Friday, February 14, 2014

Open your eyes - A sound US Syria strategy does not require military intervention

Surprise, surprise, the talks between the Syrian parties in Geneva are deadlocked. “I think Geneva under the current circumstances will end in failure,” Ali Haidar, Syria’s reconciliation minister, told AFP in Damascus. Which makes you wonder what a Syrian reconciliation minister is doing in Damascus, when he should be in Geneva.

But Geneva is and always was a way station on the path to an eventual Syrian settlement. Above all, it was a sop to the Americans and Russians, who have spent three years calling for negotiations to end a conflict in which neither side has any inclination to negotiate.

This week, President Barack Obama hosted the French president , Francois Hollande, a partner in the lamentable international response to the Syrian conflict. Obama declared that his administration “continues to explore every possible avenue” to help reach a settlement in Syria, but again declared that he had no intention of ordering an American military intervention.

This refrain has found a hearty echo in American society. Whenever anyone suggests that Washington alter its Syria policy, the prepackaged response is something like this: “We will not embark on another war in the Middle East, so don’t try to push for one!”

If the idea is that an American intervention should involve deploying ground troops, then indeed it would be a terrible idea. One has a stronger case in justifying the use of air power. This was done in Libya to great effect and spared that country many more years of indecisive fighting, whatever the shortcomings of the postwar transition. 

But the accusation that one sins by asking for the United States to do more in Syria also conceals striking hypocrisy. After the September 11, 2001, attacks, the American public supported military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Bush administration’s justifications for an invasion of Iraq were flawed, but Americans only turned against the war later on, once the situation in Iraq deteriorated. A convenient narrative developed that it was all George W. Bush’s fault. But Bush could not have done anything had Americans not given him wide latitude to pursue his wars.

Americans have changed, comes the reply. They learned from their mistakes and now are wise to the dangers in new conflicts. Perhaps, but an either-or choice is a false one. Obama’s options in Syria cannot be reduced to either engaging in military action or pursuing a policy that has been utterly chaotic and sterile.

Geneva is the latest example. It must have occurred to American diplomats that nothing could be achieved there without certain preconditions: either a decisive military advantage by one side that obliged the other side to accept a settlement; or a broad regional and international consensus around a package deal that would bring the war in Syria to an end, as happened in Lebanon with the Taif accord.

And even in Lebanon the war formally ended only when Michel Aoun’s forces were militarily defeated by the Syrian army. In other words, it’s very rare to see parties to a conflict reach settlements when there is stalemate, and therefore no real impetus to make the concessions that can facilitate an agreement.

Today, Syria benefits from neither condition. President Bashar al-Assad has managed to regain the military initiative and push the rebels away from Damascus, but his ability to alter the military balance throughout Syria is very limited. At the same time there is a diplomatic track in place, no agreement on possible outcomes between the main regional and international actors exists. Russia and Iran, for instance, feel that time will benefit the regime, allowing it to regain ground and impose a more advantageous resolution.

These dynamics have evidently bewildered the Obama administration, which has dithered from the outset in the bloody Syrian chess match. The Americans, as is their way, seek a calibrated, almost dainty, solution that will contain the jihadists while bringing about a negotiated transition away from Assad rule. But they do not want the rebels to win outright, or Assad to lose, as the ensuing vacuum may be filled by Islamists of all stripes.

As Michael Weiss has observed, these contradictory and highly convoluted aims have led the United States to send weapons and help in the coordination of rebel operations in the south of Syria. However, “the rebels’ new guns are meant only to again test the fantasy that Assad can be talked out of power,” he wrote. 

Demanding that the Obama administration devise a more effective strategy toward Syria is not tantamount to calling for military intervention. But at the very least it requires that Washington understand how the game in Syria is played, and to adapt accordingly. The Americans are up against hardnosed adversaries in Moscow and Tehran, but have shown no sense of how to put them on the defensive, or of how to exploit their own advantages in Syria’s conflict.

Secretary of State John Kerry appears to be aware that American policy toward Syria is failing, as is Obama. There is speculation that the mood in Washington may be shifting on Syria, but for now the optimists only have a few presidential words to go on.

All that continued American uncertainty has done is prolong a war that has proven disastrous for Syria and its neighbors, including key American allies. To demand that the world’s most powerful nation do something intelligent on Syria, after years of doing nothing, should not send Americans into spasms of indignation. If anything merits indignation, it is standing back while well over 100,000 civilians, many of them children, have been massacred indiscriminately.

No comments: