Normative Narratives

Conflict Watch: The Political “Solution” in Syria, and the Syrian End-Game

4 Comments

A comment made practically in jest by Secretary of State John Kerry, has become the centerpiece of the international communities “solution” to holding Assad accountable for chemical weapons attacks:

“He could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week — turn it over, all of it, without delay and allow the full and total accounting, but he isn’t about to do it and it can’t be done,” Mr. Kerry said.

Mr. Kerry’s remarks, especially the reference to the short window of time, underscored the urgency of the administration’s preparations for a strike, and it did not appear to signal a shift in policy. The State Department’s spokeswoman, Jen Psaki, later clarified in an e-mail to reporters that Mr. Kerry was simply “making a rhetorical argument about the impossibility and unlikelihood of Assad turning over chemical weapons he has denied using.”

“His (Kerry’s) point was that this brutal dictator with a history of playing fast and loose with the facts cannot be trusted to turn over chemical weapons, otherwise he would have done so long ago. That’s why the world faces this moment.”

Officials in Syria embraced the idea, as did Britain, France, the United Nations and even some Republican lawmakers in Washington.

President Obama called a proposal by Russia on Monday to avert a United States military strike on Syria over chemical weapons use “a potentially positive development” but said he would continue to press for military action to keep the pressure up. But he said that “if we don’t maintain and move forward with a credible threat of military pressure, I do not think we will actually get the kind of agreement I would like to see.”

In another interview with NBC News, Mr. Obama said he would take the Russian proposal “with a grain of salt initially.” But he told the network that if Syrian officials accept the Russian proposal, “then this could potentially be a significant breakthrough.”

Reacting to another comment by Mr. Kerry — that any attack on Syria would be “unbelievably small” — Mr. Obama said any attack would not be felt like a “pinprick” in Syria.

“The U.S. does not do pinpricks,” he said in the NBC interview. “Our military is the greatest the world has ever known. And when we take even limited strikes, it has an impact on a country like Syria.”

I do not think dismantling Assad’s chemical stockpile is a bad idea, this should certainly be part of any long-term geopolitical strategy for a post-Assad Syria. But the idea that Assad will grant the international community full and unfettered access anywhere in Syria, or that such a mission would even be reasonably safe during a civil war, is ludicrous.  John Kerry said Assad lied to his face about using scud missiles to his face and is “a man without credibility”. Assad is not a man we can trust; even if he was, he may not even have the ability to give full access and cooperation to the international community. This so called “solution” is a non-plan as it is not credible and does not address the root causes of the problem in Syria.

For all of the tough rhetoric from Assad, it is very clear that Syria’s ability to strike back at the U.S. is virtually non-existent. Assad’s forces themselves are rightfully scared of the prospect of American military intervention, and the opportunities it will open up for the Syrian rebels (last week I advocated pairing U.S. military strikes with a redoubled effort to consolidate opposition power / rooting out extremist factions by creating Syrian national rebel army. For the record, I still believe more intelligence must be made available to the public to prove Assad’s forces used the chemical weapons themselves). 

Although commanders spoke of unspecified plans to fight back against U.S. attacks, junior service members described the notion of actually taking on U.S. forces as absurd.

“Our small warships are spread around the coast on full alert, and why? To confront the U.S. destroyers? I feel like I’m living in a bad movie,” said a Syrian Navy sailor reached on a vessel in the Mediterranean.

“Of course I’m worried. I know we don’t really have anything to confront the Americans. All we have is God.”

Obama is correct to take the stance he is taking; if Assad wants to avoid military strikes he must commit to a political resolution in Syria. The U.S. is not intending a “pin-prick”, even limited strikes over the course of 60 (or 90 if he gets a congressional extension) combined with redoubled efforts by the Syrian opposition could help turn the tide of the war.

If the ultimate goal is a pluralistic and democratic Syria, it would be wrong at this point to back away from military intervention. Assad continues to receive support from Russia, Iran and Hezbollah. The opposition has received empty promises from Western allies and fierce fighting from extremist-linked allies. If the U.S. has any hopes of separating out extremist and legitimate factions in the Syrian opposition and truly pressure Assad to come to the bargaining table, it must maintain a “political-transition-or-military-strike” approach to Syria, while continuing to enhance the capacity of a parallel Syrian military and government to assume the power void in post-Assad Syria. 

