An Imaginative, Creative Way to Deal with the Syrian Crisis

An Imaginative, Creative Way to Deal with the Syrian Crisis

I’m attending the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association this week, so I don’t have much time to blog. I’d love to write about something besides Syria, but it’s hard to avoid such an obvious issue right now. Here are a few further thoughts to add to my previous posts on the subject.

First, it looks like Barack Obama’s administration has painted itself into something of a corner (though to be fair, a lot of inside-the-Beltway hawks were wielding their own paintbrushes too). With the administration having made a number of unequivocal statements about the Assad government’s responsibility for the chemical weapons attacks, it is going to be hard for it to do nothing and not get accused of being wishy-washy at best and pusillanimous at worst.

But there are several problems. It’s still not clear what positive objectives a limited use of force would accomplish. It won’t tip the balance inside Syria or drive Bashar al-Assad from power. It’s not even clear that punitive strikes would do much to reinforce the norm against chemical weapons use, as any leader contemplating the use of these weapons in the future is probably going to be in pretty dire straits and might not care if some foreign power might retaliate. Moreover, the American people are clearly not interested in getting into this war, and Obama and the Dems could pay a big price if retaliation goes awry in any way. Indeed, as Conor Friedersdorf writes in a brilliant piece on the Atlantic‘s website, this is another elite-driven intervention led by inside-the-Beltway politicos who are addicted to using American power even when vital U.S. interests aren’t at stake.

Perhaps what bothers me most is how little imagination we seem to be showing in dealing with this deeply troubling situation. Everyone seems to be viewing this as a vexing problem that just has to be managed, instead of asking whether the crisis might be an opportunity for creative and potentially game-changing diplomacy.

To be specific: Why not use the crisis over chemical weapons as an opportunity to launch a new diplomatic initiative? Start by referring the matter to the U.N. Security Council, and let everyone on the Security Council see the intelligence that lies behind U.S. suspicions. And as Sean Kay has proposed, for good measure we could ask the Security Council to refer the issue of possible war crimes to the International Criminal Court. But most importantly, before launching punitive strikes that probably won’t accomplish anything positive, the United States could invite the European Union, Russia, China, Turkey and — wait for it — Iran to a diplomatic conference on Syria.

What would that accomplish? Plenty. Including Iran would satisfy its long-standing desire to be recognized as a regional stakeholder (which it is, no matter how much the United States tries to pretend otherwise). America would giving Iran the chance to play a constructive role, much as Iran did back in 2002 and 2003 over Afghanistan. Doing so would also help ensure that the crisis in Syria didn’t interfere with the more important task of negotiating an agreement on Iran’s nuclear program. Inviting Iran into the picture would also be a way of rewarding the moderate stance the President Hasan Rouhani has taken since his election and his own public condemnation of any use of chemical weapons.

This route is obviously unlikely to yield an agreement that removes Assad from power, at least not anytime soon. My guess is that the most one could hope for is an agreement that imposed a cease-fire, acknowledged the de facto partition of Syrian territory into government and opposition zones, began negotiations on some sort of power-sharing arrangement, and maybe got outside powers to reduce their support for their various clients. But might this approach also begin to weaken the political support Assad has been getting from Russia, China, and Iran? They can’t enjoy being the main protectors of a larcenous regime that has been killing lots of innocent people, and they might be looking for a way to distance themselves provided their own interests are protected.

As with all diplomatic initiatives, the idea sketched above might fail. But I doubt it would do any harm to try it, and it would certainly make the United States look less trigger-happy. That would be a positive outcome all by itself.