A New U.S. Strategy for Syria

A New U.S. Strategy for Syria

America will need to signal some organizing principles, some clearer set of objectives, around which to rally the fissiparous stakeholders.

Ignoring theoretical arguments about preferable constitutional arrangements, there is now no real state in Syria to preserve. And the constituent components of any polity that might be negotiated for the Syrian territory will oppose any arrangement that does not ensure their own security vis-à-vis the other national constituents. Those horses, as they say, have already left the barn. They will return only if the renovated barn serves its primary purposes and the interests of its various inhabitants. Even if a constitutional arrangement can be negotiated, will the domestic constituents buy into it and, even if they do, will they be able to effectuate it, and will it be politically, economically and socially viable?

Although tasks predominantly for a later round of negotiations, any new national or international architecture should, if possible, address (or begin to address) them in the formative stages rather than, as happens too frequently, wait to find later the fateful flaws in its very foundation. Finally, no institutional edifice can survive absent a minimal accord among its constituents. Certainly the multiple communities—what in Lebanon are so usefully called “confessions”—can successfully resist the imposition of a structure most of them find sufficiently deficient. Excluding the Syrian actors from the central discussions in Vienna, as they have been so far, may serve to simplify the negotiations but may render the result irrelevant politically and militarily.

Obviously, Daesh will oppose any similar regime and will have no role to play in creating its underlying settlement. Daesh will continue to contest any arrangement apart from the establishment of its own caliphate. Its intrepid determination coupled with its far inferior arsenal may nevertheless defeat even a united international consortium supporting an alternatively constructed state and polity. Indeed taking on Daesh will be the one of the new regime’s most immediate and urgent necessities.

The more immediate and even less palatable task is to find a way through the thicket of domestic and international stakeholders with different and often cross-purposes and with such mutual hostility that accommodation is almost impossible. Needed to do so is a clearing of the conceptual underbrush, making some choices, and dealing with the implications for relations with various interested states and parties. A negotiated resolution would be optimal unless the inevitable compromises cut too deeply against the principles of the U.S. and its allies or create an unworkable result, even assuming the absence of Daesh as part of the consultations.

If negotiations do not produce a workable outcome, the U.S. will have to decide which of the stakeholders it will alienate (or at least irritate) to assemble a coalition and strategy with some likelihood of success, and which of the objectives it will prioritize. If the deepest fault line were to prevail, it might, in particular, be forced to choose in priority and sequencing between isolating, containing, and if possible expelling Daesh on the one hand or replacing Assad on the other, but not both. However, any viable strategy will need to signal that all of the respective essential interests of the multiple stakeholders and those of the various communities in Syria, with the possible exception of Assad himself, are guaranteed in any “final” constitutional arrangement.


Still certain realities will need to guide strategy and tactics. First, as a matter of instrumentality, as the most capable domestic force, the Kurds would necessarily be the cutting edge and probably wedge of any ground force in Syria. However, as Iraq has demonstrated in spades, the Kurds cannot accomplish the entire mission on their own. Were they to try absent an alliance with some credible Arab force, however problematic, the effort itself would be more likely than not to shift the objectives and the array of power of all of the Arabs from Daesh and Assad to a containment of the Kurds, and that could well generate the paradoxical alliance between Turkey and Assad. Still, the Kurds will need to be pivotal to the effort and, whatever the window-dressing about a Syrian Arab Coalition (or National Syrian Coalition or any other name by which the ephemeral coalitions form and disappear), will stand at its center until a credible Arab force can be created to partner with it.

Second, as a matter of long-term objectives, Syria will never be reconstructed in the constitutional status quo ante. Even without Assad and his inner circle, Syria will need to be recreated constitutionally, assuming that it can be reintegrated on any terms. It will not be a strong central state controlled by any single community let alone dominated by a single network, family or individual. Reciprocally, neither Iran nor Russia will be able to insist on a replacement of Assad by one of his web or on the continuation with new personnel of the prevailing regime, and Russia has no imperative interest in doing so if the alternative arrangement will preserve its influence in Syria and the defeat of jihadists, both of which would in turn lie in the interests of most of the rest of the stakeholders. Moreover, the Syrian army itself will need to reflect the political and organizational realities of the larger polity.


Once the objectives and strategy have been established or at least articulated, several immediate tactical challenges for the U.S. and its partners lie ahead. The first lies in identifying the modalities to help build a more competent, more united Sunni Arab force and to negotiate a partnership, coalition or loose alliance between it and the Kurds, in short to construct a more effective opposition. That will include forming a common negotiating bloc out of the fragmented civilian leaders as well so that they can theoretically come to an agreement that will stick. The second is to negotiate an agreement among the opposition that would assure the safety of the Alawite community and its place in a post-conflict Syria and to make that understanding public. The third is to assemble stakeholders, preferably including influential Alawite leaders including some close to Assad (perhaps even in the military), that could convince him to leave and help arrange an exit strategy with him. The fourth is to construct an arena—perhaps a small conference of key stakeholders, particularly Syrians—to work through a consensus transitional structure and process or, even better, the embryo for a more permanent constitutional arrangement. The fifth is to forge a specifically anti-Daesh strategy and put it into effect. The sixth is to construct a formula for the repatriation of refugees in Europe but more important in Turkey and Jordan. The seventh is to establish acceptable but evenhanded monitors and guarantors for the implementation of all of these agreements and the entire process.

In sum, the immediate task for U.S. diplomacy is first to untangle as much as possible the Gordian knot of stakeholders and interests, second to try developing a common set of objectives among the them, third, if that is impossible, to maximize the heft of a coalition that can agree on those objectives, fourth to develop an actual and coherent strategy, a blueprint, among that coalition for achieving those objectives, fifth to minimize the conflicts and dissonance within the coalition and the dissenting stakeholders, and sixth to design tactics appropriate to the strategy of its allies while minimizing differences with other players. A tall order for sure, but one without which the chaos of Syria is likely to deepen, the humanitarian disaster is likely to widen, and any resolution short of exhaustion is likely to grow more distant.

Gerald F. (“Jerry”) Hyman has been a Senior Adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and President of its Hills Program on Governance since 2007. From 1990-2007, he held several positions at USAID, including director of its global Office of Democracy and Governance from 2002-2007. From 1985-1990, he practiced law at Covington & Burling in Washington DC, and he taught Anthropology and Sociology at Smith College from 1970-1985.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Elizabeth Arrott.