Syria: What happened to diplomacy?
There is a bizarre quality to the U.S. public debate about bombing Syria. Much time and effort has been spent analyzing President Barack Obama’s decision to finally call for a vote in Congress: whether this was a wise choice; what the repercussions of an attack may be; the (il)legality of acting without a United Nations Security Council mandate; the moral case for bombing, and the strategic case for restraint.
But almost no attention has been paid to a fundamental question: Have all other options been exhausted?
Obama has presented the American public with a false binary choice: taking military action or doing nothing.
It is perhaps the sign of our times that diplomacy is not even being talked about as an option, though Obama’s 2008 platform included restoring diplomacy as a central tool of American statecraft.
If the key concern is humanitarian — putting an end to the senseless slaughter of Syrian civilians — rather than U.S. credibility — ensuring the enforcement of the president’s “red line” — much more should have been done earlier to press all sides of the conflict to agree to a cease-fire.
Undoubtedly, this is not an easy task. Neither Syrian President Bashar al-Assad nor the various opposition forces (not to mention the growing al Qaeda elements) are reliable negotiation counterparts.
But such is the nature of civil wars. They are rarely fought by your ideal negotiating partners. Yet most civil wars can only come to an end through a negotiated settlement. The longer one waits, the higher the death tolls, the deeper the wounds and the harder the task.
As former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan wrote in the Financial Times last year: “The distribution of force and the divisions in Syrian society are such that only a serious negotiated political transition can hope to end the repressive rule of the past and avoid a future descent into a vengeful sectarian war.”
If it is the responsibility of the United States to intervene because of its global leadership and its values, then the intervention should have started more than two years ago on the diplomatic — not military — front.
The Obama administration’s diplomatic efforts thus far have largely focused on winning Russian support to rebuke Assad, rather than finding a lasting solution.
As I wrote in May, Washington’s appetite for diplomacy was lacking early on in the conflict because Assad was viewed as weak and about to be toppled. So talks under those circumstances could have provided him with an undeserved lifeline.
It’s been clear for some time now, however, that Assad is neither so weak that he will lose, nor so strong that he can easily win. In short there is a stalemate, which provides fertile ground for negotiations to achieve a durable cease-fire. The failure of all sides to pursue talks has now resulted in roughly 120,000 deaths with no other outcome except an unsatisfactory stalemate.
Washington and Moscow have not given Annan or the current U.N. envoy, veteran diplomat Lahkdar Brahimi, the political support needed to succeed with their missions. In Annan’s own words, the diplomatic process “requires courage and leadership, most of all from the permanent members of the Security Council, including from Presidents Putin and Obama.”
In an interview after his resignation, he added: “I can’t want peace more than the protagonists, more than the Security Council, or the international community… I did not receive all the support that the cause deserved.”
Brahimi is now facing a similar situation — an intransigent Assad regime, a divided opposition, a Security Council more focused on finger-pointing than peacemaking, and an American president disinterested in diplomacy due to his preoccupation with red lines.
Not surprisingly, efforts to restart talks through the Geneva channel have been further delayed. A Swiss diplomat told me last week that increased fractures within the opposition, with some groups refusing to talk to each other, has further aggravated the process.
As a result, the civil war wages on, the brutality increases while the death toll rises and the refugee crisis intensifies. Soon, the children of Syria will be a lost generation.
Obama, meanwhile, insists military action is needed because America “cannot and must not turn a blind eye to what happened in Damascus… [I]t’s about who we are as a country.”
Few believe, however, that the plan he has proposed will affect the outcome in Syria. Perhaps it will restore the “credibility” of America’s red lines. But the credibility of American leadership can only be restored through investment in a diplomatic process aimed at ending the violence and finding a political settlement.
PHOTO: President Barack Obama makes remarks on the situation in Syria, at the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington August 31, 2013. REUTERS/Mike Theiler