High Stakes for Syria at GCC Meeting: How President Obama Should Urge Gulf Leaders to Help Syria

When President Obama meets the leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council on April 21 in Saudi Arabia it will be his last chance to press the Gulf monarchs in person, on their home ground, about their human rights responsibilities. In a letter to Obama Human Rights First outlined a series of concerns about government attacks on civil society in the GCC states.

The issue of the Syrian conflict will be prominent on the agenda of the summit and Obama can usefully urge his Gulf allies to help end the conflict and promote a lasting peace.

Over the last month Human Rights First has held a series of discussions with Syrian civil society leaders now based in other countries, including many in Gaziantep on the Turkish side of the Syrian border, about what they now want to see the U.S. government do to help resolve the Syrian war, and specifically how President Obama should use the GCC summit to press the Gulf states to reduce and end the conflict.

While the current ceasefire, which began on February 27, has reduced the rate of civilian deaths, it looks increasingly fragile. Neither ISIS nor Jabhat Al Nusrah, both powerful armed extremist groups, are included in the truce, and fighting continues on a number of fronts by other factions which agreed to halt fighting. In what amounted to a re-declaration of war, Syrian Prime Minister Wael al-Halaki warned on April 10 that regime forces “are preparing for an operation to liberate Aleppo and to block all illegal armed groups which have not joined or have broken the ceasefire deal.”

Syrian human rights activists and other civil society figures continue to voice extreme exasperation with the Obama Administration’s actions towards Syria since peaceful anti-regime protests broke out five years ago.

U.S. involvement in the conflict in Syria has been characterized by several pivotal moments. The U.S. government adopted a wait-and-see approach for far too long, apparently relying on the superficially reassuring, but ultimately false, assumption that the conflict was being fought out between al-Qa’eda and Hezbollah, two forces antagonistic the United States, so having U.S. enemies fight each other would not harm U.S. interests. At other times, the administration appeared to stake out strong positions only to waffle or walk them back, as demonstrated in the timeline accompanying this report.

During the first year of the conflict U.S. engagement in Syria was limited to rhetoric and diplomacy. In May 2011, two months after the mass protests began, the United States imposed sanctions on President Bashar Al Assad and senior government officials, but it was not until August of that year that President Obama officially called for Assad’s removal. Towards the end of 2011, the United Nations Security Council, with U.S. support, took up consideration of resolutions condemning Assad’s brutality and calling for a political transition. Russia and China repeatedly vetoed these resolutions, which stymied efforts for the Security Council to fulfill its intended role in maintaining international peace and security with regard to this conflict.

Against the backdrop of the pro-democracy uprisings and government crackdowns in other countries in the Middle East and North Africa in 2011, and with the American public’s limited appetite for troops on the ground after the negative experiences of Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. government avoided a military approach in Syria. This reticence ultimately resulted in a failure to support the moderate rebels who aimed to oust Assad, as the situation became increasingly complex. In August 2012, President Obama gave his now-infamous “red line” speech regarding the use of chemical weapons in Syria, stating, “We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus.” One month later, the United States began supplying Syrian opposition rebels with non- lethal aid.

In June 2013, a U.S. intelligence report concluded the Assad regime had used chemical weapons, including sarin, on a small scale against the opposition multiple times in the previous year. Then on August 21 a chemical weapons attack on a Damascus suburb killed an estimated 1,400 people.

Having drawn a line, which if crossed would be cause for U.S. military action, President Obama worked with President Putin of Russia, strong supporter of the Assad regime, to produce an agreement calling for the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles by mid-2014.

While the United States avoided taking direct military action in Syria in 2013, the situation changed in 2014 as a result of the growth of ISIS. In June 2014, ISIS seized the city of Mosul in Iraq and officially declared their “caliphate,” effectively erasing the border between western Iraq and eastern Syria. In August, journalist James Foley was the first American executed by the group in Syria. ISIS’s gruesome execution videos shocked the international community and increased pressure on

the administration to act and in September, President Obama announced the formation of a broad international coalition to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIS. In September the U.S.-led coalition began its first airstrikes on military targets in Syria. While the strikes targeted ISIS’s war-fighting and war-sustaining capabilities, they did not directly target Assad’s forces despite calls by U.S. allies in the region and some of the opposition armed groups and some of civil society for the U.S. to do so.

