David L. Phillips on Peacebuilding and Policy-Making

As the Islamic State continues its attacks in Iraq, Syria and now France, Columbia News asked professors from a number of disciplines to evaluate the threats posed by the group. David L. Phillips is the director of Columbia’s Program in Peace-building and Human Rights. He is a former senior adviser to the United Nations and U.S. State Department.

Adam Piore
November 18, 2015
David Phillips

Q. Is a negotiated settlement in Syria possible?

A. Yes, but only after shaping the battlefield and giving the combatants reason to negotiate. Under current conditions there is no prospect for a political dialogue. The U.S. can lead by working with friendly parties in Syria, namely the Syrian Kurds, and some of the moderate Syrian opposition.

Q. How successful have the U.S. and its allies been in creating a viable moderate opposition force?

A. It’s been a dismal failure. The political opposition spends its time in five star hotels and has little influence over fighters in the field. The U.S. has spent a lot of money trying to train the so-called moderate Syrian opposition, without any results. Our biggest shortcoming in Syria was the failure to recognize and then support—militarily and diplomatically— the People’s Protection Forces of the PYD [Syria’s Democratic Union Party, run by Syrian Kurds]. They are the only group that has shown any capability of confronting and defeating ISIS.

Q. Wouldn’t the Turkish government have a problem with such a plan? They have been working to suppress Kurdish opposition next door for years.

A. The U.S. shouldn’t give Turkey a veto over its policies in the region. Beginning in 2012, Turkey was collaborating with jihadi groups including ISIS. Only recently did Turkey declare its willingness to work with NATO and the multinational coalition. Ankara finally agreed to let the coalition use the Incirlik Air Base near the Syrian border. Turns out that Turkey was really interested in joining the counterterrorism campaign so it could attack the PKK [a Kurdish militant group that has been struggling for greater political and cultural rights over 30 years.] There’s not much difference between Turkey’s AKP government and the ideology of ISIS. When Turkey’s deputy prime minister says that women shouldn’t smile or laugh in public because it’s wrong to attract attention to themselves, you expect that coming from Baghdadi [the self-declared caliph of the Islamic State].

Q. How seriously are U.S. policymakers taking the Kurds and this possibility?

A. There was a report earlier this week that we were going to be giving them ammunition and maybe weapons so they could establish a buffer across the Syrian border with Turkey. U.S. assistance will be measured by its actions, not its words.

Q. What are your thoughts on recent Russian actions?

A. Russia has jumped into a quagmire. It is not going to defeat the Sunni Arab population militarily. The only way to make peace is through negotiations. Putin is not interested in a political negotiation, he’s interested in supporting Assad and projecting Russian power and military force. Syria will prove to be Putin’s Waterloo.

Q. This war has been going on for some time. What has prompted the current refugee crisis?

A. Turkey is at capacity. It is creating conditions so that refugees leave Turkey and go to Greece and other destinations in Europe. If you don’t have any prospect where you are and you can’t go home, refugees are going to look to Europe, and Germany in particular.

Q. What should the U.S. and Europe be doing?

A. This is the largest humanitarian crisis in recent memory. It won’t be solved by by providing tents and blankets. The root of this conflict is a security crisis. A more robust military response will be needed to compel the parties to negotiate.

Q. What’s it going to take to get there?

A. More pain, and a reconfigured battlefield. In some ways, this is happening because of Russia’s engagement. But the U.S. has to step up and do more to support Syrian Kurds and moderate Sunni Arabs. The U.S. has always been a force for good in the world. Principled pro-active leadership is needed. No more leading from behind.