Grasping the Syrian nettle


March 11, 2013

The kidnapping of a UN peacekeeping contingent on the Golan Heights by Syrian rebels is a stark reminder that the civil war in Syria is a regional conflict that has long since spilled over Syria’s borders. With each passing day, this conflict threatens the stability of the entire Middle East.

US Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to the region — his first overseas jaunt after assuming his new post — has sent a strong message that the Middle East is now a top priority for President Obama. That was not apparent during Obama’s first four years in office as the U.S. took a back seat to the region’s conflicts.

After reading Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the riot act about building new Isreali settlements on the West Bank (suggesting that Obama was serious about getting a deal between Israelis and Palestinans), Obama quickly backed off when it became apparent that Netanyahu had more powerful domestic allies in the U.S. than the U.S. president. Let’s hope he doesn’t do the same this time round.

The accelerated U.S. withdrawal from Iraq also signalled that the U.S. was getting out the nation-building business in the Arab world. The future would be more hands off than hands on. This was apparent in the NATO-led intervention in Libya to topple Gaddafi where the U.S. led “from behind” instead of out front. It was also evident in the lacklustre and generally ineffective response of the Obama administration to a succession of events in the Arab Spring that thwarted the advancement of democracy and human rights.

Kerry’s recent announcement in Rome that Washington will be increasing its level of humanitarian assistance to Syrian rebel forces and civilians affected by the fighting points suggests there may be sometihing of a U-turn taking place in American foreign policy when it comes to Syria.

Let’s hope this time that the U.S. is headed in the right direction.

Kerry’s predecessor, Hilary Clinton, made little headway in her efforts to convince the White House that it should do more to help Syria’s opposition, including arming rebel fighting forces who have been struggling against Bashar Assad’s well-equipped war machine.

Clinton understood better than her boss that when Assad falls — and that is an eventual certainty — the U.S. will be better positioned to exert influence on Syria’s future if it has thrown a life line to the rebels than if it sits on its hands and leaves Syria in the hands of Saudia Arabia, Qatar, and Iran.

But the White House apparently overruled Clinton. Obama worried that arms would fall into the hands of Islamist extremists and terrorists as has happened in Libya. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s dictum that “if you break it you own it” also had a powerful hold on the President’s thinking post Iraq.

Secretary Kerry has his work cut out for him. The U.S. is going to have offer more than band-aids and food packets to Syria’s rebels if it is going to be a player in Syria’s endgame. It has to provide leadership and real diplomacy if there is to be any hope of bringing this conflict to an end.

What Syria needs is a return to politics where all of those who have a direct stake in Syria’s future can eventually sit down at the negotiating table to hammer out a new set of political arrangements that restore political order, ultimately under some kind of internationally-supervised agreement where rebel groups are disarmed and new power-sharing arrangements among Syria’s different religious factions are agreed upon.

Such a diplomatic game plan for Syria is laid out in a recent article in the National Interest by my colleague former U.S. assistant secretary of state Chester Crocker.

Crocker, who has the distinction of having been the longest serving assistant secretary of state in U.S. history and brokered the Southern African peace accords in the late 1980s, argues that America’s challenge in Syria is to engage Russia’s support in securing a political transition as the clock runs out on the Assad regime.

Russia (and Iran) are the only reason why Assad has been able to cling to power.

According to Crocker, Russia has to be convinced that it is hitched to a wagon without a horse, and that it too has an interest in seeing Assad go under a negotiated political framework that brings together Syria’s rival groups. But Russia will only come to the table, says Crocker, if its own interests are formally recognized.

That may be difficult pill for Americans to swallow, but according to Crocker it is only way forward.

Crocker also argues that when it comes to Syria, the U.S. is not going to be able to pick winners. That is something that Syrians themselves have to do and it may not be very pretty.

But what Washington can do is to define a credible political process that sets the table for negotiations and engages those who have a dog in this fight to pursue their political options through the power of talk instead of the barrel of gun or another mortar round.

Though it has real risks attached, that is indeed the challenge for U.S. diplomacy and statecraft. Let’s hope that Secretary Kerry is taking careful notes as he gets ready to grasp the Syrian nettle.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.

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