Syrian Carnage (Part 4)

Here is the final post in this series. I present my tentative position on this issue.

I must admit, I’m inclined to hold a hybrid view consisting of measures II, III, and VI. First, we should take advantage of the quasi safe zone created by Turkish forces to shelter Syrian refugees. Second, we should withdraw from the region as much as possible because of the lessons we’ve learned from trying to arm the rebels in Syria and our failed intervention in Iraq. Third, we should try to strike a deal at the negotiating table. Philip Gordon, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, has provided what I think is, at least, a first draft of a diplomatic approach. I will quote him at length:

Diplomacy and De-escalation

To end the conflict in Syria, the United States should pursue a course of action consisting of the following steps:

Institutionalize a diplomatic process with all parties involved. The October 30 and November 14 multilateral meetings in Vienna, for the first time including Iran and Saudi Arabia, were a useful first step. Participants agreed on basic principles, including preserving Syria’s unity, independence, and territorial integrity, and on the need for a political process that would ultimately lead to a new constitution and elections. While influential countries remain deeply divided on the question of whether, how, or when to require Assad’s departure, only by hammering out issues collectively and realizing the high costs of maximalist positions can the gaps be narrowed. When the Bosnia “Contact Group” was created as the war there raged in the early 1990s, the United States, Europe, and Russia were all far apart on key issues. They ultimately compromised, imposed a solution on recalcitrant local parties, and agreed on a settlement that has kept the peace in Bosnia for two decades.

Initiate a bilateral U.S. back-channel process with Russia. Because no agreement on the most sensitive issues can be reached with nearly twenty participants around a table, the United States should pursue back-channel discussions with Russia at the highest levels. The objective would be a quid pro quo that assures Moscow that the Assad regime will not collapse in exchange for a cease-fire between the regime and the opposition, and joint focus on the Islamic State. If Russia continues to insist on propping up the regime and indiscriminately bombing all elements of the opposition, the United States and others will maintain their support for opposition fighters, the war will go on, and Russia will alienate the Sunni world and become a growing target for terrorists. The October 31 bombing of a Russian airliner over the Sinai and the November 24 downing of a Russian fighter jet by Turkey underscore the risks for Russia in the absence of a settlement. But if Moscow is willing to press for policy changes from Damascus—including support for a cease-fire, recognition of opposition autonomy in parts of the country, and a process for longer-term leadership changes—a diplomatic agreement might be possible.

Pursue a cease-fire between the regime and the opposition. The goals of an agreement would include an end to both sides’ offensive operations, including regime aerial attacks; devolution of power so that regions currently held by the opposition can govern themselves; the uninhibited provision of humanitarian assistance to both sides; and the adoption of a political process to determine political leaders and structures to govern an ultimately unified Syria. Given the extremely fragmented nature of the opposition, with no single authority in control and even moderate groups now fighting alongside extremists, it will be nearly impossible to prevent some violations of a cease-fire even if an agreement is reached. But if Russia and Iran were able to guarantee an end to the regime’s attacks on the opposition and the provision of humanitarian aid, supporters of the opposition would be well placed to press their clients to accept a cease-fire by threatening to cut off assistance for those who refuse. The Islamic State would not be party to the cease-fire and would continue to be targeted. International peacekeepers might be required to police the agreement, but the risks of deploying them would be significantly reduced if all the external powers were committed to the deal.

Defer the question of Assad. There is no doubt that Assad is a brutal dictator who deserves to face justice. The question, however, is whether the pursuit of that elusive goal is worth the costs of an unending war or the consequences of the military escalation that would be necessary to end the war. The United States and others do not have to abandon their position that Assad has lost legitimacy and that Syria will not be fully stable—or accepted by the international community—as long as he is in place. And they could condition support for a cease-fire on a political process that would determine the country’s eventual political structure and leadership. But they should not allow disagreement over Assad’s fate to be the obstacle to reducing the violence, if other elements of an agreement could be reached. Those countries most determined to see Assad’s departure—such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey—will resist such an outcome, but a clear U.S. position and clarity that the United States will not support military escalation could help bring about their acquiescence. Many weary Syrians, and a growing number of countries, even in the Arab world, would welcome an end to the fighting even if it was not accompanied by immediate regime change in Damascus.

Gordon has a military component to his plan, but I reject that option for the reasons written in the previous blogs. I think Syria has seen enough of war.

I’m open to being argued out of my position. What do you think?

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