SYRIA UP-DATE: AFTER GENEVA II, THEN WHAT?
Harry C. Blaney III
President Obama in Washington during the visit of France’s president Hollande, has said that he was fairly pessimistic about progress in gaining peace and a transitional government in Syria. There are indications that the administration is engaged somewhat in new thinking about the Syrian conflict problem. But Obama indicated that use of military force was not at the top of options.
Meeting in Washington, U.S. President Barack Obama and French President Francois Hollande criticized Russian aims to block the resolution. Hollande said, “Why would you prevent the vote of a resolution if, in good faith, it is all about saving human lives?”
Obama said the U.S. isn’t moving closer to taking military action in Syria even with the stalemate in the fighting and concerns about missed deadlines on chemical weapons destruction. Specifically, he noted at a joint news conference with French President Francois Hollande in the East Room of the White House: “We still have a horrendous situation on the ground in Syria.” He added that the state of Syria is “crumbling” and “extremists have moved into the vacuum in a way that could threaten us over the long term.”
While saying he reserves the right to use military force, Obama said that “right now we don’t think that there’s a military solution, per se, to the problem.” At the news conference Obama called Russia a “holdout” and accused it of complicity in the Syrian regime’s policy of starving cities. “They cannot say that they are concerned about the well-being of the Syrian people when they are starving civilians, and that it is not just the Syrians that are responsible, the Russians, as well, if they are blocking this kind of resolution,” Obama said.
On the diplomatic front, The U.S. supports the new draft UN Security Council resolution because it is clear that prior efforts aren’t yielding the needed progress.
Yet, the reality is that the U.S. and also France, Britain, and other key involved allied states are in a odd of state of denial of on the ground realities but also in a true conundrum about what is possible, likely outcomes and risks of using either military resources or a concerted series of “sticks” like new sanctions and denial to the Assad regime of access to funds and military imports.
Some insight into administration thinking was revealed in a White House briefing at the time of the Holland visit. The briefing was by a “Senior Administration Official” but the views are authoritative: He said, “Well, on Syria, I think what we have sought to do is work on a number of lines of effort with countries like France that share a common view of the situation with us. One is how can we increase humanitarian assistance that can reach the Syrian people? And the U.S. is the single largest donor of humanitarian aid, but we also work with other countries to make sure that we are meeting humanitarian requirements articulated by the U.N., and that different countries are providing different types of assistance that meet the greatest needs inside of Syria.
“We’ve also been talking with the French and others about steps that the U.N. Security Council can continue to take to promote humanitarian access inside of Syria. I’m sure that will be an area of discussion.
“We’ve also worked with the French to coordinate our support for the moderate opposition within Syria. And we obviously provide a range of support, as well as a number of other countries that have worked together over the course of the last year or so. And so, I think discussing how we can work together to strengthen a more moderate opposition, both to be a counterpoint, obviously, to the Assad regime, but also to isolate extremist elements inside of Syria that could ultimately pose a threat to France and the United States as well. So I’m sure we’ll discuss how do we continue to support that moderate opposition.
“That’s directly relevant to the Geneva II process, because that opposition has come to the table quite constructively in Geneva II. And as we work through that process towards a transitional governing authority, the more we are speaking with one voice in support of an outcome that meets the aspirations of the Syrian people I think the stronger that opposition will be at the table. So we’ll want to discuss that issue as well.
“On Lebanon, we do regularly talk to the French about the situation in Lebanon. The United States has taken some steps in recent months to increase our assistance to the Lebanese armed forces and to continue to speak up for the unity of Lebanon and for a peaceful resolution of political differences within Lebanon.
“Given France’s history, I’m sure it is quite likely that Lebanon may come up as a topic. And, frankly, it comes up in the context of Syria, because many of the challenges we see in Lebanon are spillover from Syria, both because of the significant refugee population inside of Lebanon because of the role of Lebanese Hezbollah in supporting the Assad regime, which has been obviously quite destabilizing and concerning to us, and also because some of the violence that has found its way into Lebanon. So we will I think be addressing the situation in Lebanon as related to the ongoing crisis in Syria.”
Let me be a bit blunt, much of this briefing is opaque in terms of the reality, and otherwise fairly well known about ongoing actions. What is missing is a clear statement and agreed strategy for path toward a realistic and definitive solution to the ongoing killings and establishing some sense of security and stability and a measure of peace in the Syria and nearby neighborhood. There is a clear debate going on, and there is now more recognition by the White House, State and DOD that other tools including possible military action may be needed. This includes an added supply of weapons, and less likely but key for security of the populations, creation of some kind of “no fly zone(s) and secure areas” for the displaced population, and as I have suggested, the insertion at some point of multilateral peacekeeping forces to ensure security and stability.
Yet, the end game must include diplomacy. This means uniting the moderate opposition forces, getting Assad to step down, and assuring the Shia that they will be secure and be part of the new transitional government. It also means facing the Russians and getting them to accept the new order. But that can only be done in a context where Assad and the Russian realize their goals can’t be realized. And that can only take place in reality on the ground in Syria.
In addition to this White House briefing the U.S. Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power said in an e-mailed statement. “The Security Council needs to speak with one voice in the interest of the innocent men, women and children of Syria whose lives are hanging in the balance……. Every day the Council remains silent, we let down the Syrian people, and we fail to uphold our role as guardians of international peace and security.” A fine statement but, again, with no effective path to stop the killing or to get to the humanitarian needs.
On Wednesday February 12th, Russia said it would veto a U.N. resolution on humanitarian aid access in Syria if it remains in its current form. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov said about the draft that its “aim is to create grounds for future military action against the Syrian government.” Thus, an impasse seems to be developing which may have to lead to new thinking on next steps. These next steps can be both diplomatic and economic but also taken through the use of limited but significant coercive action by a multilateral coalition of those nations supporting the opposition. The question remains do the key states have the political will and resources to act with a high level of assurance that they can be assured of success?
Frankly, it remains somewhat unclear whether and when any new strategy will emerge. However, the humanitarian crisis seems to be getting worse each day. Any promises by Assad are hollow given their detention of people leaving Homs and possible killings of civilians under supposed Syrian Red Cross and UN protection. The use of “barrel” bombs on civilians is Assad’s answer to the diplomacy tract at the moment.
The most recent development has been the dismissal of the commander of the Free Syrian Army and his replacement by another commander by the U.S. backed Supreme Military Council. It is reported that this has split the various commands on the ground, some of which still support the previous head. The new commander Abdul -Ilah al-Bahir is said to be backed by Saudi Arabia and may of the confidence of the U.S. But this act only highlights the many splits in the opposition and the difficulties of getting assistance to the opposition forces on the ground. Further, America appears directly looking at delivery of arms to filed commanders, but so far none have been reported by those commanders.
The situation on the ground is having more impact at the moment than the diplomacy in Geneva. For the moment, Assad’s forces and air force are pounding opposition centers and trying to close the borders against movement of opposition forces and refugees.
In sum, we need to keep the diplomatic tract open but also to think better of ways to exert real leverage over both Assad and even Russia. Those who are critical, including myself, need to keep in mind the high level of complexity, many risks of various actions, and the uncertainty of a good outcome. Yet from this writer’s perspective, we do have more tools than we are using. But such efforts require a high level of cooperation among the allies and opposition, good will, and resources than have been realized so far.