The US’s no-strategy strategy in Syria

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Former US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel testifies on US intervention in Syria.

Kate West Moran is a writer and commentator on Middle East affairs.

As of this writing, the Syrian civil war has been raging for more than four and a half years—or, to be precise, 1,697 days. Since that time, the influence of various players—Bashar al-Assad, the Islamic State in its many forms and reinventions, and any number of rebel and opposition groups—has ebbed and flowed considerably. Whoever controlled Aleppo today did not necessarily control it yesterday, and will probably not control it tomorrow.

As the conflict wears on and the Middle East becomes even more entrenched in a seemingly endless cycle of political dysfunction and humanitarian crises, power brokers from outside the region have also sought to get involved in what is to date the worst refugee crisis since World War II and one of the bloodiest civil conflicts in recent memory. Foremost among these powers is the United States, which has yet to form a cohesive strategy vis-à-vis Syria and the seemingly unshakable Assad regime. Simply put, U.S. foreign policy in this regard has been a no-strategy strategy; although the Obama Administration has dabbled in airstrikes and halfhearted threats, it has yet to undertake a clear and comprehensive stance on the civil war, choosing instead to direct its attentions to the symptoms of the conflict, rather than its cause.

This has resulted in increased numbers of Syrians being admitted to the United States under a national refugee resettlement program, and in more money being allocated to humanitarian organizations in Europe working on the ground to provide for those individuals and their families who make the awful calculus to risk drowning at sea in an attempt to cross the Mediterranean and find new life. What the United States hasn’t done, however, is implement a strategy in Syria that both addresses the rising threat of the Islamic State and provides for a viable alternative to the so-called caliphate’s rule.

Last year, the United States launched its first airstrikes in Syria, targeting Islamic State facilities in its stronghold in Raqqa province. The U.S. military coordinated with five different Arab countries in implementing the airstrikes, a rare display of unity in a region known in recent months more for infighting than collaboration. And by and large, these strikes were successful—taking out strategic facilities and destroying oil reserves key to the Islamic State’s economy. But in destroying these facilities, the surrounding areas have also been affected; civilians have become collateral damage of a conflict they never wanted to take part in, and other infrastructure in Syria has been inadvertently damaged. With the addition of Russian airstrikes in October of this year–targeting not Islamic State but the facilities of rebel groups hostile to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad–an even greater number of civilians have been affected. Critical resources like water and electricity have similarly been affected as a result of the strikes, leaving an already-starved country worse off than before. Ultimately, these airstrikes will only serve to strengthen the Islamic State’s influence in embattled Syria; with no plans to rebuild infrastructure, the United States and its allies are creating a power vacuum that will serve to benefit Islamist extremists and provide opportunities for groups worse than even the Islamic State to establish footholds inside the country. Syria’s masses will be left to languish, and groups like the Islamic State will be the better for it.

Long before “ISIL” rose to prominence in the international media, it was waging its own, local propaganda campaign. Before the brutal beheadings on Youtube, Islamic State representatives were hard at work in Raqqa and in other areas of Syria and Iraq setting up social service organizations, supplying electricity to thousands of citizens who had previously lived without it, implementing media campaigns and winning over supporters. This is not to say that most Syrians genuinely harbored support for ISIL ideology, but rather that the provision of critical services was an offer too good to refuse.

If the United States truly wants to help Syrians take back their country from the Islamic State, then it is crucial that the country seeks more than a brute-force military resolution to the conflict. It must also supplant Islamic State’s grip on the social, educational, and financial institutions, and provide an appealing alternative to IS’s rule in Syria and Iraq.

While the Islamic State’s public executions are what the group is best known for today, it has not slowed its social propaganda campaign; in the areas that it controls in Iraq and Syria, they are laying power lines, operating bus routes, and beautifying cities. The rest of the world must do the same, and better.

In order to end the Syrian civil war and ensure that it doesn’t continue into its fifth, sixth, or seventh year, the United States and all those who care about the Middle East’s stability must abandon their no-strategy strategies. They must provide for refugees, yes, but they must also provide for the Syrians who remain, and who will be the ones that will rebuild the country when the dust settles and the sun sets on the civil war.

Project for Study of the 21st Century is a non-national, nongovernmental, nonpartisan organization. All views expressed are the author’s own.

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