Since the Friends of Syria meeting last week, a conclave of countries convening in Marrakech, there’s been a sad clarity to the state of U.S. policy in the Middle East. It’s clear that we’ve already lost Syria.
The U.S. played the wrong game in global diplomacy, first bet on the wrong crowd in the Syrian opposition, and while it found its way forward, conditions on the ground spiraled out of control.
The past few weeks have been kinetic. Rebel gains on the ground — specifically, the Assad regime’s consolidation in urban areas and withdrawal from broad swaths in the north and east — have made us think we’re near the endgame.
That made the news out of Marrakech — more than a hundred countries recognizing the opposition in exile — feel like more of a win, a step toward a future free Syria. But in practical effect, endorsing the opposition yields little more than a multilateral pat on the back. Beyond elite consolation, it was no concrete success.
If and when the Assad regime implodes there is a rift beyond repair, between the outcomes we want to see in Syria and what U.S. policy is set to deliver. Diplomacy is racing against the battlefield. The U.S. and its allies moved too slowly on Syria; in the time it took to pivot on the opposition and shuffle support to a new set of political leaders, facts on the ground changed dramatically.
Now much rests on whether the new leaders out front, the Syrian National Coalition led by Moaz al Khatib, can show concrete results on the ground. They need to succeed fast, if they are to lead a political transition with perceived legitimacy. To do that they need to meet a stiff set of public expectations. Already in Syria, frustrations with a disintegrating quality of life tower over what help the U.S. and its allies have been able to deliver.
When it does deliver help, Washington hardly gets credit for the money it gives; the $200 million spent on aid has earned no halo effect, no thank you card to the White House. That’s in part because it goes through third parties, aid organizations who don’t say it’s coming from the U.S. But more palpably, misery dampens the gratitude. The scale of the aid pledged, and even less so, delivered, is hardly enough to make conditions bearable in Aleppo or Atma. Compare the $14 million pledged by the U.S. in Morocco with the $500 million a month the opposition says it needs to restore basic services to rebel-held territory. Some consider that a high figure, but it captures the extent of the need, at a macro level.
For a more granular view, listen to civilians inside Syria.
“At home, my kids ate the last piece of bread today,” I heard from a father of two in Aleppo, an insurance salesman. “Their lips are blue from the cold, because there is no electricity.”
The prevailing sentiment, he says, is that the whole world has abandoned them. That leaves a seemingly hollow moniker for a group that calls itself the “Friends of Syria.”
Russia has taken a nominally softer stance on President Bashar al Assad, at one point admitting that his regime is “losing control” of the country. But that’s more a consequence of rebels reaching the palace gates in Damascus, and less a consequence of well-crafted geopolitics. The U.S. may have spent too much time trying to move the Russian position. As Syrians see it, Washington misunderstood the reality of how Russia, and the Assad regime, would ever choose to negotiate: only when they’re down to their last bullet, when they have no other option.
“Whoever wants a serious negotiation with the regime must be stronger than the regime… it will not recognize a political process, only if it is forced to,” said Yassin al Haj Saleh, a prominent opposition voice who emails us his thoughts from Damascus.
As a result of the diplomatic delay, both the U.S. and Russia could lose: the Russians have lost their influence with Assad and stand to be hated in a future Syria, while the West will get little love for leaving Syrians to fight an excruciating war, sixteen months after a U.S. President said it’s time for Assad to go.
Syria has shown the limits of U.S. policy. It’s exposed a failure of the global system, the multilateral process we tried to corral. Old diplomacy is too slow for the new Middle East. The U.S. has lost credibility among Syrians, which makes the solutions it does proffer, like the National Coalition it has officially endorsed, less likely to stick. Even if that opposition in exile does take root, it will serve a people that has lost hope in the U.S. — as they see it, a U.S. that long let them suffer before taking real action.