January 30, 2017 | The Hill

Trump needs a new approach to Syria: Bottom-up defense

A draft executive order that awaits President Donald Trump’s signature directs the State Department and Pentagon to produce a plan, within 90 days, for providing safe zones in Syria.

For more than six years policy experts have argued over possible solutions to stop the devastation and end the civil war. None found favor in Washington. Given the tumultuous history surrounding previous  discussions of establishing safe zones there is a more tailored approach that will meet the president’s specific requirements and priorities.

With 17 peace initiatives already scuttled, it is hard to remain optimistic that diplomacy can work. It is extremely difficult to achieve a comprehensive, over-arching national solution with so many different actors pursuing drastically dissimilar and competing agendas.

Numerous voices, on both left and right, have called for the White House to implement a “Plan B,” namely an alternative to the unsuccessful ceasefire talks with Russia.

However, when it was in place, the Obama administration insisted that its position was the best of all possible bad choices, and refused to take a more forceful approach.  

Some of the loudest voices have called for a more robust U.S. presence in Syria to halt the mass murder, which would mean expanding direct U.S. involvement in the conflict. This has elicited a strong response from isolationists who point to the failed adventure in Iraq as proof that the United States should steer clear of new Middle East wars.

One response to the isolationists is the idea of a no-fly zone or safe zone. In theory, this would not necessarily require a heavy U.S. presence. The problem is that, with few exceptions, little detail has been provided as to what a no-fly or safe zone would look like, where it would be instituted, how it would be enforced, and what would be the specific goals of implementing such a plan.

As a result, no-fly zones and safe zones are bandied about like vague bumper sticker slogans.

Lost in this noise is the slow and steady bottom-up strategy: A comprehensive effort that begins with a modest patch of Syrian territory where success can be replicated with a long-term commitment to security, governance, and humanitarian assistance.

Enabling local partners to provide for security and develop legitimate and inclusive governing structures, and then repeating these efforts in contiguous territories, could ultimately provide a legitimate alternative to the Assad regime.

Establishing Self Protection Areas (SPAs) requires economic and social structures, governing institutions, and humanitarian assistance.

Indeed, developing a Self-Protection Area requires local leaders to deliver food, shelter, safe drinking water, medical care, sanitation, schools, health care, and humanitarian assistance. By demonstrating they can build the appropriate government structures and provide services and stability in the areas they control, the rebels offer an alternative to the regime.

And the goal should not only be to establish a refuge for civilians and refugees, but also a space that eschews Salafi jihadist or other extremist groups.

Establishing pockets of normalcy will allow the moderate Syrian opposition to develop and provide a viable alternative to these well-funded violent factions. Opposition groups that lack legitimate and effective institutional structures are susceptible to rapidly fluctuating alliances and the type of infighting that has long plagued the Syrian rebels.

Self-governance is already taking place in limited areas, albeit with imperfect success. Local councils have formed in areas where the Assad regime has abandoned control, including pockets of the Dara’a, Quneitra, Rif Dimashq, and Al-Suwaida Governorates in south Syria.

The councils are attempting to fill a critical need for social and governmental organization but these groups need more help to build and maintain effective institutional structures.

They need to better communicate with other groups that have established similar structures, in the hopes of linking together the neighboring self-protection areas as an alternative to the Assad regime. They also need to learn from one another and to help each other.

Their individual successes will ultimately determine the overall success of the SPA approach.

The SPA approach should not be viewed as an effort to partition Syria. Rather, its aim is to build institutions that can be replicated and applied in one location after another.  

Indeed, these are not new institutions. Rather they are reestablished local municipalities, which constitute the first step of a multi-stage effort toward rebuilding the Syrian state. Over time, the goal is to have all of Syria functioning again.

The first step in putting this plan into action is to identify locations where success is achievable. These conditions currently exist in south Syria. The Israel Defense Force (IDF) has identified a handful of Syrian partners that are prepared to take responsibility for their own fate.

IDF humanitarian efforts have helped them to build communication and cooperation while developing a set of shared interests. By providing additional training, equipment, education and other support, the U.S. led coalition can supplement ongoing Israeli activities. Local provisional councils form the basis for representation and legitimacy.

While Israel will continue to build humanitarian bridges in Syria, helping local partners to establish SPAs, U.S. leadership will be crucial to broadening these efforts. And the good news is that it would be a low-risk endeavor.

U.S. leadership does not require a large military presence. Instead, we must provide enough sustained support to enable locals to protect and govern themselves. This support will take the form of training, equipping and protection – both physical and diplomatic — but none of this requires U.S. forces to operate inside a war zone.

There are lessons from past U.S. counterinsurgency efforts that, while not completely analogous, are illustrative of successful practices.

For example, in Vietnam the Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support (CORDS) program, aimed at protecting and winning over the civilian population, was successful where its focus remained local.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, Provisional Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) were established to extend the reach and legitimacy of the central government and address the need to conduct stability operations centered on good governance. The most effective PRTs were those that recognized local needs and focused on governance and development, not just security.

SPAs take these concepts to a new level. They allow the U.S. to have a strategic impact by shaping the future of Syria, and to do so with a light touch.

By developing a replicable process, applied at the local level, and taking into consideration unique local complexities, the SPAs can help municipal authorities to begin reestablishing order and normalcy in a country that has suffered for far too long.

John Cappello, a former B-1B pilot and Air Force Attaché to the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv, Israel, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.