Harry C. Blaney III
The Geneva II Conference on Syria has started and the atmospherics were contentious and quarrelsome. Critics of any diplomatic effort have made a heyday of all of this posturing by the contending sides. Yet, the meeting should continue its work and we need to support Secretary John Kerry in his difficult task as any positive outcome is better than the prospect of years more of unmitigated carnage and not relief for the threatened civilian population. Sadly as if this writing, there is still lack of agreement on a realistic intervention of humanitarian aid, especially for Homs and the area of Aleppo, despite verbal assurance from the Syrian regime. This may indicate that Assad is more aiming to gain via killing his people than working for some kind of “deal.” Failure, here will mean a more serious consideration of alternatives and that itself may mean progress.
But given the nature of this bitter and horrific inter-communal conflict and especially now that the regime in Geneva seems to be playing a public relations game rather than seeking either short or long-term solutions, the dialogue among the powers involved for new “solutions” may have already begin.
One good result, even given the present difficulties, is just getting all these actors into one place and forcing them to interact and perhaps also for the divided opposition to be forced to develop a concerted position on the way forward and learn to work better together. It is good that some elements of the in Syria fighting groups have sent representatives.
The recent New York Times Editorial made the key point that “It is well past time to say enough” to more civilian deaths – and exactly the right time for a cease-fire and secure deliveries of humanitarian supplies.” Already there are indications that at and after Geneva II other options will have to be considered. The combative stance by the Assad regime who’s representative at the conference made clear than Assad will not stand down only reinforced this sense that other diplomatic strategies will be needed if Geneva II proves bereft of real accomplishments. This was to be expected of the Assad regime given that he believes he has a military advantage in this civil war.
The recent news of mass torture and deaths by the Syrian government indicate a strategy of win or die at any cost. Therefore other external and internal factors and influences need to come into play to get to a long term peaceful and agreed broad based new government in Syria.
We should use the Geneva II conference and aftermath as a means of going beyond just a promised temporary and limited cease fire, which remains questionable given the regime’s history of lying and disregarding its own promises on this score. The time has come to impose some external meaningful pressure by the international community on the actors for a broad agreement on the way forward.
We need a “plan B” which should include developing a consensus among at least the real “Friends of Syria,” NATO nations, and the Arab League to establish a “cordon sanitair” of sanctions against the regime and propose an armed international peacekeeping force. That multilateral force would create a “no war” secured humanitarian zone for safety of civilians and for supplying, without Syrian government barriers, supplies to the starving and at risk millions that have been displaced, bombed out, injured, and are refugees. This might fulfill the UN mandate of the ‘responsibility to protect.”
Frankly, I believe that the early creditable threat of a robust “Plan B plus,” if Geneva II collapses without any real progress that stops the mass killings, may give an inducement for all sides to work for some kind of effective cease fire and perhaps the actual goal of the Geneva meeting to establish an alternative transitional new government made of all groups. This strategy would have some risks and problems. The key problem is that some kind of new significant external and internal force would be required for Assad to stand down and permit a broad settlement to be crated.
American and allied diplomacy needs at this point to get what can be gotten in terms of any humanitarian actions by all parties. Cease fires, confidence building measures and refugee and displaced person immediate assistance. But even this now looks hard. But the need is to extend Geneva II and beyond to the creation of a set of conditions that in effect would force a broad long-term agreement of what everyone has termed an inclusive “transitional government,” and not least create the on the ground conditions that prevent the continuation of inter-communal bloodshed and insecurity. There has to be some kind of “guarantee”for all that this will take place and that they will be safe and have a place in the new government.
To accomplish this goal would probably require a number of specific steps.
Establishment of a “cordon sanitair” by our allies in this conflict which would stop the supply of weapons and military supplies to the Assad regime, backed by sanctions and a “no fly zone.” Financial sanctions would need to be introduced that would impact on Assad’s capacity to fund his regime and his war.
An armed robust international peacekeeping force along with the forced “deactivation” of Assad’s armed air force capacity could help turn the tide. The other requirement would be for a number of key countries to legally recognize a new Syrian government made of a all key opposition parties and some creditable representatives of groups that so far have been associated with the Assad regime including the Alawites/Shiites and Christians.
Also foreign governments that have been financing the most radical and Islamist groups that have been brutalizing Syrian civilians and fighting other moderate opposition groups, need to stand down on their support and throw their efforts into a broader workable coalition of responsible opposition elements. Here American diplomacy of both carrots and sticks may be necessary.
A “no-fly” humanitarian zone can and should be created both to protect refugee camps in border states and over a designated “humanitarian zone” and key corridors in Syrian regions largely in the hands of the Syrian mainline opposition. That opposition must agree to recognize the international peacekeeping authority and cooperate with it.
The international force would have to make sure also that the opposition forces do not attack or brutalize civilians especially those associated with the government. All ethnic groups would need to be protected.
Critically, we need to use this conference time to finally get a handle on the divided opposition and moderate armed opposition and work to create an alternative recognized government to include also the Sunni, Christian, and yes the Shiites/Alawites. This will require a fair amount of use of not only leveraged persuasion and not a little use of carrots. The deal would have to be one that they could not turn down. Russia will remain a problem but with the possible failure of Geneva II which they backed, they remain naked and exposed in their polities and support of Assad. Simply put they did not deliver the “deal” they said was on offer.
One of the biggest issues is the fear of by some of dragging America into another Middle East morass. This is not the reality since such decision and choices are in reality in America’s own hands, and the leaders today recognize the perils, as against in the Bush days. America does not have to have fighting troops on the ground in any of this. But America does need to commit resources, logistics, training, and intelligence help which would suffice.
But a creditable “Plan B” might also convince first, the Russians and hopefully the Arab League to not oppose, and second, the Sunni opposition and even in the end the Alawites and Shiites that this option brings peace and a better outcome for all than continued horrific war for years and years. There is still a very hard and complex road ahead, with problems with Russia, Iran, Turkey, some of the Gulf States and Arab league, and also for NATO countries and others to commit to a “peacekeeping/making” mission. None expected this effort to be easy, not least Kerry and Obama, but not to still try is morally unthinkable and irresponsible.
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