Throughout 2015 the United States continued its airstrike campaign in Syria while also launching a program to train and equip Syrian opposition rebels. Meanwhile, Russia became increasingly involved in the conflict and began to launch airstrikes in September, which overwhelmingly targeted anti- Assad, non-ISIS rebels. By the fall it was clear that the U.S. $500 million “train and equip” program had failed, producing only a handful of active fighters. In October, the United States scrapped the program and announced a new plan to send U.S. special operations forces into Syria to serve in an advisory capacity to opposition fighters. A debate ensued over the extent to which these forces constituted “boots on the ground.”

In late 2015, the United States, Russia, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia initiated peace talks on Syria in Vienna, but no agreement was reached. President Obama reiterated in November that he did not foresee “a situation in which we can end the civil war in Syria while Assad remains in power.” While his remarks echoed earlier statements by U.S. officials since 2011, views on Assad’s departure fundamentally diverged among the other governments involved in the conflict and convening the peace talks. As the peace negotiations progressed, the U.S. position on Assad seemed to soften, leading the State Department to confront persistent questions from the media about whether it was backing off from its stance that Assad could not remain in power, or whether a transitional role for him was envisaged.

U.N.-mediated Syria peace talks began in Geneva in February 2016, and by the end of March, the Syrian regime and opposition delegations agreed on twelve common points. Russia unexpectedly announced that it would be pulling out the “main part” of its military forces in Syria. Meanwhile, U.S. and Russian officials agreed on a target schedule for establishing a framework for a political transition and a draft constitution. The U.N.-mediated peace talks resumed in Geneva in mid-April. Conspicuously absent throughout the negotiation processes has been meaningful engagement with Syrian civil society.

The most commonly cited complaints about Washington’s record include the lack of support for the uprising in March 2011, President Obama’s failure to act militarily after President Assad crossed the “red line” of using chemical weapons in 2013, and an unwillingness to adequately support or arm “moderate” Syrian opposition forces, which has in turn made more radical but better-armed groups such as ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusrah more attractive options for those wanting to fight the regime by force. “The U.S. government is still forcing good people into the arms of ISIS to fight Assad,” one veteran human rights activist told me. “People will go to those who give them guns.”

There is criticism too for what they see as the Obama Administration’s softening of the requirement that Syrian dictator Bashar al Assad not play any part in the country’s transitional politics, and some criticize a failure to introduce or enforce no-fly zones inside Syria to protect civilians.

Some cite the U.S. government’s failure to lead a response to the international refugee crisis, an issue Human Rights Report addressed in a February 2016 report.

Despite Washington’s poor level of credibility with Syrian civil society, many activists hope President Obama will use his influence at this month’s GCC summit to press Gulf governments to encourage a lasting and fair peace in Syria. Syrian civil society leaders suggested to Human Rights First that President Obama could usefully press his Gulf allies to help in a series of key areas, including ensuring that the armed groups they sponsor respect the ceasefire and release human rights activists they hold in detention. Washington’s Gulf allies could also address the sectarian speech fueling the conflict which emanates from media based in the Gulf, support international efforts to protect medical workers in Syria, and better support the peace negotiations in Geneva.

The Syrian regime is responsible for the vast majority of killings and other human rights violations, which have left hundreds of thousands of people dead and half the country’s population displaced. Millions of refugees have crossed into neighboring countries and many more would if adjoining states hadn’t closed their borders. But other groups, including some sponsored and to some degree controlled by the Gulf states, are also guilty of mass human rights violations, and while Syrian civil society figures insists that Washington’s primary focus should be on ending the conflict as quickly and as permanently as it can, they say there are useful things Obama can urge his Gulf allies to do to reduce the violations committed by the armed opposition groups they support responsible for abuses.

Issue Brief

Published on April 19, 2016


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