach in Syria reminds me of American civilian aid programs designed to strengthen moderates in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan. Over and over, tight American control of projects and a lack of local involvement limited their effectiveness.
We must embrace Syrian moderates and openly declare them our allies. Whether or not we should provide them with military aid is a separate debate. But if we are going to provide non-lethal aid we should do so wholeheartedly. We cannot say America is behind you — secretly.