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U.S. Sends Civilian Team to Syria to Help the Displaced Return Home

“It is a minimalist approach that should be adequate to get them through the first few weeks, but beyond that, there are going to be problems that may require a more substantial effort,” said James F. Dobbins, who served as a special envoy to Afghanistan, Somalia, Haiti and the Balkans.

The decision to send the team into the combat zone followed extensive deliberations in the American government about security, with memories still fresh about the 2012 attack on United States diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, an attack that led to the deaths of the United States ambassador, J. Christopher Stevens, and three other Americans. The roughly 1,000 American troops already in Syria will help protect the civilian team against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS.

“Our efforts in post-ISIS areas will be strictly focused on stabilization and thus meeting the immediate needs of civilians in order to enable them to return home and to prevent the return of ISIS,” the State Department said in a statement on Thursday in response to a request for comment. “The efforts are limited to the provision of humanitarian assistance, clearing explosive remnants of war, and the restoration of essential services.”

Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, pointed to the need for a broader civilian mission, suggesting in remarks this week that it include “an ongoing effort, led by the State Department, to put together a governance body so that as soon as Raqqa is seized, there is effective local governance.”

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, in testimony last week before Congress, said the administration did not yet have “a fully fleshed out” strategy for maintaining stability in Syria and Iraq after the Islamic State is defeated.

Mr. Mattis said he was consulting with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on a larger strategy that includes both diplomatic and military components. “His diplomats are literally serving alongside us in Syria right now with our officers who are in that fight,” Mr. Mattis told the House Armed Services Committee. “So I am confident it’s being put together. It’s not complete yet.”

A State Department officer has rotated through Syria over the past 18 months, reporting on the political situation in the accompanying United States Special Operations forces who are advising American-backed Syrian Arab and Kurdish fighters combating the Islamic State. As those militias have reclaimed towns and villages in eastern Syria in recent months, and are now poised to recapture Raqqa, the Islamic State’s self-declared capital, in the coming months, a sense of urgency has grown about addressing post-conflict priorities, including ensuring governance and providing aid to more than 400,000 civilians in the Raqqa province that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has cited as in need.

The looming problems in Syria are daunting. Unlike in Iraq, there is no functioning government or security force in the predominantly Arab areas that the American-backed fighters are about to take back from the Islamic State.

“In Iraq, you have got a police force and court system, which are not perfect but at least exist,” said Mr. Dobbins. “In Syria, there is no comparable authority to whom you can hand off these problems.”

Adding to the challenge, neither the United States nor other nations are eager to commit significant funds to reconstructing a Syria that is run by President Bashar al-Assad. Nor is the United States interested is remaining as an occupying power as it did for years in Iraq.

Another consideration, said Linda Robinson, a senior international policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, is that a major civilian American presence to advise on the governance of newly liberated area might provoke a backlash.

“That is not a country that we control,” she said. “This is stabilization light. We do not have, nor do we intend to get control of the place, which would enable us to move and do these state-building activities.


A Kurdish fighter in Raqqa. Militias are poised to take the city from the Islamic State. Credit Goran Tomasevic/Reuters

“What is also very important to understand is what is the tolerance of the Syrian government for the U.S. to go in and do these activities,” Ms. Robinson continued. “There have been increasing tensions with the regime, with the Iranians and with the Russians and the possibility that we are backing into a war with the Assad government and its backers.”

Yet the United States and its allies also do not want Raqqa to fall into chaos that the Islamic State and other militants could exploit.

“The vital question is whether law and order will be re-established because if it isn’t, ISIS will be back in some form,” said Daniel Serwer, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, who has experience in Iraq and the Balkans.

“It is terribly small,” Mr. Serwer said of the State Department deployment of specialists. “You need more than that just to talk with people, never mind do things. It is at least a recognition that there are civilian tasks that have to be fulfilled after you liberate the place. To be vital for success, it will have to grow.”

American officials said the team will include experts from the Agency for International Development as well as the political officer who has been with Special Operations forces. It will draw on hundreds of millions that have been appropriated to support programs in Syria.

One immediate focus for the group will be removing improvised explosive devices, tasks that will be carried out by contractors who will also train local Syrians. But the team will also organize efforts to restore services and provide humanitarian assistance.

The State Department will not have the mission of training and advising local police, as it did after the American invasion of Iraq. Syrians trained and vetted by the American military will serve as a transitional security force.

To maintain a small American civilian footprint in a war zone, contractors funded by the United States government will not be allowed to have American citizens working inside Syria.

American officials said they would welcome similar civilian efforts by foreign nations and are exploring the possibility.

Source: NYT > World

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