Will meeting with Turkey mean progress on Syria?

As the president discusses the Syrian conflict today with Turkey's prime minister, here's all that you need to know

Published May 16, 2013 3:19PM (EDT)

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan   (AP)
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (AP)

With the conflict in Syria topping the agenda of President Obama’s meeting Thursday with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, it comes just as U.S. policy on Syria seems to be arriving at a pivotal juncture on the diplomatic and military fronts.

Secretary of State John Kerry earlier this month took a step to revive diplomatic efforts – fruitless so far – to find a political solution to the crisis by announcing an international conference with Russia, now scheduled for early June in Geneva. At the same time, recent reports about the possible use of chemical weapons in Syria’s conflict sparked a renewed debate about whether the United States should directly intervene militarily there. The Obama administration has resisted calls to direct U.S. military action based on these reports, saying that it needed more evidence and that it was evaluating a wide range of policy options.

This cautious approach on U.S. military options for Syria is easy to criticize, but it is the best path in a range of bad options. The Obama administration wants to avoid actions that could inadvertently ignite and accelerate a wider regional conflict and produce greater threats for the United States and key partners in the region like Israel, Turkey, and Jordan. It also wants to keep the door open for diplomacy and a possible political deal to end the conflict.

The odds of achieving a diplomatic solution to the conflict are low – the conflict in Syria appears to have arrived at a stalemate between the Assad regime and the fractured opposition movements, yet none of the parties to the conflict appear to have serious incentives to pursue a political deal. But one step the United States could take to increase the chances of bringing an end to a conflict is to appoint a point person in the administration to engage key countries already directly backing and funding different sides in Syria’s internal conflict. This regional approach, focused on security efforts and diplomacy, should include all of the countries currently engaged in the conflict, would represent a more targeted forum that supplements the wider international conference planned for Geneva and the broad “Friends of Syria” group. Today’s meeting with Turkey’s leader could be an important element in constructing a regional approach – Turkey, a NATO ally, has been facing new security threats and strains from hundreds of thousands fleeing Syria’s conflict.

Holding off on military options and pursuing diplomacy at this stage is a tough call to make, given the devastating impact the conflict has already had – with more than 70,000 Syrians killed and millions now refugees in neighboring countries or displaced inside of Syria. But it is the right path for now. The United States needs to make sure that any additional actions it takes on Syria doesn’t create a greater mess and lands the United States directly in the middle of a conflict with no end in sight.

In recent weeks, critics of the Obama administration pointed to competing claims of chemical weapons use as evidence that the red line that President Obama outlined last summer had been crossed and that the United States needed to take some action to back up its words. Last summer, President Obama publicly stated that “a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus. That would change my equation.”

When reports surfaced over the last month about the possible use of chemical weapons in Syria, the Obama administration responded with caution, saying it needed more evidence and independent verification. Much of the evidence of chemical weapons use by the Assad regime in Syria came from opposition groups, with more than one group claiming to have evidence of multiple attacks. The Syrian government also claimed that opposition forces had used some forms of chemical weapons, and earlier this week a member of a United Nations investigatory commission stated there were “strong suspicions” that rebel groups had used chemical weapons. The Obama administration expressed doubts about assertions that opposition forces had used chemical weapons.

The nature of the conflict has made it difficult for journalists and intelligence agencies alike to obtain reliable information about what’s going on inside of Syria. U.S. intelligence agencies have assessed “with varying degrees of confidence” that the Assad regime “very likely” used chemical weapons on a small scale. U.S. officials are trying to determine if the Syrian government at senior levels have made a decision to use chemical weapons to test the red lines, or if some rogue elements in the Syrian military forces decided to use these on their own. Given the disastrous mistakes the United States made in Iraq, it is understandable why the Obama administration wants more facts.

Even if it had more facts backing the case the chemical weapons have been used, it is not clear what the military options could prevent their addition use. Syria has at least a dozen major chemical weapons facilities, and U.S. intelligence officials have indicated that it doesn’t have firm knowledge of where the chemical weapons are. Given the dispersed nature of the chemical weapons and evidence that the regime has moved them, many of the proposals for direct U.S. military intervention would not eliminate the threat of more use and or decrease the possibility that these weapons could get into the hands of terrorist groups now directly involved in the conflict.

Beyond the recent focus on chemical weapons, the United States needs to continue to examine its options on Syria by taking into account the complicated context of the Syria conflict and the involvement of many key countries from the region. Any military action the United States might take could light a fire that leads to a wider regional war – which could end up leading to tens of thousands of more Syrians dead and result in increased threats for Syria’s neighbors.

More complicated than “civil war.” Syria’s conflict is usually described in shorthand as a civil war, with the regime of President Bashar al-Assad on the one side and a rebels opposed to his rule on the other. The reality of the conflict is far more complicated and complex than this simple narrative is capable of capturing. “Civil war” only scratches the surface and conceals the deeper underlying dynamic of social and political fragmentation inside of Syria.

Syria’s political and armed opposition is deeply divided – and this is recipe for a long-term internal conflict with multiple fronts. Even if Assad’s regime fell tomorrow, the violence inside of Syria would likely continue for a long period of time because of the fragmented nature of the opposition.

Syria’s opposition groups have appeared to coalesce under the banners of the National Coalition of Syrian Opposition and Revolutionary Forces and the Supreme Joint Military Command. These two umbrella organizations are sharply divided and lack sufficient coordination between the two bodies. While the United States and other supporters of the anti-Assad opposition have agreed to channel their funding and material assistance through the Supreme Joint Military Command, opposition forces on the ground in Syria continue to lack cohesion.

