Marc Lynch

A Partial Syria Reset

Obama's diplomatic solution might not stop Assad's war, but it's far better than what airstrikes would have accomplished.


In his speech to the United Nations General Assembly this week, President Barack Obama signaled decisively that he had returned to his senses on Syria. It was a near thing. Less than a month ago, a military strike against the Assad regime appeared as inevitable as it was pointless and potentially disastrous.

But in front of the assembled leaders of the world, Obama acknowledged that "I do not believe that military action — by those within Syria, or by external powers — can achieve a lasting peace." He pushed not only for an agreement on Syria’s chemical weapons which would "energize a larger diplomatic effort to reach a political settlement within Syria," but pointedly signaled his interest in a Russian and Iranian role in such a settlement. "My preference has always been a diplomatic resolution to this issue," he reminded his audience — and, perhaps, himself. Sure, all options remain on the table, as they always do, but it seems highly unlikely that Obama has any intention of going through last month’s political disaster again.

This remarkable turnaround infuriated hawks from the Beltway to the Gulf, who thought just a month ago that they had finally dragged a reluctant president into their war. Obama might have said during his nationally televised address on Sept. 10 that "I will not put American boots on the ground in Syria. I will not pursue an open-ended action like Iraq or Afghanistan. I will not pursue a prolonged air campaign like Libya or Kosovo." But the hawks who had been calling for American intervention knew better: once the bombing began, the pressure to escalate until victory — whatever that might mean — would have been irresistible.

But give the man props. Somehow, he escaped the trap and walked away from the slippery slope, and even converted the near-fiasco into tangible diplomatic progress. Now Obama’s calling Iran’s president on the phone for the first public contact in decades, his secretary of state is meeting face-to-face with Iran’s foreign minister, a Security Council resolution dealing with Syria is on the brink of passage, and a political horizon for meaningful regional change is flickering into view. From Obama to Bush to Obama in sixty seconds.

Despite all the messiness of the process, the American democratic system actually worked on Syria. It wasn’t just Russia’s diplomatic intervention. Obama may have stumbled into the terrible idea of bombing Syria, but democratic institutions actually pulled him back from the brink. The White House could not have, and should not have, ignored the tsunami of public opinion surveys which showed clearly that Americans wanted nothing to do with the new war and didn’t believe that his plans would work (Arab and international public opinion was no more favorable). Congress revolted, with even close allies of the administration signaling their opposition to a military strike (and what better way to help a friend and ally than to stop him from making a terrible mistake?).

What’s more, a public debate far removed from the credulous media of 2002 blocked far-fetched ideas about cakewalks or candy-throwing welcomes from gaining any traction. Cable TV talk shows might have plumped for intervention but didn’t seem to influence anyone. Interventionist ideas which had been so carefully cultivated in the hothouse environment of D.C. think-tanks wilted almost immediately when exposed to skeptical scrutiny. Perhaps we’ve forgotten that this is how the marketplace of ideas and the democratic system is supposed to work.

Obama’s decision to pull back from air strikes disappointed many, of course, including regional allies who had long been pushing for military action and Syrians desperate for some resolution to the fighting. But their disappointment will have few long-lasting consequences. Concerns about the impact on U.S. credibility can be easily set aside: Iranians understand perfectly well the difference between their nuclear program and Syria’s civil war in Washington’s thinking. Hawkish Arab leaders will continue as they’ve been doing for years, carping about America not solving their problems and pursuing proxy wars which directly undermine American priorities. Leaders of Syria’s armed opposition may be deeply frustrated about not securing the use of America’s fighter jets and Tomahawks, but will likely continue to ask for — and get — money and guns.

Syrian rebels are certainly disappointed. But that’s not such a bad thing. For too long, key factions of the fractious Syrian rebels have banked upon eventually attracting a foreign intervention on their behalf. If they finally give up on this hope then they might take more seriously the reality of the need for a negotiated, managed transition. Even the declaration of an Islamist alternative to the Western-backed Syrian opposition could help. It changes little on the ground, where the Free Syrian Army never amounted to as much as its backers claimed, local powerbrokers have carved out their own domains, and alliances have been fluid. The new international reality could help the perennially struggling opposition politicians if it galvanizes a sense of urgency for striking a political deal quickly — rather than waiting for the military cavalry to sweep in and save the day.

If military strikes could have quickly ended the war and helped Syria’s suffering millions, then it would be a different story. But even backers of the strikes didn’t claim that it would actually have accomplished those goals. In fact, there is more hope for an end to the fighting and meaningful political transition in Syria today than there was a month ago, when the bombs seemed primed for launch. There is a moment for creative diplomacy here, as with Iran, which must not be missed. Obama’s well-crafted mention of the suffering of Iranians at the hands of Iraqi chemical weapons linked together the two potential diplomatic initiatives cleverly. With a draft Security Council resolution on a chemical weapons resolution set for a vote on Friday evening, and Iran signaling its willingness to participate in the Geneva talks, Assad’s friends suddenly seem less determinedly committed to his survival.

Obama’s U.N. speech seemed designed to reestablish the goal that America’s policy should be ending the civil war and finding a political agreement on a post-Assad Syria. After the administration’s painful, failed flirtation with proxy war and limited intervention, that’s reassuring. This does not mean rehabilitating Assad, of course. Obama made clear his view of the impossibility of the architect of such massive war crimes being a part of any legitimate or stable successor regime. But removing Assad is only one step in the long, difficult process of helping to stop the fighting, dealing with the humanitarian crisis, and building a better Syria.

That doesn’t mean that Geneva 2 or any other political track is likely to quickly resolve Syria’s violent conflicts, shattered state, or humanitarian catastrophe. Nothing will accomplish that — neither military action nor proxy war nor diplomacy. But for the first time in many months, the political track suddenly seems to be back in play — and that’s a huge improvement from where things stood a month ago.

Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, where he is the director of the Institute for Middle East Studies and of the Project on Middle East Political Science. He is also a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He is the author of The Arab Uprising (March 2012, PublicAffairs).

He publishes frequently on the politics of the Middle East, with a particular focus on the Arab media and information technology, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, and Islamist movements. Twitter: @abuaardvark