How the Syrian refugee problem can become an opportunity

How the Syrian refugee problem can become an opportunity

The UNHCR reported that as of March 9, more than 4.8 million Syrians had registered as refugees in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and other countries.  

King Abdullah of Jordan warned on Feb. 2 that his country is “at the boiling point” and that “sooner or later, I think, the dam is going to burst.” Lebanon, also under financial and economic duress, is sheltering nearly 1.1 million. Turkey has been compelled to accept more than 2.7 million.  

One can be wishful that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad will eventually be persuaded to cede power, but at this point, his moral culpability is so profound he will almost certainly fight to the bitter end. 

Therefore, NATO should act by working with its regional partners to transform the Syrian refugee population into a viable fighting force prepared to seize and hold territory on Syria’s northern and southern fronts with NATO air support and special operations forces equipped with anti-aircraft missiles. These fronts could be expanded to increase pressure on al-Assad’s inner circle to betray him, perhaps with eventual Russian and/or Iranian encouragement.  

Syrian refugees of fighting age should be properly vetted and indoctrinated to minimize any radical Islamist influence within this force and it should be deployed only once it has achieved at least division strength in order to avoid repeating the mistakes of the U.S. Department of Defense’s hapless training program.  Those who enlist in it should in return be promised that if they commit to and serve out a minimum three-year term, their families will be resettled in neighboring or Western countries rather than continue to languish in refugee camps.     

Regarding existing moderate insurgent groups fighting on Syria’s northern fronts, the Institute for the Study of War noted in its March 2016 report, “Most Syrian opposition groups cooperate closely with Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra out of military necessity; these groups would in many cases succumb to the Syrian regime or [the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant - ISIL] without Jabhat al-Nusra’s support. Many Syrian opposition groups also collaborate with Jabhat al-Nusra on governance, providing a vehicle for Jabhat al-Nusra’s agenda to transform Syrian society. Syrian opposition groups are therefore generally both unable and unwilling to challenge Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria in the near term.” 

Some groups that the U.S. and its regional partners have been exploring relations with or supporting, such as Ahrar al-Sham and Jaysh al-Islam, have been acting effectively as moderate front groups for Jabhat al-Nusra or are otherwise ideologically or operationally intertwined to a degree that makes such support morally and strategically questionable. If these groups are unwilling to withdraw their support from Jabhat al-Nusra in exchange for an offer of integration into a viable moderate fighting force, the U.S. should end its support for them and voice public criticism of its regional partners if they continue to do so.   

The Jabhat al-Nusra-dominated insurgency in the north may be less responsible for the carnage in Syria but it would undoubtedly be worse than al-Assad’s forces if it had comparable military capabilities.  There is nothing wrong with allowing these two sides to kill and exhaust each other while NATO attempts to build up a viable moderate fighting force.     

NATO might consider offering to accept Russia’s military presence in a post-al-Assad Syria in exchange for Putin’s at least tacit support in removing al-Assad. 

This would be a harder sell for Iran considering Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s fixation on the annihilation of the state of Israel. A serious demonstration of progress on the Israeli-Palestinian issue might shift the balance of policy positions on Iran’s Supreme National Security Council.

Nevertheless it is worth having the moral debate with Iran, who shame themselves with their unconditional support for al-Assad. It is truly remarkable that Khamenei has become so hypocritical that he can continue to self-righteously demonize Israel and the U.S. while supporting al-Assad.   

All parties must devise a positive sum solution in Syria before the moral black hole it has become pulls them directly into it.      

*Thomas Buonomo is a geopolitical risk analyst with Stratas Advisors. His views are his own and do not represent those of Stratas Advisors.