Strange New Turns. Where are We Going Now on Syria? The Russian Connection, Other Options or Dead-end?

Meeting in MoscowQuotes:

Secretary Kerry with President Putin in Moscow May 7, 2013:

“And Mr. President, as you know better than anybody, there are enormous challenges today that require the same level of cooperation, and I’m very happy that our professionals are working together now to work to deal with some of the issues of the bombing that took place in Boston, and we thank you for that cooperation.

And Mr. President, I bring you President Obama’s greetings. He related to me the substance of his conversations with you, for which he was very grateful, and he is looking forward to seeing you on the side of the G-8 in Ireland and would reiterate that there are many issues – economic, economic cooperation, the challenges of North Korea, Iran, Syria, and many other issues – of which he believes that we could cooperate very significantly.

And finally, Mr. President, I know that we’ll have a chance to talk about it seriously in a few moments, but we really believe, the United States believes, that we share some very significant common interests with respect to Syria – stability in the region, not having extremists creating problems throughout the region and elsewhere – and I think we have both embraced in the Geneva communique a common approach. So it’s my hope that today we’ll be able to dig into that a little bit and see if we can find the common ground. And the President – President Obama particularly feels that cooperation between Russia and the United States with respect to economic issues is something that would be of enormous benefit to both, and Russia’s leadership is so key on so many of those issues. We look forward to working with you.”

There has been a heightened debate among American pundits, foreign policy experts, and security experts with a flood of editorials and op-ed pages over intervention in Syria. Quite a few of those who urged for our entry into Iraq with disastrous results seem to be in the same channel again urging our military intervention. Some call for “boots on the ground” while others support supplying weapons, targeted bombings, creating a “no-fly zone” and other more robust military assistance.

Others for good and bad reasons seek a “do nothing” stance by America. Many of these remember only too well past costly American wars most notably Vietnam and Iraq. Some are simply right wing isolationists, and hope for a failure by Obama; while others believe the U.S. will do more damage and more harm would result from any engagement.

Still others seek various kinds of direct intervention short of “boots on the ground” for laudable humanitarian reasons and for larger regional strategic reasons. They especially desire to establish a multilateral coalition acting with enhanced support and involvement with the rebel umbrella National Coalition in ensuring a peaceful outcome for Syria. In my opinion this will require at the very least, efforts to maintain security for the civilian population in post Assad Syria and a measure of economic progress. This clearly requires difficult and major diplomatic efforts.

I do not share the views of the isolationists nor those who would simply put “boots on the ground” and urge kinetic efforts without any thought of the “end game,” costs, or willingness to put the resources into an effective effort to shape a truly peaceful and stable outcome.  Again my view is for a peacekeeping/peacemaking multilateral intervention with real robust powers and mediation elements that include a rebuilding of the devastation and putting young males to work at once and getting rid of the outside “warriors.”     

There seems now to be a growing consensus among decision makers that more needs to be done in the face of the 70,000 deaths and the real possible danger of a regional conflagration with widespread sectarian killings and upheavals. The added element is that the view that “doing nothing” will exacerbate the likely outcome of further mass killings when Assad falls.    

In this context the Obama administration seems to now have a dual approach of utilizing the diplomacy tool as exemplified by the effort of Secretary Kerry to draw Russia and others into a conference on Syria and to seek cooperation rather than mindless intransigence and opposition on the part of the Kremlin. This initiative and conference was announced on May 7th and the hope now is for a meeting this month.  (See press statement)

Along with this diplomatic tract, the U.S. in my view has now also decided to add new sticks as well as carrots and certain military tools into the mix with some of our key allies in the “friends of Syria” group and NATO. 

The outreach to Russia is based upon the argument that Russia and the West have common interests in not letting the upheavals and conflict in Syria spread in an arc from Iran to Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, and Israel and further along the coast of the Mediterranean.  Another common interest would be that neither Obama nor Putin would want an ascendant and dominant al Qaeda element controlling Syria after Assad. Nor for that matter having Hezbollah or even Iran be enmeshed in a stronger position to play a destabilizing role.

The outreach to Russia could still prove elusive and the Russians could be playing a dishonest game of delay and continue to send support to Assad as Iran is also doing. We all hope this is not the case as there are larger interests at stake between Russia and America.   

Secretary Kerry seems to be making just such a diplomatic effort and seeking a meeting of interested states to establish peace finally. But, I suspect he is also working on other options should it not succeed. Yes, there are no “good” options, nor those that have no costs, but we must acknowledge that “doing nothing” may now bring the worst outcome. No action can only lead to added tragedy and conflict throughout the region and perhaps beyond.

3 thoughts on “Strange New Turns. Where are We Going Now on Syria? The Russian Connection, Other Options or Dead-end?

  1. Harry Blaney May 18, 2013 / 8:38 PM

    As an up-date, the Russians are providing new anti-ship missiles for the Syrian regime and American leaders have noted the danger of this. General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said: “It is at the very least an unfortunate decision which will embolden the regime and prolong the suffering.”

    Given this action and the statements coming out of Moscow, it puts into question how serious the Russians are in pushing for a successful Geneva conference that aims for a June date to seek an end of the conflict and put in place possibly an alternative government. Ban Ki-Moon met with President Putin and urged him to support the peace conference and we think to also urge restraint by Russia. The Syrian opposition has denounced this provision of weapons to the Assad regime and asked for weapons help from the West and others. There are reports that some Arab states have increased their support but in some cases for the more extreme fighting groups.

    While Assad forces have made some progress against the opposition most experts think neither side will win fully and the danger is the further spreading of the conflict beyond the border of Syria. The introduction of Iranian armed units, and Hezbollah fighters and arms in addition to Russian armaments has change the situation on the ground. I believe it is at least an effort to give Assad a strong position to stall opposition efforts to remove him at the Geneva conference — if it now even takes place.

  2. Harry Blaney May 14, 2013 / 1:23 PM

    Robert, asks the right questions but there are no sure answers to his questions just many unknowns and lots of risks for any approach.

    The new discussions between President Obama and Secretary Kerry with Putin may help move the “diplomatic option” more forward and we will know in the coming weeks but getting the Assad regime and the oppostion to the table together will be a difficult task but it is worth a try given the other alternatives.

    Clearly, the President Obama and Prime Minister David Cameron meeting in the White House this week shows the desire to do more on the part of the UK (but not “boots on the ground”) in Syria while Obama has increase our engagement recently and plans more assistance….he remains cautious of giving military weapons. But the reality and the actual “game changer” is recent increase in Iranian, Hezbollah, and possibly Russian military assistance including long range weapons. This may be the reason for reports of combat gains by the Assad regime.

    The question these remains as Robert notes can we make a difference and save lives and help create a more peaceful and secure outcome for all of the Syrian people and reduce the spread of sectarian conflict in the entire region? Again getting a multilateral peace keeping and mediation force on the ground early and major economic assistance is an option that needs support and now! More on these developments on RNS blog!

  3. Robert Lamoree May 9, 2013 / 9:20 AM

    Is a peaceful settlement to the Syrian crisis in our national Interest? Of course it is! Are ‘boots on the ground’ in our national interest? If we presume that would bring peace, that loss of life would be minimal, that in the end everyone would be happy and kindly disposed to the U.S. and our effort . . . it would. But what are the chances of that happening? What are the chances of any of that happening might be a better question. If history is any kind of an indicator, dividends from the ‘boots on the ground’ approach are few.

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