Opinion

Compass

How to win the vote — and the war — on Syria

Nader Mousavizadeh
Sep 3, 2013 21:00 UTC

President Barack Obama’s surprise decision to seek congressional authorization for punitive cruise missile strikes against Syrian government targets presents the West with a perhaps final opportunity to align rhetoric with reality, and policy with purpose, in its response to the Syrian civil war.

The bad news is that the White House, by gambling on its ability to convince a recalcitrant Congress to go against an isolationist public mood, has opened itself up to the very real possibility of defeat as its opponents will seek to embarrass what they consider a reluctant, irresolute Commander-in-Chief. The good news is that that path to winning the vote in Washington is paved with setting out a new and credible course for a diplomatic solution to the crisis that can justify an act of war.

This is not the contradiction in terms that the debates in Western capitals to date might suggest. If anything, the complete absence of a definition of strategic success is the single most important source of the disarray that defines the status quo. The schizophrenia at the heart of Western policy to date was on full display throughout the shambolic events in Westminster and Washington over the past week. The failure of David Cameron’s government to win a parliamentary mandate for action, and of the Obama White House to carry through promptly on its red line rhetoric was, in truth, far less about the poisonous legacy of the Iraq war than about the lack of answers to the most basic questions regarding the use of force in Syria.

What are the “strictly limited” cruise missile strikes intended to achieve, besides a vague and inherently intangible attempt to “uphold international norms” — even as they would constitute a clear violation of the U.N. Charter? What do we expect the strikes to have done to the balance of power in the civil war once the dust settles? Is there any evidence to suggest that such pin-prick attacks will change the strategic calculus among Assad’s top generals — the only real threat to his rule? The uncomfortable reality is that no one seems to know, or even care very much — as long the West is seen to have “done something.”

Two years after the beginning of the conflict — and countless lost opportunities to create the genuine global coalition for a political transition in Syria later — the unspoken prevailing sentiment among Western security and intelligence officials is that the only outcome worse than Assad prevailing in the civil war is a victory by a rebel coalition increasingly judged to be dominated by extremists and jihadists whose model for a future Syria looks a lot more like Taliban-era Afghanistan than a pluralist democracy. But to assume that a bloody, deteriorating stalemate between two scorpions in a bottle is the best of a series of bad options mocks our ostensible concern for the people of Syria, ignores the risks of further regional instability and, most importantly, misses the opportunity — even at this late hour — to forge a global alliance for change in Damascus, and an end to the war.

Let’s end the empty talk about Syria

Nader Mousavizadeh
Jun 5, 2012 19:00 UTC

In every conflict, there are clarifying moments of horror, episodes that cast into stark relief the reality of the forces at work and the complex obstacles to peace. The massacre of Al Houla, where more than a hundred civilians were murdered with savage intimacy, is such a moment in the Syria crisis – but not for the reason that you may think. It will not trigger an air war or an invasion; it will not lead to the forcible removal of the Assad regime by Western troops; and it will not tip the balance of choices among the regime’s supporters. Syria has now entered a cavern of civil conflict from which there is only the slightest of hope of escape – and achieving it requires a far more honest reckoning with the realities of power, and the West’s strategic priorities, than is currently on display in the Western debate over intervention in that country.

The Assad regime is a predatory, deeply illegitimate entity that will stop at nothing to retain power. It needs to go, one way or the other, sooner rather than later. To say this, however, is the easy part. There is little moral or strategic accomplishment in such a declaration – though you’d imagine otherwise from the bombast and bluster with which the end of the regime has been urged by Western politicians, diplomats and commentators. Far more difficult – and therefore carefully and comprehensively dodged by the self-appointed avatars of Western conscience – is constructing a credible way to transition power in Damascus to a broad-based government in the absence of the use of force.

From the criticism of Kofi Annan’s mission expressed by some commentators – and the damning with faint and cowardly praise heard from the very Security Council members who pleaded with him to take on the role as envoy – you’d imagine that the former United Nations Secretary-General and Nobel Peace Prize winner is the only thing that stands in the way of a blossoming democracy in Damascus. The truth is almost certainly the opposite. When the Security Council went to Annan 14 weeks ago and asked him to set aside his philanthropic activities in Africa to take on this perilous mission, nearly a year had gone by with the world condemning the crackdown in Syria – all to no effect. The world, including the United States, was out of options – and out of ideas – when it turned to Annan to create a process that would seek an end to the killing in Syria.

In the Middle East, a bonfire of alibis

Nader Mousavizadeh
Feb 27, 2012 19:45 UTC

Syria can set fire to Lebanon at the wave of a hand. Hezbollah can be ordered into battle with Israel at the command of a call from Tehran. Lebanon’s sectarian politics are a plaything of outsiders whose every whim determines the fate of the country. These are among the conventional wisdoms that have long held the fate of Lebanon hostage — assumptions as widely held within the country as outside it. But a closer look suggests that it is high time these preconceived notions are challenged — not because they lack a basis in reality, but because they are rooted as much in what the country’s enemies, from Damascus to Tehran, wish to be the dominant narrative as what the far more complex conditions on the ground merit.

Today, as Syria’s civil war gains speed and severity, and the crisis of Iran’s nuclear program escalates by the day, Beirut is holding its breath — too fearful and too scarred by a war-torn history to imagine anything but the worst-case scenario. And yet, the reality as acknowledged by a growing number of Lebanese observers is more complex. If Assad really could create the distraction he needs from renewed conflict in Lebanon with such ease, would he not already have done so? If Hezbollah is nothing but an arm of Iran’s forward defense, would it not have been the first agent called into action, as opposed to Tehran’s other alleged responses — from the plot to assassinate the Saudi envoy to Washington to the recent attacks on Israeli diplomats in Delhi, Bangkok and Tbilisi? As Tom Fletcher, the British ambassador to Lebanon, pointed out to me on a recent visit to Beirut, just as Sinn Fein and Hamas discovered in their time, Hezbollah’s role in the current government means that it is having to make compromises and shift from the comfortable politics of opposition.

What is true of Lebanon is true too — and far more consequentially so — when the conventional wisdom about the aims and motivations of the region’s other players are examined. At this moment of looming conflict with worldwide implications, it is time to give far greater scrutiny to the claims made by the principal protagonists about the merits of their policies — and the ways they diverge from the global interest in the security and stability of the region. This is most evidently the case with the threat of Iran’s nuclear program and the trade-off between war and containment that ultimately faces the international community.

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