Currently, there are four major anti-Assad militia coalitions in Syria: the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the Syrian Liberation Front, the Syrian Islamic Front, and Jabhat al-Nusra. The FSA remains the largest, with as many as 50,000 fighters in uncoordinated militias and battalions operating at local levels. In theory, the FSA fights under the command of the Supreme Military Joint Command, though in practice local unit commanders do not receive orders from FSA or Supreme Military Joint command leaders and operate unilaterally in their geographic area.

The Syrian Liberation Front is the second largest opposition force in Syria, with an estimated 37,000 fighters, has received financial backing from Saudi Arabia. Next comes the Syrian Islamic Front, with 13,000 fighters funded by private individuals in the Gulf. Finally, the al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra is believed to have some 6,000 fighters. The extremist Islamists in Jabhat al-Nusra and their involvement in the conflict are a cause of great concern for the United States and neighboring countries like Jordan, which worries about the threat this extremist group might pose inside its country if the Assad regime completely collapses.

Regional struggle for power and influence in Syria. Syria’s internal fragmentation has been abetted by regional competition and intervention in Syria’s civil war. Iran’s support for the Assad regime is well known, and it has publicly acknowledged the involvement of its Revolutionary Guards force in fighting on the ground in Syria. Its recent warning to Syrian rebels against vandalizing or destroying Shia shrines in Syria will likely further contribute to regional perceptions of the Syria conflict being the frontline in a broader Sunni-Shia regional conflict.

Hezbollah’s increasing role in fighting on behalf of the Assad regime also reinforces the conflict’s sectarian undertones, while at the same time destabilizing the delicate sectarian balance in its home country of Lebanon. The potential transfer of conventional weapons from Iran to Hezbollah via Syria has led to several Israeli air strikes in Syria as well, which could serve to further destabilize the region.

States opposed to the Assad regime are deeply engaged in this regional competition of power and influence. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, and Jordan have financed and supplied different parts of the opposition forces with arms and equipment, while the United States and others have provided non-lethal aid. Moreover, political rivalries between Saudi Arabia and Qatar have reportedly served to hobble attempts to unify Syrian opposition groups. Whatever the truth of these reports, funding from both Gulf states and ultraconservative private donors has largely gone to Islamist groups – including more extreme groups – who serve to reinforce both the process of sectarian differentiation underway in Syria and the disunity of the opposition as a whole.

While this destructive regional competition for power takes place within Syria, the conflict itself is spilling over into neighboring countries. Nearly 1.5 million Syrians are now refugees according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. This situation in likely to deteriorate before it improves as the conflict continues and the UN runs out of money to help Syrian refugees. These refugees are creating or exacerbating existing social, economic, and political tensions in their host countries as well.

Syria’s internal fragmentation and this complicated regional context makes the Obama administration’s policy of cautious engagement the wisest course in a range of bad options. The United States has many tools short of expansive air campaigns and direct U.S. arming of the opposition that it can use to manage the conflict and its fallout without overly implicating itself in Syria’s fragmentation and risk getting directly involved in what could easily become a regional war.

More targeted regional security talks and diplomacy. One step the Obama administration can take is to designate a lead point person to engage all of the regional actors involved in Syria, including key partners like Turkey and Jordan and even adversaries like Iran. When the Bush administration found itself in the middle of Iraq’s civil war last decade, it directed key diplomatic and military leaders to reach out to all of the neighboring countries involved in Iraq’s civil war. This was a quiet but important element to reducing the levels of violence there.

Having a more targeted regional security and diplomatic approach can also serve to reduce the threats that the competition for power between Syrian opposition factions, a competition that is exacerbated by the lack of coordination among the key regional powers currently engaged, including Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, among other countries. Recent press reports indicate that the United States is already taking some steps along these lines, with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) reportedly working closely with Qatar to tighten the control of which Syrian opposition groups are receiving arms in an effort to prevent extremist Islamist factions from receiving more support.

A more targeted regional strategy on Syria by the United States won’t end the conflict itself –it is not a panacea. Rather it can help complement the efforts already underway to respond to the humanitarian crises, deal with the fractious opposition, mitigate the security risks, and build a framework for a political settlement. The Obama administration should also continue using its diplomatic tool set to its fullest in both seeking a negotiated political transition that removes Assad from power and pressures him to refrain from further chemical weapons use.

The United States should continue its efforts to address the regional fallout produced by the conflict. Syrian refugees in Turkey and Jordan are one place to start, and the United States should engage NATO, the Jordanian government, and other regional partners in planning for a potential multinational humanitarian relief mission that leverages the capabilities the United States and its allies and partners can bring to bear to relieve the stress hosting Syrian refugees will continue to have on the Jordanian state and society.

The Obama administration needs to continue its approach of carefully weighing the costs and benefits of a wide range of policy options on Syria. The most important thing the United States can do now is to assume a greater leadership role in a more focused regional security and diplomatic support effort that engages the key powers in the Middle East currently opposing the Assad regime. Today’s meeting with Turkey offers a chance to take a step forward in advancing such a regional approach. When the transition from the Assad regime occurs, this effort will prevent a new and possibly even more deadly phase of Syria’s conflict from breaking out.

By Brian Katulis

Brian Katulis is a Senior Fellow at American Progress, where his work focuses on U.S. national security policy in the Middle East and South Asia.

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