The Syrian opposition and the Gulf Arab States have already opposed the proposed Syrian chemical arms deal:

Gulf Arab states said on Tuesday a Russian proposal calling for Syria to hand over its chemical weapons to win a reprieve from U.S. military strikes would not stop bloodshed in Syria.

“We’ve heard of the initiative … It’s all about chemical weapons but doesn’t stop the spilling of the blood of the Syrian people,” Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Khaled bin Ahmed al-Khalifa told a news conference in Jeddah.

If the international community wants any chance of having political capital in a post-Assad Syria, it must not renege on it’s commitments to the Syrian opposition now, when after years of inaction meaningful assistance appeared to imminent. Doing so would further sour already strained Western-opposition relations, and bolster the power of extremist groups who have willingly participated in the civil war (not out of the kindness of their hearts mind you, they will try to seize power for their role in the civil war unless a more powerful Syrian national rebel army exists to oppose them).

The Syrian civil war is at a cross-roads, or more like a stalemate that fosters misery, chaos, death, human rights violations and economic decline. It is time for all sides to stop posing behind their positions and try to find mutual ground. Both the international community and Assad wish to avoid U.S.-backed military intervention. The international community and the Syrian opposition want Assad to step down. To reconcile these positions, Assad could agree to hand over his chemical weapons stockpile and move forward with a road-map to democracy in Syria. However, If Assad is interested only in retaining power–which all signs indicate he is–the U.S. and its allies must ultimately show their hand as well and fully commit to overthrowing Assad with force.

There is no long term solution for Syria which involves Assad staying in power–only more years of lost economic growth and death. If the international community is truly interested in a pluralistic and democratic Syria, it must lay the groundwork right now. Failure to do so will mean that either Assad remains in power, or extremist factions fill the power-void after Assad’s ouster. We cannot turn our backs on the legitimate Syrian opposition, who only want the ability to live meaningful lives with dignity and freedom–things generally taken for granted in modernized democratic society. We cannot send the message that political Islam and democracy are irreconcilable, and that jihad is the only path to empowerment for young Muslims. This precedent has already been set in Egypt, it cannot be allowed to be driven home in Syria.

Secretary Kerry said that the public is right to debate the costs and benefits of limited strikes in Syria. But we must remember that we are not talking about “boots on the ground” or any other prolonged effort. We are talking about upholding international law, not some “red-line” Obama made up. “You’ve got to draw lines and there are consequences for crossing those lines.” “You’d say, ‘don’t do anything’. We believe that’s dangerous, and we will face this down the road in some more significant way if we are not prepared to take some sort of stand now.” The Syrian civil war cannot be left to fester unattended–the consequences currently are catastrophic for Syria and its neighbors and in the future could be for the world.

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4 thoughts on “Conflict Watch: The Political “Solution” in Syria, and the Syrian End-Game

  1. As always a very intruiging article, taking a broad perspective. I have 3 comments/questions

    1. With the line “If the international community wants any chance of having political capital” – whom do you mean by that? US establishing their persons? UN accompanying elections? Or China/Russia chosing their people?

    2. Do you really think that democracy is a good idea in a post-Assad Syria? We saw what happened in Egypt (and you make that link…). Recent history of China and Arab country has shown that there is also a non-democratic path to shared prosperity – i think Roosevelts statement “democracy is the worst form of government, but show me a better one” is outdated…

    3. At a few points you are referring to the Syrian “opposition”… to my knowledge, there is no single group. The opposition has many different groups, kind of like the political parties in egypt before the election (whereas they had been united at least in the revolution). Which opposition group to support is also a link to the first question – which international community shall have an influence?

    So i will stop no, otherwise this reply will become an article itself 🙂

    Looking forward to your answers

    Like

    • Good questions, they will help me clarify my point 🙂

      I should state that I believe a post-Assad Syria is a given, I eluded to it in the article but it makes my point stronger to say it directly, otherwise there are other alternatives to be considered. Whether this reality occurs in a month, a year, or a decade has a lot to do with how long Russia and China are able to shield Assad from international intervention (even as Russia supplies the regime with weapons and possibly chemical agents).

