What is the State Department Doing for Syria?

Many months before the March 2003 military invasion of Iraq, the State Department’s Future of Iraq team was hard at work developing contacts, analyses, and recommendations about a multitude of key civilian functions that would be critical for the effective functioning of a transition after Saddam Hussein. Other parts of the State bureaucracy were actively developing other aspects of a future strategy toward Iraq. One of the strongest critiques of the Bush Administration’s strategy at that time was that it ended up marginalizing the State Department. DoD took charge. State’s multi-volume report on Iraq was shelved and its recommendations all but ignored.

Fast forward to 2014. This is the moment in which America’s policy toward the Future of Syria should have a robust and pro-active civilian component, led by the Department of State and USAID. Of course, today’s Syria strategy is completely different from that for Iraq in 2002-3. For one, no invasion of Syria or overthrow of the regime is contemplated. However the US should still be planning for a  future transition to a different kind of governance in Syria. The Obama Administration has the opportunity to correct its predecessor’s gross imbalance between military on the one hand, and civilian diplomacy and development operations on the other. We read a lot about training and equipping moderate Syrian fighters, but precious little about what State and USAID are doing now to support future governance, civil society, and economic growth in Syria. That in part reflects the priorities of the media.

But the Administration has the opportunity to take the strategic communications initiative. Rather than talking about how many trained fighters it will take to handle the Islamic State group “on the ground” or to confront militarily the Asad regime in order to bring it to another peace conference, the Administration – and State in particular – should be bombarding the information space with its civilian strategy. I know, for example, that the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations funds civilian governance and development operations in Syria through implementing partners. I’m sure USAID is doing the same, beyond immediate humanitarian projects for refugees and internally displaced persons. Of course, anyone could go to these agencies’ respective websites and ferret around to find out what is happening.  But I am talking about pro-active information operations. If I am mistaken about the status of our diplomatic and development strategies toward Syria, then we are in real trouble.

The American public, and indeed the world, should have no doubt about the pace and direction of US policy toward Syria, and it is not all about training and arming moderate Syrian combatants, or assaulting the Islamic State group and its assets inside Syrian borders. The public ought to know what America’s diplomatic and development agencies –and others – are doing on behalf of a future that might come faster than we anticipate.

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