After Camp David, No End in Sight in Syria

by Thomas W. Lippman

President Obama and the Arab Gulf monarchies may have papered over their differences about Iran at Camp David this week, but it was painfully clear after their summit meeting that they did not develop any new strategy or plan for ending the violence in Syria.

On the contrary, the president told the television network al-Arabiya that the Syrian conflict would “probably not” end before he leaves office in January 2017. His comment was a blunt acknowledgement that the war in Syria is a quagmire in which no one is winning, no one has been defeated, and there are so many competing groups and conflicting agendas that it is nearly impossible to sort them out. The war will drag on; even if the government of President Bashar al-Assad were to fall, the many groups and factions seeking to control Syria would then fight it out among themselves.

The president and the representatives of the six countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)—Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman—said they agreed that the Syrian conflict cannot be settled by military means, and that there can be no role for Assad in any postwar arrangements. They said all the right things about establishing a postwar Syrian government that is “independent, inclusive, [and] protects the rights of minority groups,” according to an annex to the joint communiqué issued after the meeting, and that they would enhance their support for “moderate” opposition forces, assuming that they can agree on who those might be.

They promised support for Syria’s neighbors that are struggling to care for the hundreds of thousands of refugees who have fled the fighting. They agreed to intensify efforts to cut off the flow of foreign fighters going to Syria to join the various factions there and to reduce flow of money to the Islamic State and other extremist groups. But none of that is really new. The only new military action that came up—establishing a “no-fly zone” over part of Syria to protect civilians there from government air strikes—was ruled out once again by Deputy White House National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes.

“We’ve said we are open to evaluating different options inside of Syria,” Rhodes told reporters. “But we have not seen a no-fly zone as being a viable option that can contribute to essentially changing decisively the situation on the ground given the nature of the fighting that’s taking place in urban areas and across the country.”.

In fairness to the Camp David participants, they were at the meeting primarily to discuss Iran, and there was not much they could offer on the war in Syria because none of them wants to insert military forces on the ground. Without that, what happens in Syria is not entirely or even mostly up to the United States and its friends in the GCC. There are multiple rebel groups with varying sources of external support, in addition to the fighters of the Islamic State (ISIS or IS), which has no interest in reestablishing a peaceful Syria within its recognized borders because it considers itself a transnational “caliphate,” or Islamic nation. Iran is supporting Assad, its only Arab ally, and the roles of Turkey and Russia are not entirely clear. The Turks have advocated a no-fly zone but have been reluctant to do anything that would encourage Kurdish independence.

Moreover, the communiqué issued at the end of the Camp David session made clear that the search for a solution is still hampered by a lack of clarity about the objectives of the United States, the Gulf Countries, and other supporters of the coalition air campaign against the Islamic state. Is this war about removing the Assad regime and establishing some legitimate, recognized government of Syria, or is it about defeating IS? If the latter, Assad is on the same side as those who declared once again at Camp David that he is part of the problem and cannot be part of the solution. Without clearly defined, clearly articulated objectives, without a common understanding of who is an acceptable Syrian and who is not, it remains a task beyond diplomacy to devise an effective course of action.

The upshot is that the Syrian nightmare seems destined to continue indefinitely. As long as it does, it will remain a threat to the stability of the entire region. Lebanon and Jordan in particular are sheltering more refugees than their resources can support. With the conflicts in Libya and Yemen still unresolved and the Israel-Palestine question seemingly further from resolution than ever, and Egypt—the Arab world’s largest and most powerful country in military terms—seemingly neutered by its own economic, political and security problems, there is no end in sight for the Middle East’s seemingly endless conflicts.

Thomas Lippman

Thomas W. Lippman is a Washington-based author and journalist who has written about Middle Eastern affairs and American foreign policy for more than four decades, specializing in Saudi Arabian affairs, U.S.- Saudi relations, and relations between the West and Islam. He is a former Middle East bureau chief of the Washington Post, and also served as that newspaper's oil and energy reporter. Throughout the 1990s, he covered foreign policy and national security for the Post, traveling frequently to Saudi Arabia and other countries in the Middle East. In 2003 he was the principal writer on the war in Iraq for Prior to his work in the Middle East, he covered the Vietnam war as the Washington Post's bureau chief in Saigon. Lippman has authored seven books about the Middle East and U.S. foreign policy. He is also an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington, where he serves as the principal media contact on Saudi Arabia and U.S. – Saudi relations.



  1. Question
    If Obama and the Gulf despots agree there can be no military solution, why are they pursuing military solutions in Syria?
    Because they enjoy meddling in other countries’ affairs even though they have no right to do so, and they especially enjoy attacking Syria because it is an Iran ally, and so it must be destroyed.
    If these outsiders (to Syria) agree on the form and content of a future Syria government, why should we care what their opinion is?
    We shouldn’t care because they have no business with Syria’s future, and because when they have meddled the results have been disastrous – Afghanistan, Libya, Somalia, Yemen, Iraq etc.– the Middle East endless conflicts primarily caused by the United States and its allies. But the US policy is to create instability, so it will go on.

  2. The solution of Syria’s was is in Turkey. Simply because Qatar are not neighbors to Syria while Turkey is. These countries using the Islamist mercenaries as the militias they use as substitutes to their army they don’t have or do not want to send to fight. These Islamist militias are getting their logistical support and their weapons almost exclusively from Turkey.
    If Turkey gets into a turmoil through internal unrest or high level assassinations, it will be obliged to decrease its support to the Islamist militias and these would collapse.
    Therefore the only way to stop the war in Syria is to render Turkey impotent. Therefore I believe anti-Turkey intelligences will be using the critical June election in Turkey to create as much turmoil as possible in Turkey with the hope it will shake the AKP regime and destroy Erdogan’s image of a leader in control of his country.
    There are a lot of conflicts brewing in Turkey already and they will peak a few days before the elections..
    If Turkey’s power falls, Syria will be left off the hook and may recover.

  3. @ Virgile: “These Islamist militias are getting their logistical support and their weapons almost exclusively from Turkey.”

    The northern front gets weapons *through* Turkey but the weapons are supplied by the Saudis, Qatar, and the U.S. There is a second supply route from Saudi Arabia, through Iraq and Jordan for the southern front.

    It really looks to me that instability — rather than victory — is the U.S. goal. which serves to block construction of the Iran-Iraq-Syria Friendship oil pipeline and keeps Russian and Iranian military assets tied up.

  4. @Virgile
    Yes, Turkey, but who’s backing Turkey. U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens’ last appointment in Benghazi was with the Turkish ambassador, and about that time a ship went from Benghazi to Turkey with arms.
    There is a sort of parallel between Turkey-Syria and Pakistan-Afghanistan. While not true in all aspects, the situations are similar. The US supports Pakistan and Turkey, who have loose borders with neighboring states fighting insurgents, Afghanistan and Syria. And therefore the fights endure. (At least in the Levant the U.S is supporting a fight that favors it, unlike its stupid involvement in Afghanistan where it is working against itself.)

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