For most of the war in Syria, the United States and Western partners supported local opposition councils in their efforts to provide a viable alternative to President Bashar al-Assad's regime. However, Syrian military realities have gradually overshadowed attempts to strengthen more democratic and inclusive local governance.
In Idlib, a A fragile ceasefire is all that protects 3 million civilians from an assault by the Russian and Syrian governments. Armed extremist groups dominate much of the region and last month a prominent moderate militant was murdered in the region. Meanwhile, in southwestern Syria, the Assad regime brutally consolidated its regime – a marked deterioration from the beginning of the year, when the region was hailed for its promising opposition leadership.
As the conflict continued, it became tragically clear that armed actors with outside support, not grassroots civil activists, are shaping strategic outcomes in Syria. At the same time, high-level policy choices in the United States – particularly the decision in 2014 to prioritize the fight against the Islamic State – cast doubt on the US commitment to the goals of the Islamic State. governance of these stabilization programs against Assad.
Why then did the United States continue to support the programs of the local opposition councils during most of the war in Syria – for a total of more than $ 875 million – despite their impact increasingly marginal on strategic outcomes? And why did policymakers perpetuate these local programs when they were not aligned with high-level US policy decisions? My recent research finds five key explanations.
Perception and misperception
First, the information environment in Washington has led to too much emphasis on convincing local successes – but not necessarily generalizable – rather than on more general trends. Although the regime and armed groups have eliminated a growing number of moderate local councils, biases in the way the US government has handled the news have led some policymakers to focus too much on the few success stories.
When they came to the White House or the purse holders of the Congress, the leaders often felt compelled to provide impressive examples of progress. A staff member in the field recalled that he had been asked to report on the effectiveness of the program only when [deputy assistant secretary of state] was heading to a meeting at the White House and needed a colorful good news on the ground. (Like other staff and officials interviewed, the staff member spoke about the condition of anonymity given the sensitivity of the programs and security concerns.)
Reports on an increasingly smaller number of success stories masked the fact that there were many more areas in which programs could no longer function. Given the strongly networked nature of the conflict, local activists also played an important role in this equation: as scholar Marc Lynch pointed out, Western journalists relied on social media-savvy activists to obtain information, "thus acting as megaphones for a side of a complex war."
The attraction oftake a turn
Invested activists and practitioners have also repeatedly seen the potential of US-Syrian policy to take a turn, finding a reason to hope that the United States was about to move to a stronger military intervention – for example, in 2013, when Assad crossed the line "against the use of chemical weapons.
Even after the Trump government took office, its mixed messages on Syria proved to be as easy to interpret as a Rorschach inkblot. In the midst of all this noise, contradictions and air strikes, defenders could find material to support their hopes for a more interventionist policy – and by extension, their hopes for the future of the councils. local opposition.
The disconnect between local practitioners and Washington
In the field, stabilization program leaders were confused as they juggled the often conflicting political goals of the Assad struggle and the fight against the Islamic State. But for policymakers in the crisis room or for Capitol Hill lawmakers, the tensions that practitioners faced were less relevant. Senior officials managing the situation as a whole – including the risk of military confrontation with Russia – were unsurprisingly lacking the bandwidth needed to question the details of local programs.
The US government's own organization has also undermined the links between high-level politics and local perspectives. The bureaucratic actors who led the political decision-making and diplomatic negotiation efforts were generally different from those who oversaw the local stabilization programs.
In addition, many senior US officials felt that the urge to "do something" against Syria – and the continuation of stabilization programs was a relatively easy choice in an otherwise deeply contested political environment. Conversely, ending local political assistance would have seemed defeatist and would have undermined the (still official) political position that "Assad must leave".
The bureaucracy does its job
A fragmented aid apparatus also explains the persistence of stabilization programs. Rather than coordinating from a single geographical center, donor offices and implementers were located in several cities in neighboring countries, often communicating directly with local councils. It has therefore become difficult to assess whether, overall, these efforts have achieved their overall objectives.
Competition among multiple agencies has also intensified pressure to publish success stories. As one former official said: "Each quarter, each US government business unit was conducting an existential fight to demonstrate that its equipment was the most relevant on the ground."
Pragmatic and normative reasons
Yet, even though the goal of creating a political alternative to the Assad regime was becoming less and less realistic, local councils continued to play a crucial role in providing much-needed services to the besieged populations. Stabilization programs were often the best way to provide effective and inclusive assistance.
For many observers, this was enough to justify the continuation of the programs, whether their initial policy objectives were viable or not. As a long-time official has told, after the Russian intervention in 2015 made the fall of Assad unlikely, "I wanted to be honest: we really had a goal by country: to make the life less difficult for Syrians. "
Similarly, many Western donors have claimed that supporting inclusive and democratic opposition councils against the brutal Assad regime was simply the right thing to do. Even when it became more and more likely that the scheme would eventually prevail, some officials claimed that they should "stay with the local councils until the end."
What does this mean for the United States?
Most Syrian stabilization programs ended as the regime expanded its control. some settled in eastern Syria with the protection of US and Kurdish forces. These projects, aligned with the current security environment, could offer a chance to save a slightly better result for US interests and Syrian civilians.
But the broader picture of Syrian stabilization is bleak – and Syria is unlikely to be the last place where US civilian assistance programs will be swamped by a dramatically deteriorating strategic conflict environment. If policymakers are to accurately determine the prospects for such programs, they will have to tackle the factors that have clouded their vision in the past.
Frances Z. Brown is a doctoral candidate in international relations at Oxford University, a member of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and former director of democracy at the National Security Council.