SYRIA – WITH OR WITHOUT THE “GAS DEAL” THE FUNDAMENTAL ELEMENTS OF THE CONFLICT HAVE YET TO BE ADDRESSED. UNCERTAINTY AND KILLING REMAIN.
Harry C. Blaney III
The advent of the most recent agreement between Russia and the United States on dealing with poison gas highlights the unpredictability of the Syrian crisis and also the continued uncertainty of its final ending. The poison gas deal remains highly unpredictable in terms of its goals and whether it will either work in the end or do much to change the horrific killing that continues. This is a time for some deeper thought and new creative efforts to end not just dangerous banned gas but the brutal killing and putting in place some semblance of security for the Syrian people.
It is a plus for both President Obama and especially for Secretary John Kerry if the gas is controlled and destroyed according to the outline of the still vague agreement in Geneva. Unfortunately or fortunately it is a plus even for President Putin if he gets to keep Assad in power and prevent American intervention. Both sides say they want the Syrian gas that is dangerous to all at least destroyed.
This game has so many levels and complexity that trying to see the path towards a resolution of the conflict itself seems still dim and chancy.
The “postponement” or “ceasing” of an attack on Syria’s military capabilities means essentially going from one uncertainty into another. Sadly, no path to a resolution of the fundamental conflict is in sight let alone in hand. The problem of support for any meaningful action remains weak and citizens, political parties, and experts remain highly divided on which action or inaction should be America’s choice. The right word is that the U.S. and our NATO allies are conflicted on what to do. Bad news for effective action, perhaps good for careful decision-making.
Obama has gotten also blame for both trying to act and for not doing what is need to stop the killing and get Assad out. Frankly, my sympathy is with him on the difficult options he has if not my agreement with some of his tactics and lack of clarity and frankness on his long-term strategy and goals. But I also know that a boxer does not telegraph his punches.
This is a field of battle and acts of diplomacy each filled with un-intended consequences. Attacking only Assad’s poison gas and delivery and making capabilities, had one set of problems. And the forced hiatus of the Geneva Agreement between he U.S. and Russia creates another set of conditions which greatly limits the immediate range of kinetic and even diplomatic options on the realistic table to Obama and our allies. There are so many “conditions’ in the agreement that tie the hands of America and its allies for a inordinate period of time. One element of this “accord” is helping Assad continued at even higher levels the killing of more civilians which reportedly, in the last 7 days reached the horrific highs of 1,000. This leaves the opposition forces hanging and angry at us as well as many of our allies in the region. But the pressue on Obama by his critics and from Congress put him frankly in a box too small to act with strength.
Diplomacy should aim primarily at stopping mass killing and finding a set of agreements which will create a durable peace and security for the people in Syria and those countries that are now on the front lines. This goal seems to have been lost in the focus on the poisoned gas question which, by itself, is laudable but solves little for the people on the ground or for reconciliation and security for Syria and the clash in the region between the Shia and Sunni which has been exacerbated by the Syria conflict. We should not be blaming Obama for taking up this option as it would have been irresponsible to try, but in the process it puts our best “stick” away when it is still needed to gain a comprehensive settlement and it gave impetus to the Syrian regime to increase its mass killing.
It would have been better to have demanded a cease fire until the end of the year while inspectors carried out their tasks of securing the poison gas and also provided for humanitarian assistance freed of the danger of attack by any side. Perhaps this was discussed but if the Russian refused, it would have proved either their malicious intentions or limited leverage over Assad and his cronies. That last is dangerous to any progress.
Further, and importantly, the insertion of inspectors and perhaps necessary international security forces to protect them, might lead to a wider insertion of international peacekeeping/peace enforcement troops aimed at the goal of establishing some “peace space” and at least a cease fire. If the agreement goes to the UN Security Council one wild hope would be to also authorize a U.N. protection force to both safeguard the inspectors and also to secure the poison gas sites from attack including from radical jihadists and creating wide “safe-zones” around the sites. But that is perhaps too much to ask given the fragility of the agreement already. However, who is going to protect the people going into a war zone?
Here are the harsh realities, while everyone wants the killing to stop, but if we do nothing it will not stop and the killing will continue. That is a decision. The issue is not to either act or not act, in either case our choice will impact on the lives of the Syrian people. If we and others do not act, we will be implicated in the horrors that follow. If the killing continues it will likely spread throughout the Middle East in sectarian conflict which will have few bounds and destabilize many nations in the region which is already experiencing increased violence.
The real question is what action can we take NOW to not only halt the use of poison gas but of the mass killing we are seeing AND help put in place a new government representing all groups and able, with the help of robust multilateral peacekeepers and monitors, to help create room for negotiations and reconciliation.
The imperative is to act, and the lessen of the recent Geneva Agreement which even Obama and Kerry said was due to the threat of force, may require again the threat or use of international force to make all sides see the wisdom of peace with security. President Obama does need an end game of a path towards both getting rid of Assad and of creating a new broad and responsible governance. Even Russia one day might think this is in its interests.
That will take a lot of diplomacy, and both carrots and sticks. It will take also time and real resources. It must be done in a way to minimize deaths but we are seeing now a maximum level of cruel butchery which the international community must stop. Frankly, we are de facto the only actor that can lead such an effort, but we are tied down by our corrosive politics and recent war history and a recession hit and war weary citizenry.