A Diplomatic Solution in Syria Is on Life Support
Here are seven pressure points that could revive it.
It’s time for all of us to face the facts: The prospects of achieving a diplomatic solution in Syria under present conditions are remote at best. The Geneva process has stumbled and, even worse, President Bashar Assad’s regime believes it is on the road to a military victory.
Such a victory is by no means assured. The best the regime can realistically hope for is to regain control over key areas of Syria — namely, Damascus and its environs, the province of Latakia, and parts of the provinces of Deir Ezzor, Deraa, and Sweida. Any such partition of Syria would prolong instability and probably lead to renewed, if intermittent, violence. While ultimately it may take a decisive military victory to definitively stop the conflict, neither side at present is able to achieve one.
The Syrian conflict may potentially continue to fuel instability in the Middle East for some time to come. If current conditions continue, a military victory would produce either the survival of an isolated regime that is heavily dependent on support from Iran, or the emergence of a radical and heavily Islamicized power center, which would nevertheless be too weak to control much of the country. Either scenario would have negative repercussions for U.S. interests — namely, increased threats to Israel’s security, rising sectarian violence in Lebanon and Iraq, exacerbated political vulnerabilities in Jordan, and further tension in eastern Turkey.
Leaving aside the question of material support to the Syrian opposition, there is a growing demand for a new diplomatic strategy. Though diplomacy may not resolve the conflict, a retooled diplomatic approach could shape the environment in which the military contest plays out and possibly lead to a better outcome than either of the two currently likely scenarios. Such a new diplomatic strategy would be paired with sustained support of the humanitarian relief effort for Syrian refugees and internationally displaced persons (IDPs).
U.S. leadership would be aimed at denying what the regime currently sees as its advantages and achieving better coordination among those who oppose the regime. Here are some suggestions for how to accomplish this:
Puncture Assad’s belief in his own viability.
The United States and like-minded countries could explore the feasibility of pursuing Assad and his supporters in the International Criminal Court (ICC), or in an ad hoc court established to prosecute war crimes in Syria. The May 15 statement by the London 11, the core group of countries committed to supporting the Syrian opposition, recommending referral of regime members to the ICC, is a welcome step. Such prosecutions could also include Hezbollah and Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps elements as appropriate. At the same time, it should also include under its jurisdiction the atrocities committed by the Syrian opposition and foreign elements fighting with it.
Alternatively, a specially convened tribunal could serve a similar purpose in making clear to the regime that there is no possibility of a post-conflict return to international acceptance. Assad’s single-minded focus on retaining power has so far proven highly resistant to outside pressure — but the absence of international prosecution on the horizon has allowed him to convince himself and others that he has a viable future as head of the Syrian state.
If the United States hopes to alter the current stalemate, it has to be obvious to Assad, his loyalists, and his supporters in Tehran and Moscow that he cannot remain in office. The Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic has done excellent work in preparing the basis for atrocity and war crimes prosecutions.
Yes, it is likely at present that Russia would block action in the U.N. Security Council to actually begin a judicial process against Assad, but the point is to make clear that eventually there will be a reckoning — and the prospect of that reckoning will become a factor in Assad’s thinking, and that of regime supporters.
Address the issue of alternative leadership for Syria.
The United States, working closely with like-minded allies, could seek alternative Syrian leadership that is both legitimate and credible in the eyes of Syrians.
International supporters of the Syrian opposition have worked closely with the expatriate leadership, and have also made credible attempts to maintain links to what remains of the opposition within Syria. But the Syrian opposition coalition, forged with great difficulty, still struggles with its internal cohesion and sense of purpose; its components also remain vulnerable to pressures from regional parties. The lack of a charismatic alternative leadership around which Syrians could coalesce is the result of bad luck and Syria’s tortured history.
The West has tended to view the Arab Spring in Syria as an expression of a liberal pluralistic agenda — an interpretation that is almost certainly inaccurate. The common denominator in the Arab Spring countries has been a rejection of the ruling entity, as a result of its inefficiency in governance and its excessive corruption in power. The Syrian conflict began as a protest against excessively punitive measures by local security officials and was fueled in part by unfulfilled economic expectations. Demands for greater political freedom tied to a desire to punish poor performance in government did not equate to a wholesale embrace of Western-style political culture.
The United States and its allies may have to recognize this reality in order to allow a truly credible alternative leadership to emerge. The alternative leadership that will appear credible to Syrians may be that which projects a sense of continuity with the kind of stability the Assads delivered, rather than one that promises greater political pluralism. Many Syrians don’t want a "new" Syria — they want the old one back, just with fewer abuses of power, less corruption, and a better-performing economy.
Make clear to Iran that we are not prepared to trade Syria for a nuclear deal.
The United States could explore with other members of the P5+1 how best to make clear to Iran that the nuclear talks are taking place within the context of a wide array of regional concerns. In other words, the nuclear issue is extremely important, but an agreement on those issues does not mean carte blanche on others.
