The first American bomb that fell on Syria this week started a countdown. When this clock reaches zero, the soul of the democratic movement in Syria will be lost. The strikes on ISIS have a high potential to be helpful in the fight for stability in Syria, but they can also be extremely damaging. While these strikes may harm ISIS’s short-term capability, they also boost its legitimacy and serve as a recruitment tool. No bombs have hit the assets of the Assad regime, the largest purveyor of death and chaos in Syria. As a result of this omission, the Syrian people are starting to feel a sense of betrayal. The United States and its international coalition can correct this path by taking steps to eliminate Assad’s ability to kill civilians and to empower moderate opposition forces and local governance to fill the vacuum as ISIS retreats.
Many Syrians interpret the one-sided nature of the strikes as proof of American coordination with the Assad regime and the Iranian government. It is almost certain that the United States is not coordinating with Assad in this effort. However, pro-Assad media claim there is a clear partnership. Protest signs held in Idlib and Aleppo show that many Syrians believe these strikes are helping the regime.
Assad still tortures countless people in prisons, drops bombs on civilians, and gasses thousands with no repercussions from the West. He facilitated the emergence of extremists in Syria and created a further obstruction to the Syrian people's dreams. As a result, the Syrian people and the moderate opposition are caught between the vice grip of the Assad regime and other terrorist movements. The way that these strikes have occurred shows either a lack of awareness or a lack of respect for the needs and aspirations of the Syrian people.
In order to shift the message and outcome of this mission for the better, the United States should take the following steps within the next few days. First, the United States should coordinate with the vetted fighting groups currently supported by the train and equip program. These groups cannot be treated as mercenaries against ISIS. The United States should instead coordinate as a strategic partnership with the rebels with respect and support for their goal of counter-terrorism and an inclusive political transition in Syria. It seems America has not reached out to them during this campaign, and they are quickly becoming disillusioned.
Second, the United States should conduct outreach with Sunni tribes, local governing committees, and other groups currently under the grip of ISIS. American programs have already vetted these groups as beneficiaries of support programs over the last three years. They should be empowered to fill local civilian governance and security vacuums left by ISIS in retreat, allowing some refugees to return. The United States should provide air power to protect these newly-liberated areas against future incursions from either extremists or Assad.
Third, the United States needs to send a clear and swift threat of force to the Assad regime. This can be accomplished through hitting ISIS targets in the heart of Damascus or through a direct strike on the helicopters and planes from which Assad constantly drops barrel bombs on civilians. Assad has continued attacks on civilian targets very close to where American strikes occur. Thus far, Russia and Iran have been able to play games with the United States as a result of the unfulfilled “red line” threats of 2013. It should not be forgotten that the chemical weapons deal, though flawed, was a result of the credible threat of force from the United States. This week, Obama has shown seriousness once again on Syria. A threat of force against Assad at this stage could pressure him, or his inner circle, to accept a political transition. To achieve this transition and to purge foreign fighters, Iran and Russia will no doubt have a role to play. That said, the threat of force from the United States is the only factor that will drive these processes forward with the least manipulation from Assad’s allies.
Officials within Assad’s inner circle are not satisfied with the way his regime has managed this crisis. There are many patriotic officials in the Syrian bureaucracy who seek to oust the regime without sacrificing the government institutions needed to run and rebuild the state. This dynamic creates a ripe environment for a political transition in Syria. America must show the Syrian people that a transition towards peace and inclusivity has begun. The United States has struck extremists first, and fine. But what it does next will determine whether it will win the hearts and support of the Syrian people or forever alienate them.
Barabandi served as a diplomat for several decades in the Syrian Foreign Ministry. Thompson is an international lawyer and Policy Director at United for a Free Syria.