President Trump announced in March that the U.S. would “be coming out of Syria like very soon” given his estimation that the military had defeated nearly “100% of the [Islamic State’s] caliphate.” The President’s comments ignited a debate over what the United States’ role should be following the de-escalation of military conflict in war-torn states.
Though the military has made significant gains against ISIS in Syria, much of the country lies in ruin. In Raqqa—which was previously home to 200,000 people—more than 70 percent of structures have been destroyed or damaged, and many more remain littered with explosive devices. Over half of the population has fled their homes, leaving 6.6 million people displaced inside Syria and forcing more than 5.6 million Syrians to live as refugees outside the country.
In order to maintain the military’s hard fought gains and prevent the return of ISIS, it’s critical that people are able to return home to begin the hard work of rebuilding their country. Just last week, the State Department, Pentagon and USAID released a new Stabilization Assistance Review, which aims to create a new framework for more effective U.S. operations in places like Raqqa where vital humanitarian assistance is needed alongside efforts to promote security and peace.
The Stabilization Assistance Review: What & Why
The Stabilization Assistance Review (SAR) was created with the input of six of the military’s Combatant Commanders and signed off on by the National Security Council, Defense Secretary James Mattis, USAID Administrator Mark Green, and then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. The SAR defines stabilization as “an inherently political endeavor that requires aligning U.S. government efforts – diplomatic engagement, foreign assistance, and defense” to support “locally legitimate authorities” and to ultimately prevent violence.
To achieve these goals, the SAR proposes that the State Department will serve as the overall lead for U.S. stabilization efforts. Under this new framework, USAID would serve as the lead implementing agency for non-security stabilization efforts and the Defense Department would assume a supportive role and provide security. The Department of Defense has begun implementing the recommendations of the SAR and is creating a revised version of DoD Directive 3000.05—the Department’s pre-existing policy for stabilization operations—and established a process for implementing stabilization assistance “in concert” with other agencies.
A number of political issues remain that will require long-term engagement in Syria. After the President’s comments in March, the U.S. froze $200 million earmarked for Syrian recovery efforts in areas not under the control of Assad. Two and a half months after the initial freeze, the Administration released $6.6 million—roughly 3% of committed U.S. assistance—to the White Helmets, a Syrian civilian humanitarian assistance group.
Secretary Pompeo has called on U.S. allies “to share the burden for ongoing stabilization efforts that are critical to preserving the military gains that have been achieved.” To date, the United Nations has only been able to raise $4 billion of the estimated $9 billion needed to meet the immediate humanitarian needs of the Syrian people.
In addition to the lack of basic services, a recent study found that security and safety are only one among a number of obstacles facing Syrian refugees wishing to return home. For example, Syria’s mandatory military conscription policy for those between the ages of 18 and 42 means that refugees who return home will be fined $8,000 for evading the draft—a significant financial barrier for returnees.
Combining Resources & Policy
USAID Administrator Mark Green recently observed that “stabilization programs are more than just manifestations of American generosity—they are instead key components of our national security planning.” Ultimately, the recent Stabilization Assistance Review provides a template for stabilizing nations—not just those currently in the headlines like Syria and Iraq, but also insecure nations home to armed extremist groups like Somalia or Niger.
However, if the new policy is not accompanied by the resources and the long-term commitment necessary for American stabilization operations to be effective, the U.S. will find few successes in the countries the SAR was designed for.
Speaking at the USGLC’s annual State Leaders Summit on Monday, General Paul Selva, Vice Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that “dollar for dollar, an investment in diplomacy or development will generally be substantially more efficient than a dollar spent on defense.” The current situation in Syria is an example of how America’s continued investment in diplomacy and development not only represents the generosity of the American people, but a smart, cost-effective strategy to advance our nation’s foreign policy objectives.