Change the Focus of the Syria Debate

For more than a year now the focus of U.S. foreign policy toward Syria has been on how to arm the Syrian rebel movement, with an orientation on the short term. This has contributed to a stalemate in the conflict, with neither side having sufficient power to overwhelm the other. It is time now to focus on what will be in America's, Syria's, and the region's longer term interests. Little has been said publicly about what can be done to promote stability during the post-combat period - which, admittedly, could still be a long way off - including forming a new Syrian government, promoting a new Syrian national identity, and facilitating economic recovery.

As we discovered in Iraq and Afghanistan, in the absence of a viable, speedy post-conflict restoration program, it can take many years to restore a semblance of political, economic, and social order. Rather than worrying about which type of rockets should be given to which Syrian faction, America and the West should be developing a strategy -- now -- to build a network of influence on the ground to counter the religious extremist groups.

Hamas, Hizbollah, and the Muslim Brotherhood succeed in winning popular support in Palestine, Lebanon and Egypt by having a presence in every local mosque, and thus a foot on every street corner. They have also focused on providing basic social and economic needs for the poor, using their mosque platform to distribute food, provide subsidized rent payments in times of crisis, and a level of essential basic services local and national governments have either generally failed to provide, or provide poorly. Focusing on short-term economic initiatives that provide essential needs will offer the more moderate majority with a viable alternative in Syria. Meeting basic needs will do far more to ensure good will toward America and the West in the longer term than guns and missiles.

The American experiences in Iraq and Libya have shown that while initial gratitude for military support is real among a segment of the population, far more important is what help the US provides in a post-conflict environment toward rapidly restoring civil society, governance and the rule of law. The key topic we must focus on now is how to utilize civilian resources and organize a coherent reconstruction strategy that quickly returns the hundreds of thousands of refugees to their homes and restart Syria's economy. America's record has been abysmal in helping restore political and economic order in most of the conflict zones that are current refuges of anti-American terrorist networks (including Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, and the Sahel region of North Africa). Addressing this now will, hopefully, permit sufficient time to actually implement a strategy and resources to get the job done effectively.

One approach would be for western governments to initiate assistance programs through the multilateral agencies (such as the UN, Islamic Development Bank and World Bank Group) which were designed for this purpose, but equally importantly, have the resources to put personnel on the ground and devote the funds necessary to have a meaningful impact. Call it 'pre-emptive development'. Another idea is to create lending and guarantee schemes specifically earmarked for high risk post-conflict reconstruction. This has of course been done in the past, but usually too long after a conflict has ended, and often implemented too late to be maximally effective to those most in need.

If we want post-conflict Syria to end up better prepared to survive the chaos and despair engulfing Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and elsewhere in the region, we must do a much better job of marshalling and deploying the civilian, political and economic resources essential to the establishment of political stability. If this were to occur, perhaps Syria could serve as a turning point in 'pre-emptive' post-conflict reconstruction and development, rather than a continuation of the flawed approach that has been replicated numerous times over past decades, with predictable results.

*Daniel Wagner is CEO of Country Risk Solutions, a cross-border risk management firm based in Connecticut (USA), and author of the book "Managing Country Risk". Charles Kestenbaum is Director of Middle Eastern Affairs at CRS.