Research Paper

Western Policy Towards Syria: Applying Lessons Learned

Dr Neil Quilliam, Dr Christopher Phillips, Tim Eaton, Haid Haid, Lina Khatib, Ibrahim Hamidi, Bassma Kodmani, Lina Sinjab
March 2017

Summary

  • Six years into Syria’s conflict, ‘victory’ for any particular actor is likely to prove a relative term. The regime of President Bashar al-Assad holds the military advantage, but lacks the capacity and resources to recapture and govern the whole of Syria. A post-settlement Syrian state would likely see new elites and warlords wielding power and influence across the country. At the same time, extremist groups are likely to persist and evolve. This is no recipe for stability.
  • There are no straightforward answers for Western policymakers. Short-term approaches that do not appreciate the nuances of the conflict bring more risks than opportunities. Policymakers must consider the long-term obstacles to stable and effective governance in Syria that are a direct result of the rise of new actors on the ground.
  • In addressing these challenges, Western policymakers must be realistic. They must identify strategic objectives in accordance with their level of commitment to achieving them. Since 2011, Western policy towards Syria has been undermined by a wide gap between rhetoric and action, poor communication with allies, and a lack of vision.
  • The absence of a coherent strategic vision – or the political will to see it through – on the part of Western governments has contributed to the increasing strength and influence of extremist groups. These groups cannot be countered by military means alone, however. Without a political agreement to end the conflict, tactical measures for fighting extremism in Syria will fail, as they have elsewhere.
  • Policymakers must align ‘top-down’ and ‘bottom-up’ measures, as no national solution in Syria can be implemented effectively without the buy-in of local communities. To date, local-level humanitarian and governance initiatives have largely overlooked political issues, while national-level peace initiatives have focused on political issues but without enough attention to local dynamics and actors. A successful Western strategy must balance national-level policies with local-level priorities and concerns in order to cultivate the support of local constituencies.
  • Western powers – specifically the US, the EU, the UK and France – must make the most of their limited leverage to extract concessions from the Assad regime and its international backers. The greatest leverage that the West possesses is economic: through sanctions, trade and reconstruction. This may prove significant in determining Syria’s post-settlement future. The regime’s external sponsors, Russia and Iran, have neither the capital to fund large-scale reconstruction efforts nor the interest in doing so.

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