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.
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.
As we have argued earlier, there is an urgent and vital need for the “Friends of Syria” and our allies in the region to start thinking of how to contain the sectarian violence that is already taking place, but which will likely escalate with the fall of Assad. The best hope is a series of action which needs to be initiated immediately, which includes establishing a robust Peace Keeping/Peacemaking/ Mediation force to prevent mass slaughter and revenge killings. If this can’t be created by the U.N. then it must be part of a “coalition of the willing” made up of both NATO nations and Arab League and Islamic nations. For this to be up and ready to act swiftly, such a force needs to be mobilized and trained and given strong mandates. A reconciliation and diplomatic mission of experts and diplomats needs to also be created in order to work with the still inchoate Syrian Opposition governance leaders.
This effort will likely need strong American and EU backing as well as help from Turkey, which so far has been lagging in seeing the dangers on its borders and acknowledging that this is time for a “full court” press and the alternative is the spread of sectarian violence throughout the Middle East from Jordan and Lebanon to Iran and beyond.
The other “pillar” of bringing a measure of security to this region would be the creation of a massive development effort for the region with a focus on Syria, but others as well. The focus would aim towards correcting the destruction of Syrian infrastructure, but also at putting to work the youth of Syria to unify the nation toward rebuilding as we did in Germany and Japan at the end of the Second World War, but by using the resources of Middle east nations, Japan, the EU and America. This will be a hard lift with the continued global economic downturn but the cost of not doing so would, in the end, be much more horrific.
Lastly, the Syrian Opposition groups and their imperfect governance organization need added help and reinforcement with the direct involvement of Syrian “technocrats” of all sectors of the population. They also need assistance in keeping in place the reforms of many existing institutions like the national bank, transportation, health, education, police and courts, and other ministries. This means lots of hands (and eyes) on the ground to ensure that chaos and mass slaughter does not overwhelm reconciliation and rebirth.
In sum, the time is now to alter our reluctance to take a lead in shaping the landscape of Syria and nearby states and helping to contain the spread of a devastating sectarian conflict, which is a disaster for all.
President Obama’s reelection on November 6th, 2012 offered the Washington DC foreign policy community a chance to continue its debate regarding the administration’s Middle East policies. Reflecting Washington’s diverse perspectives, advice for the president’s policies during his second term ranged from stay the course to actively intervene in regional crises by not looking so “weak and inattentive.” Despite the administration’s aim to “pivot” its strategic focus to East Asia, it is clear that the Middle East will continue to require close attention, with a conflict raging in Syria and ongoing transitions in numerous other countries. This post focuses on two specific issues facing the administration, the Syrian crisis and Iran’s nuclear program, and highlights the ongoing debate in Washington about the president’s handling of these issues.
The conflict in Syria between the Syrian regime and rebel forces continues to dominate world attention, resulting in over forty thousand deaths and nearly 400,000 documented refugees and many more undocumented. In August 2011, President Obama called on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down, and the administration has provided non-lethal aid to approved Syrian opposition forces and humanitarian aid to those affected by the crisis. However, the administration has avoided providing arms to the Syrian rebels and has so far rejected a Libya-styled military intervention in the country, though it warns that there will be “consequences” if Syria uses its chemical weapons. Since the conflict began, it has pitted two foreign policy camps against one another – one desiring further U.S. action to support the Syrian rebels and the other warning of unintended consequences in case of an intervention – and the president’s reelection raises the question of whether his administration will take further action or continue with its cautious approach:
Greater action: Those in favor of greater U.S. action against the Assad regime include a number of conservative politicians and think tank scholars who believe that the U.S. has shown a lack of leadership on this issue. For example, Senators John McCain (R-AZ), Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Joe Lieberman (I-CT) wrote a Washington Post op-ed in August calling on the administration to provide weapons, training, and intelligence to the rebels. Similarly, conservative think tanks such as the Foreign Policy Initiative and the Foundation for Defense of Democracies have long argued for greater contact with the rebels and the use of airstrikes to establish safe zones for civilians, points recently echoed by Council on Foreign Relations Senior Fellow Max Boot.
Cautious support: Despite these claims about a lack of U.S. leadership, there are a number of scholars who agree with the administrations’ cautious approach towards intervention in Syria. For instance, Brian Haggerty, a doctoral candidate at MIT, concluded in Bloomberg that there are no good options for a limited intervention in Syria, unlike NATO’s actions in Libya. Meanwhile, the Center for American Progress’ Brian Katulis praised the administration’s pragmatic and holistic approach in assuring that regional security interests and U.S. policy aims are not compromised by the conflict. The administration itself has identified numerous challenges to deeper engagement with the opposition, including a fractured opposition-in-exile that was out-of-touch with the realities on the ground; a fear that extremists would take advantage of the turmoil in Syria and take possession of weapons meant to aid to opposition; the complexity and cost of a military intervention in Syria; and Russia and China’s consistent opposition to multilateral condemnations of the Assad regime. In November 2012, the Syrian opposition restructured itself following encouragement by the United States and other international actors and gained immediate recognition by some of America’s allies in Europe, leading the New York Times to report that the U.S. is also close to recognizing the new Syrian opposition.