Granted, there are many issues competing for inclusion in these talks, which risk collapsing under the weight of 35 years of unresolved issues. But Iranian support to the Assad regime is a particularly crucial issue, as Tehran’s assistance has been the single most important factor in the Assad regime’s survival so far. Iran views Syria as a critical element in its regional security architecture, and is unlikely to accept an outcome that would be harmful to its regional posture. Even if Iran has taken a new, more conciliatory position in its nuclear negotiations with the P5+1 because of sanctions, there is no reason to believe that it is under sufficient economic pressure to also contemplate giving up a strategic relationship with a country that borders Israel and provides a vital supply line to Hezbollah, its most important regional proxy.
The sanctions that are biting Iran are related to its failure to meet its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, not its behavior in Syria. As a result, Tehran may believe it can achieve an easing of the sanctions without any meaningful concessions on Syria. In fact, given the division of power within Iran, even if the clerical and civilian authorities contemplated a change of course in Syria, they would first have to overcome the objections of th
e Revolutionary Guard. It is important to the United States that the P5+1 negotiations succeed — but the prospect of war, which those negotiations are meant to avert, looms equally large if a completely Iran-dependent Assad regime is left in place.
Keep Russia from complicating Syria further.
The channel of communication between the United States and Russia is increasingly narrowing, but Syria is one issue that should remain on the table.
The prospect of effective cooperation with Moscow at the moment looks grim. There is no evidence to suggest that Russian President Vladimir Putin sees the annexation of Crimea and current aggressive actions in eastern Ukraine as a tactical or strategic mistake, and the overwhelming support of the Russian public will not incline him to second-guess his decision.
Once the Ukraine issue is decided and the long-term effects begin to sink in, however, there is a possibility — perhaps remote — that Russia will want to find a way to demonstrate responsible international citizenship. It is important that the United States not shut the door on an eventual shift in position by Russia in this regard. Russia’s primary interests in Syria relate to security and prestige, and Russian leaders have repeatedly signaled that they are not permanently invested in Bashar Assad.
If concerns about the extremists among the opposition can be allayed, if there is reason to believe a new Syrian regime will maintain some continuity with the alignments of the Assad regime, and if the Russians can be convinced that the West is not engaged in what it views as an ideological crusade, it could be possible for Moscow to join an international consensus on a way ahead in Syria.
Increase coordination among Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states.
At present, GCC member states support opposition elements of their own choosing, often setting them against each other. These practices contribute to the overall sense of disunity and chaos among the opposition. The United States could lead the effort to address divisions among the GCC, seeking to bring them into general agreement on priorities in Syria.
While the London 11 framework has been useful, it may be chiefly valuable now as a way to gain European cooperation in pressing the GCC members to identify what they want to see in a future Syria, and how to achieve it. As part of this effort, high-level engagement by the United States and other P5+1 members will be critical to addressing GCC concerns regarding negotiations on the Iranian nuclear program.
In return, GCC states would need to enact meaningful curbs on the private funding of extremist opposition elements. These Gulf states have tolerated the flow of private funds into Syria, which has fueled the emergence of extremist groups that not only vindicate the Assad regime narrative that it is besieged by terrorists, but also present a future danger to U.S. interests in the region and beyond. Action on this aspect of the conflict could alleviate some Russian concerns.
Lead an international effort to stem the flow of foreign fighters into Syria.
The United States has already made this issue a priority, but it will need the active collaboration of GCC, regional, and European partners. Most of the necessary steps are already known as result of similar efforts to stop foreign fighters from entering Iraq — the measures required of Syria’s neighbors and the "supplier" countries have already been designed.
A sustained, focused diplomatic effort is needed in order to bring about actual implementation of these measures. Turkey is particularly important in this regard: The United States must press Ankara to determine what kind of future for Syria best serves its interests, and to recognize the risk of extremists along its borders.
Overload the Assad regime.
Because the Syrian regime’s ability to manage a war and engage in diplomatic activity is limited, the United States and its allies can interrupt its internal deliberations by using all available forums to maintain diplomatic pressure. The objective would be to keep the regime on the defensive publicly, and prevent it from setting the agenda.
The regime has a limited bandwidth for diplomatic activity. It cannot feasibly engage in more than one diplomatic effort at a time. The United States, on the other hand, has a diplomatic machine that can move in multiple venues simultaneously. Forcing the regime to engage in the U.N. General Assembly in New York, in the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, and in negotiations with the opposition will press the regime to operate at a pace it cannot sustain. With only Iran and Russia — and occasionally Algeria and Iraq — to support it diplomatically, the Assad regime cannot muster the diplomatic firepower to productively engage in all of these multilateral forums.
None of these measures will instantly change the course of events in Syria — but together, they may help us reshape the diplomatic landscape. Right now, as the Geneva process demonstrated, it is nearly impossible to move forward diplomatically. Changing the outlook of some of the key players in the Syrian conflict could give us an opportunity to find a diplomatic opening.
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