- By John HudsonJohn Hudson is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, where he covers diplomacy and national security issues in Washington. He has reported from several geopolitical hotspots, including Ukraine, Pakistan, Malaysia, China, and Georgia. Prior to joining FP, John covered politics and global affairs for the Atlantic magazine’s news blog, the Atlantic Wire. In 2008, he covered the August war between Russia and Georgia from Tbilisi and the breakaway region of Abkhazia. He has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, BBC, C-SPAN, Fox News radio, Al Jazeera, and other broadcast outlets. He has been with the magazine since 2013.
With almost 100,000 dead in Syria and proposed peace talks at a standstill, former President Jimmy Carter plans to send officials from his foundation to work toward a last-ditch agreement between President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and opposition forces, The Cable has learned.
The peace initiative is raising questions with Syrian opposition leaders who feel that an American envoy sent by a former American president sends the wrong message to Assad: That the United States is open to talking with him rather than overthrowing his regime. But the Carter Center says it’s operating independently of the United States — and that’s why it’s advocating positions that directly contradict U.S. policy. The Carter Center wants all outside powers to stop sending arms to Syria, for example; the United States is just getting started in sending over those weapons.
On July 28, Hrair Balian, director of the Carter Center’s Conflict Resolution Program, and Nathan Stock, assistant director of the program, will travel to Syria to hold a series of meetings with Assad regime opponents and loyalists in a trip ending on Aug. 9.
Balian was cautious not to raise expectations of a breakthrough emerging amid the intense fighting in and around Homs and Damascus and the escalating refugee crises along Syria’s borders. "As long as outside actors continue to arm the various sides, it’s very difficult to see any political solution emerging," he told The Cable. He criticized the United States, Russia, Iran, Qatar, and other countries involved in militarizing the conflict. "That’s the first thing that needs to be stopped on all sides."
He declined to say which officials he’ll be meeting — that would jeopardize the peace process, he claimed. But his center has dealt closely with top officials in Assad’s inner circle, including his cabinet.
In 2011, after Assad proposed six separate political reform laws to assuage the opposition, the Carter Center sent an envoy to bring the two sides closer together. In its first step, it sent Robert Pastor, Carter’s former national security advisor on Latin America and the Caribbean, to discuss Assad’s reforms with a range of opposition members (e.g., local coordinating committees). Pastor then brought the reforms to Assad’s cabinet for approval. "Several people in his cabinet were really enthusiastic," Pastor told The Cable, "but we didn’t get a favorable response and the military ultimately scoffed at the idea of concessions."
Syrian opposition sources speaking with The Cable expressed surprise that the Carter Center is attempting another peace mission given the consequences of its 2011 visit. The sources said several opposition members were arrested and imprisoned by the regime after meeting with Carter’s representatives. In other cases, the rebels simply disappeared.
Both Pastor and Balian declined having knowledge of any such retaliatory moves. "I’m not aware of that," said Pastor. "Nobody has been harmed because they engaged with us," added Balian. "Nobody that I’m aware of."
The center’s chief goals in Syria this month are said to be modest. It will try to define a framework in which a political transition could take place in Syria sometime in the future. State Department officials said "we are not aware" of the Carter trip, and it does not appear that the center’s trip has the blessing of the U.S. government. "We are a nongovernmental organization with no connection to the administration in Washington," insisted Balian.
Perhaps that’s so. But one thing that’s clear is that the center and Barack Obama’s administration don’t exactly see eye to eye on a resolution to the Syrian crisis.
"I think the United States made a huge mistake early on by deciding that Assad had to go," Pastor said, explaining his views of the conflict. "Assad is not the problem in Syria."
"The U.S. unwittingly encouraged the opposition by making them think we’re going to come to their rescue, which gave them a jolt of support," he added. "They’re never going to be strong enough to overcome Assad’s army."
As for Carter’s interest in the initiative, Balian said it was significantly hands-on. "He’s very, very active," he said. "He knows everything we do, and he participates in all decision-making processes."
UPDATE 7/12/13: In an e-mail to FP, Balian and Pastor say that this story makes a false claim that "President Carter is involved in a ‘Syria peace push.’"
The article further claims incorrectly that “Former President Jimmy Carter plans to send officials from his foundation to work toward a last-ditch agreement between President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and opposition forces.” Staff from The Carter Center will be in the region later this month for discussions with independent, pro-government and pro-opposition Syrian lawyers and academics about possible constitutional and legislative reforms necessary for an eventual political transition. While we wish there were a “last-ditch” effort by the key governments to reach a peace agreement in Syria, we have no illusions that will happen and believe the best path is to explore a democratic transition. The author criticizes the Carter Center for “advocating positions that directly contradict U.S. policy," but as a non-governmental organization, the Carter Center holds independent views from the US government. The Carter Center has been engaged in promoting peace and reconciliation in the Middle East for decades, but its representatives always make clear to anyone who might not understand that we do not speak for the US government.
Mr. Hudson not only mistakes the Carter Center’s work, but he also misquotes or fails to capture the arguments he heard from Dr. Pastor. He cites Pastor as saying that the US "made a huge mistake early on by deciding that Assad had to go… Assad is not the problem in Syria." That is correct, but what Pastor also said repeatedly to Mr. Hudson was that making Assad’s departure a precondition for negotiations had two counter-productive effects: first, it emboldened the opposition into thinking that with U.S. support, they could win the war quickly without having to compromise, and second, it made negotiations in Geneva much more elusive. And while Assad is responsible for the repression, his departure will not solve the sectarian crisis.
Mr. Hudson also describes inaccurately our mission in Damascus in December 2011 and apparently does not realize that the uprising against Assad began the previous spring. He writes that our meetings with opposition leaders put them at risk, and many of them were harmed as a result of the meetings. He presented no proof of that. At the time, no one was listening to the internal opposition, and they were eager to talk with us. Most of them already had been arrested several times. They knew the risks. Some were ready to negotiate political reforms, and others had already given up and just hoped Assad would leave, and that the US would make that happen.
Pastor told Mr. Hudson that Carter Center staff told the government that its "reforms" were not credible, but if the government were willing to change them to prevent a civil war, the Carter Center would be willing to work with both sides. We interpreted the government’s failure to respond as an indication that the military thought they could crush the opposition, and that is what Pastor told Mr. Hudson, not that ”the military ultimately scoffed at the idea of concessions."
Of course, the military were wrong, and Syria has suffered catastrophic consequences. The situation today is much worse for many reasons, but that is not an argument for reciprocal escalation. Rather it is an impetus for trying to find a path toward peace in the context of UN Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi’s efforts.