      I also feel that the US was not open about its intentions for military strikes. While we are not planning on overthrowing Assad, strikes would embolden the rebels make a push to finish the job. Everybody knew it, but without these strikes the rebels will finally feel abandoned and will more fully embrace those extremist factions who have been aiding them in fighting the whole time. It is past time for the international community to man up, and demand Assad goes!

      There is nothing democratic or even logical about allowing one or two countries to block the will of the greater international community. I was talking to a buddy about how a future international resolution should change the UNSC veto system. The idea I came up with was this: a 3/4 General Assembly vote can overrule a security council veto (much like how congress can overrule a presidential veto). Security council members will likely not embrace this idea (including the U.S.), but the system as it currently stands clearly does not work.

      Now to (finally) address your questions:

      1) By the international community, I mean just that. The majority of the UN supports an Assad ouster. UN supervised elections and a UN security presence would need to be a part of any Syrian democratic transition. But if the international community fails to act, extremists will gain more power and there will be no democratic transition but instead a transfer of power from a dictator to a terrorist group (or a continued fracturing of Syria into separately controlled regions). The international community here is meant to represent the demands of the legitimate Syrian opposition.

      2) Of course I think Syria is ready for democracy–four decades of family rule is more than enough. The civil war started as a peaceful protest for dignity and human rights, sure sounds like a democratic demand by Syrian civil society to me. China is a unique case where there is a somewhat accountable / benevolent ruling class, and Arab states have oil rents (which should be a development tool if used even somewhat responsibly). By and large, I believe an effective democracy is a necessary step towards modernization and respect for human dignity (think “development as freedom”) as it empowers people to claim their rights. There will always be some exceptions to this claim, but those countries are exceptions and not the rule.

      3) It is true the Syrian opposition is fragmented; Kerry places Al-Qaeda influence at around 15-25%. Lets take the high number, even in that case still 75% of the opposition represents legitimate Syrian grievances. If the international community does not offer the Syrian people an alternative (and so far we have not), they will embrace these extremist groups as their political and military leaders (much as these groups fill governance / security / service delivery void to buy goodwill in non-war countries). It is difficult to root out legitimate and illegitimate factions, but it will only become harder the more time that passes without an alternative for legitimate grievances! One idea that I support is a Syrian national rebel army–all opposition forces could fight in this army, including Muslims, so long as they renounce any allegiances to any other groups (much like any other military in the world). See my previous post on Syria for more details on how such a rebel army could work (https://normativenarratives.com/2013/08/30/)

      A parallel military and government must be in place to fill the power-void vacated by Assad. Whether these parallel institutions represent foreign extremists or legitimate Syrian grievances (backed by the international community minus Russia, Iran and China), depends largely on how the international community supports (or doesn’t support) Syrian civil society going forward.

      If Assad’s regime indeed used chemical weapons (which I become more convinced of the more I look over the facts available), an Assad ouster is necessary. Even if he did not, continued inaction by the international community will only further entrench extremist power in Syria and make post-Assad Syrian international relations all the more difficult (not to mention the gross human rights violations and regional spillover effects of the Syrian civil war stalemate).

      Like

  2. As always a very intruiging article, taking a broad perspective. I have 3 comments/questions

    1. With the line “If the international community wants any chance of having political capital” – whom do you mean by that? US establishing their persons? UN accompanying elections? Or China/Russia chosing their people?

    2. Do you really think that democracy is a good idea in a post-Assad Syria? We saw what happened in Egypt (and you make that link…). Recent history of China and Arab country has shown that there is also a non-democratic path to shared prosperity – i think Roosevelts statement “democracy is the worst form of government, but show me a better one” is outdated…

    3. At a few points you are referring to the Syrian “opposition”… to my knowledge, there is no single group. The opposition has many different groups, kind of like the political parties in egypt before the election (whereas they had been united at least in the revolution). Which opposition group to support is also a link to the first question – which international community shall have an influence?

    So i will stop no, otherwise this reply will become an article itself 🙂

    Looking forward to your answers

    Like

  3. Pingback: Conflict Watch: Snapshot of Middle-Eastern Turmoil | Normative Narratives

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