Amid recent criticisms of Iran by International Atomic Energy Agency, the country’s nuclear program continues to grab headlines. In his first term, President Obama repeatedly assured the public that Iran would not obtain a nuclear weapon under his watch, and during the last four years the U.S. and its European allies have used numerous tools to try and curtail the program, including placing massive sanctions on Iran, launching cyber attacks with Israel aimed at delaying the program’s progress, and holding held numerous rounds of multilateral negotiations with Iran. As the administration continues to craft its Iran policy, it faces a range of recommendations – from stopping Iran’s nuclear program by using all available options to avoiding a military conflict at all costs – from the key actors in Washington:
Increasing pressure: While not pressing for an immediate attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, those in the first foreign policy camp generally believe that President Obama has not presented a credible military threat against Iran, explaining Iran’s refusal to abandon its nuclear program. Over the summer, neoconservative writer Bill Kristol urged Congress to indefinitely authorize the president to use military force against Iran as a symbolic gesture, a position the GOP Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) adopted. Former UN Ambassador under President George W Bush, John Bolton, went as far as to wish negotiations with Iran would fail, since he sees diplomacy as another example of failed American leadership. Support for aggressive action against Iran is not limited to neoconservatives, though, with Council on Foreign Relations Fellow Matthew Kroenig claiming that strategically speaking, the risk-reward calculations of attacking Iran favor such an attack.
Avoiding conflict: Conversely, administration officials and some foreign policy scholars are much more cautious about flaunting military threats against Iran. For example, Kennedy School Professor Stephen Walt accuses Kroenig of purposefully exaggerating the threat emanating from Iran’s nuclear program and underplaying the potentially disastrous consequences of military entanglement with Iran. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton directly spoke about one of these consequences, warning that an attack could further entrench the Iranian regime. Likewise, a recent report by the Federation of American Scientists, though not making any policy recommendations, found that the global economic costs of a U.S. bombing campaign could exceed a trillion dollars. Meanwhile UN Ambassador Susan Rice emphasized in the past that only diplomacy could permanently halt Iran’s program, raising questions about the utility of an attack. The administration appears committed to the diplomatic and sanctions route at the present, hoping that Iran’s diminished geopolitical standing in the region and its struggling economy would convince it to end its non-peaceful nuclear ambitions.
The most important new element in the sad Syria conflict story has been the effort to finally create a hopefully unified Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces. The group will be headed by Moaz al-Khatib, who is a Sunni Muslim preacher and considered a moderate. But behind him are members that are said to be close to the Muslim Brotherhood.
The group has already gotten recognition by the Gulf Co-operation Council and Mr. Khatib is now seeking recognition by the Arab League in Cairo. This larger and broader group has been encouraged by the United States, Britain, and a group of Arab states lead by Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
There is some skepticism that this group can be fully unified and not break up in quarreling. But the main impetus has been the hope of finally obtaining enough resources and even arms from both the Arab states and the West to gain the advantage over the Assad regime. Despite the criticism of Gov. Romney in the election campaign, America has been working hard behind the scenes to help put such a coalition together and ensure that it has diversity, moderation, and reconciliation as its goals. The first statements by Mr. Khatib seem to indicate this direction when he called for the unity and freedom for all factions and “rights for all parts of the harmonious Syrian people.”
At a November 13th meeting at the Chatham House in London entitled, “The Crisis in Syria: Is there a Way Out?” there was a lively discussion of recent events but not much on paths forward. Few participants thought that the path would be simple. Most recognized the danger of the spread of conflict throughout the region. Much attention was paid to the involvement of Jihadis elements from outside, reportedly including some al-Quadr affiliated fighters.
Martin Chulov, the Guardian Middle East correspondent, said that American intelligence had judged the situation too much of a mess for the U.S. to become fully involved in the Syrian conflict. However, there were other indications that both the UK and the U.S. were both contemplating increasing their engagement while looking at adding support for the new opposition group-should it remain broad, unified and keep its moderation. But most speakers at the meeting expressed their doubts in the short term that the final outcome be an overthrow of Assad. They noted that continued support from Russia, Iran and others was one factor making peace difficult.
There was considerable question about whether the new coalition could hold together and prevail over Assad. A question arose of whether it would be able to form a moderate and conciliatory government against the push of more extreme elements of the Jihadis faction, which increasingly has a strong combat presence, especially in Aleppo.
There is also a question of who exactly is the new executive made up of and will they be able to maintain trust of the Syrian communities. Further, the conflict can roll out of control and spread even more beyond Syria. Yet on the surface, this new unity has given hope to Syrian citizens with possible recognition by the Arab and Western States. If nations give the National Coalition recognition as the “legitimate” government, then they could legally welcome the involvement and even intervention of forces in Syria including setting up of “no fly zones,” zones of protection, shipment of arms, and financial/economic support and training. This could overcome the blocking in the UN Security Council by Russia and China.
The recent spread of conflict along the Turkish border and Golan Heights only highlighted that a wider regional conflict could erupt any day. Already the Turks are calling for a possible NATO response. The Secretary General of NATO, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, said that the alliance would “do what it takes” to protect Turkey. Jordan, Iraq, and Lebanon have also already been impacted in the Syrian conflict and the refugee influx has increased the concern for the safety of both the Syrians on the border and citizens of the border states.
The Chatham House meeting never really got into a strategy of the “way out” for Syria. Clearly, the participants did not see any easy option to stop the killing or forcing Assad out while at the same time put in place a humane alternative governance.
But it is clear that unless Assad is removed sooner rather than later and the new National Coalition (its now short form name) keeps its unity and gets effective resources, the bloody conflict could get worse before it gets better. Outside intervention remains a conundrum for the key “Friends of Syria” nations, particularly the U.S., Arab League, the EU/NATO, and especially the UK which has played a leading role among the Europeans pushing for a stronger response.
What are your thoughts on the situation in Syria? How much involvement do you think the U.S should have? Share your thoughts!