Having just come back from two weeks in the UK observing foreign policy debates, there seem to be two conflicting schools of strategy both in the United States and in Europe over policy and intervention in Syria. For example, in the International Herald Tribune on June 12, Javier Solana and Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, both former NATO Secretaries General, along with James Carroll in a different op-ed titled “Stay out of Syria” of the same date, present their “solutions” but show their own conundrums and limitations. They do not fully address the question of the consequences of no action or failure of Geneva II conference – which is the only option supported by the former NATO officials.
On the other hand, the position of some of the “hawks” on both sides of the Atlantic think a “full court press” of arms for the rebels, a no fly zone, and other direct support (not yet “boots on the ground”) are our best options. Many sadly predict that the Geneva Conference will not likely produce a viable solution.
Neither of these two extreme positions, as I have argued previously, provide outcomes that are likely to either end the massive blood bath or provide long-term security for the people of Syria or peace for the region. They are either empty of content and understanding, or they are filled with too much reliance on simple use of military force.
We are faced with a continued civil war that has cost more than 80,000 lives and will likely cost many more unless some “solid” solution is found. I believe that “staying out” is not a solution, and will simply lead to ever more carnage and spread of conflict throughout the Middle East. Putting of all our options and hopes on Geneva II, as suggested by Solana/Scheffer, also risks more endless carnage should Geneva II fail, which in fact is quite possible. The simple “more war” option also is a “dead end.”
There must be an alternative strategy, or the world will see human butchery continue and spread. What could happen if Assad gains victory with the arms of Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah? In this case, absent of international intervention, we will see the continuation of a kind of unopposed killing of the opposition and inter-communal revenge, which will light a flame of conflict between Sunni and Shiite Muslims throughout the region. Yes, diplomacy is our best option, but it needs to be combined with “smart power” also.
Geneva II should be tried, but the West and the Arab “Friends of Syria” need to be ready with “Plan B” to act by supporting the moderate rebels, and making their intentions clear in order to give the Russians and Assad the incentive to compromise and find a peaceful transition.
Thus, President Obama’s announcement that the U.S. will provide small arms, ammunition, and other assistance to moderate rebel groups provides some leverage towards getting Assad to come to the table, which he will not have if he thanks he can win, on the fields of battle, despite the bloodshed.
One test of the Geneva option will be the talks that UK Prime Minister David Cameron held with President Putin this week-end, the meeting of Putin and Obama this week ,and the wider talks at the on going G-8 meeting in Northern Ireland.
The problem is that Europe is divided on the issue of providing just arms, let alone sending in troops. In the U.K., despite Cameron’s push for arming the rebels, his own Tory party is divided with a likely majority against doing so, his coalition partners the Liberal Democrats are strongly against it, and most of the Labour Party MPs are also probably opposed.
Cameron seems to have also promised to have a House of Commons vote on the matter at some stage. One of Cameron’s officials, involved in drawing up Syrian strategy, was reported in The Mail on Sunday of June 16th, to have said: “The one certainty is that, if nothing is done, not only will lives be lost, not only will Assad not negotiate, but we will also not stop radicalisation.” This quote probably gives us a concise insight into the some of UK top level perspective on Syria.
Even France, the other nation supporting the option to supply arms, is divided fiercely on this question and Germany is firmly against as are other nations. The irony is that both the Brits and the French are working to reduce their already meager defense budgets but asking their military to do more! There is a fight going on at this moment on the proposed British defense budget cuts.
I doubt that just giving small arms alone will make that great a difference without a wider set of options and a long-term strategy. But it does give a bit of leverage for talks and defending Syrian areas under the opposition, especially if the “Friends of Syria”make clear that they are willing to do more to remove Assad and create a new broad based and responsible new government.
But the problem is that Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah are providing not only outside fighters, but major arms and air defense and offense systems. The implication of Europeans, Arab states, and the U.S. giving small arms is that if our minimum policy is to not permit the opposition to be destroyed and Assad to be removed from power, then more either diplomatically or via military action or both will be required. Geneva II will likely be the dividing line between a negotiated solution or use of stronger measures by all sides. Let’s hope that the Russians see the wisdom of diplomacy and are willing, as will be necessary, to see Assad go. That remains only still a problematic hope especially since Russia has just said it will not allow a no-fly zone. Putin’s real goals remain obscure, but still mostly confrontational.
The “Friends of Syria” and others committed to security and peace in the Middle East will do well to adapt a long-term strategy and the necessary resources and complex set of tools and the determination to see it through. It will require seeing the Syrian conflict through a wide angle and dealing with the many difficult elements in the Middle East that are fueling this now growing clearly Sunni-Shia struggle.
My suggestion again is to have a strong broad international robust peacekeeping/peacemaking force to stop the killing of civilians and permit large scale humanitarian help within Syria and to help create security for all groups within the country. This requires working diplomatically to heal the growing divisions and long standing upheavals in the region. It is a large but necessary task, and one we may not be quite up to if narrow and partisan elements insist on narrow or conflict only solutions.