The Syria crisis is a complex and “wicked” problem for US policy. Our first objectives should be to provide significant humanitarian assistance and do what we can to accelerate an end to the fighting, as Secretary Clinton recently said in South Africa. We are already contributing significant amounts of money and supplies to refugees and internally displaced families, and more will be forthcoming, no doubt, as the situation on the ground shifts. As to helping end the fighting, the best way is to continue to squeeze the regime politically and economically, thereby accelerating defections, and shriveling its ability to re-supply its troops. The US should (and probably already does) supply non-lethal equipment to opposition forces, as well as some training and advice. We should also work with other nations to help Syrian opposition leaders to be more effective politically, especially in unifying Syria’s variegated society for the days following the fall of the regime.
From where I sit, we do not appear to broadcast effectively to the region what we are already accomplishing, as well as why we don’t do other things, such as military action. We have the means to inform Arabic-, Kurdish- and Farsi-speaking audiences about what we are doing, and why. We can also speak directly to the concerns they may have about the insufficiency – or excess, in the eyes of those cynics – of America’s outreach to the Syrian opposition. We must tackle the issues they want to know about, in their own language, and over their favorite media outlets and internet sites. There are, of course, some operations that the US government rightly believes are best kept under wraps.
In my view, America’s primary contribution to the future of Syria lies on the other side of the fall of the Assad regime. As I mentioned, we should be working diligently right now to help promote and support an independent, democratic, pluralistic, and prosperous Syria, respecting the rights of all of its own citizens. We can contribute to the re-establishment of Syrian institutions, but the Syrian people will not need much assistance. They are well-educated, technically skilled, entrepreneurial, and industrious. We should not delude ourselves about how much America can design Syria. Rather, the US should work to help Syria in collaboration with other nations (and definitely not Iran). Our unique strength lies in our soft power: the attraction of our values, our principles, our global leadership. Our diplomatic and development experts have the wherewithal to cultivate that influence beginning now, and in a new future American Embassy presence in Damascus – and even in some day reopening our consulate in Aleppo, closed since 1967.