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David L. Phillips

A principled approach is needed in Syria

The Obama administration’s containment policy is aimed at preventing Syria’s civil war from spilling across borders and sparking a regional conflagration. Syria is not the first time the United States has sought to contain violent sectarianism and fragmentation in the Muslim world. Applying lessons from Iraq, Kosovo, and Bosnia can inform Washington’s approach to the spiral of deadly violence in Syria.

The United States needs to have its rhetoric and policy aligned during the early stages of an international crisis. But US officials touted regime change in Syria before building an international consensus. A UN Security Council resolution creating safe havens and humanitarian corridors would have set the stage for more robust measures if, as it turned out, Syria’s President Bashar Assad intensified attacks against civilians. Still, diplomacy is incremental. It took 67 UN resolutions on Bosnia before the international community acted to stop Serbia’s aggression.


With Russia and China shielding Syria from sanctions, the Obama administration should establish a “contact group” — comprised of front-line, like-minded countries — to serve as a standing instrument for coordinating policy, while lending legitimacy to US-led efforts. Russia was a member of the contact group for Kosovo. The group kept Moscow informed, but was prepared to act without its consent.

Syrian fighters have been courageous, but they lack the weapons and discipline to topple Assad’s well-equipped forces. Instead of merely providing communications equipment, the United States should be at the forefront of an international effort to train and equip the Free Syrian Army.

Arming insurgents is not without risk. The Obama administration is rightly concerned about weapons falling into the wrong hands. The Afghan mujahadeen were given stinger missiles to fight the Soviet Red Army, which ended up with the Taliban.

The Pentagon should establish formal military-to-military relations with the Free Syrian Army. “Mil-to-mil” relations would professionalize Syrian militias, enhance US influence, and create systems of accountability. If NATO ends up providing air support, local combatants would be invaluable identifying targets, as was the case in Kosovo.


US diplomats are working to stand up a post-Assad administration. They emphasize the participation of Alawites, a minority sect currently controlling the government, military, and economy. They rightly conclude that engaging Alawites will reduce the risk of revenge-killings once Sunni Arabs take over.

Stabilizing post-war Syria is easier said than done. The Syrian National Council, an umbrella group of opposition figures, is a fractious and incoherent body, dominated by exiles. Just as relying on exiles was a mistake in Iraq, it would be a mistake for Syria. Exiles lack popular support from Syrians suffering Assad’s brutal crackdown.

Syrians are increasingly critical of the West for talking lots, yet doing little. The United States has a credibility gap, which it must overcome. The biggest factor uniting Syrians is their hatred of Israel and distrust of America, Israel’s patron.

Syria’s Sunni Arabs are aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood and Turkey’s Islamists. Pro-Iranian Alawites have ties to Hezbollah. Syria’s Christians owe allegiance to Assad for protecting them from radical Sunnis.

Given Syria’s polarized politics, the Kurds of Syria represent a pivot point. The United States should enlist the support of Iraqi Kurdistan in a dialogue to create a moderate, pro-Western Kurdish bloc. Engaging the Kurds of Syria would also marginalize the PKK, a terrorist organization with roots in Syria that has waged a 30-year war for minority rights in Turkey.


Every US incumbent dreads the “October surprise,” a convulsive international event just prior to elections. Syria’s violent takeover by anti-American Sunni extremists is the last thing that President Obama wants on the eve of US elections.

The United States would be in a better position to steer Syria’s volatile transition by formalizing cooperation with Syrian freedom fighters, reaching out to in-country constituencies, and regionalizing cooperation through a contact group. Unlike its predecessor, the Obama administration should avoid decisions based on ideology or wishful thinking. A principled, proactive, and steely-eyed approach should guide US policy toward Syria.

David Phillips was a senior adviser to the State Department’s Future of Iraq Project, political counselor to Bosnia’s presidency, and author of “Liberating Kosovo: Coercive Diplomacy and US Intervention.’’