It’s not clear how much longer the US will have discretion in what – if anything – to do about Syria. While the Obama administration pesters Russia and China in the UN, Russia and China are shuttling diplomats around the Arab world, coming up with separate plans. The Syria crisis has become as much about a contest for leadership between East and West as it is about the terrible death toll in Syria – and there is little time left for the West to act decisively.
Clearly divided global leaders
The confrontations in the UN have been emblematic of the Asian-Atlantic divide over Syria, but perhaps not as much as a less-publicized sequence of events. In the hours after Russia and China vetoed the Western-sponsored UN resolution in February, Nicolas Sarkozy proposed the “Friends of Syria” vehicle for coordinating international action. The US and Turkey quickly joined forces on the Friends of Syria effort, and a first meeting was scheduled for 24 February in Tunisia.
Russia and China both declined to participate. And their non-participation has taken the form of competing efforts to put a plan together to resolve the Syrian crisis. On 10 March, at a meeting in Cairo – shortly before this week’s UN confrontation with the US – Russia and the Arab League announced a set of agreed principles for ending the conflict. One of those principles is that both sides – the Assad regime and the insurgents – must lay down their arms. Russia will not buy into any proposal that has Assad’s forces observing a unilateral ceasefire.
The Arab League’s agreement on Russia’s “five principles” is a milestone in the effort to get some kind of coalescence around a way ahead. Arab League agreement is not universal; it won’t surprise Middle East-watchers that Qatar – home of Muslim Brotherhood leader Yusuf al-Qaradawi and recent host of the anti-Israel “Jerusalem conference” – called last week for a military solution in Syria, with Arab troops in the lead. But the Arab League agreement with Russia tends to highlight Qatar as an outlier in that regard.
It appears that Qatar is hoping to urge the West to intervene in Syria, in combination with military forces from Arab partners; i.e., replicate the action in Libya last year. From a Muslim Brotherhood standpoint, wresting Libya from Qadhafi opened the country up to shariazation. But the Arab League as a whole is publicly agreeing with Russia rather than backing Qatar’s play. (And this in spite of Arab League participation in the Friends of Syria meeting in Tunisia.)
China chimed in a few hours ago with supportive comments about the Russia-Arab League agreement. (Beijing has also gone Russia one better with a six-point plan.) The Chinese had an envoy in Syria last week talking to both the Assad government and the insurgents in an effort to broker a ceasefire, and they are dispatching diplomats around the region to “explain China’s position” and affirm the need for a political solution.
Meanwhile, Turkey plans to host the second Friends of Syria meeting on 2 April. (The dilatory schedule mimics the US/EU approach to Libya in 2011.) Nothing much came out of the first one, and the second meeting is already haunted by the report – denied by Turkish authorities – that Sarkozy had not been invited to it because of the recent French resolution condemning the World War I-era slaughter of Armenians as a genocide.
The lack of momentum for Western-brokered proposals is a serious problem. While it would be too much to say that the Russia-Arab League agreement has momentum at this point, it would also be too much to say that anything put forward by the West is a credible challenge to it. The Arab League doesn’t have the unity to deal with Syria by itself, and has been looking for a strong horse to run with. There is no guarantee at this point that the strong horse will be the US and EU.
Turkish press opined this weekend that the reelection of Vladimir Putin would induce a notable warming trend in Russian-Turkish relations. Putin is a personal friend of President Gul and Prime Minister Erdogan; this prediction is solid, although of course it will not eliminate all of the natural sources of friction between the two nations. What it may well do, however, is change the dynamic in which Turkey has found it convenient to throw in with the US on the Syria problem.
If the US is not going to back decisive action in Syria, Turkey may quietly migrate to an accord with Russia on ending the conflict. (If Ankara can present this as Russia migrating toward Turkey, so much the better for Erdogan. But Moscow has the agreement in hand with the Arab League.) What we may count on with both Turkey and Russia is a desire to wield the primary influence over the process of establishing a new government in Syria. With the current US administration, the utility of the United States as a patron for this Turkish purpose may not be as great as that of Russia.
Syrian situation on the ground
Is the strategic situation changing inside Syria? There are developments that suggest it is. The Assad regime is mounting an assault today on the northern enclave in rebel hands. Unconfirmed reports suggest that regime forces have recaptured Idlib, a key city held by the Free Syrian Army.
Significantly, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has also reported that the Syrian government is laying mines on the borders with Turkey and Lebanon, a measure designed to keep foreign forces out and curtail the rebels’ cross-border cooperation. There is no reporting about the border with Iraq, but Iraq is the land route between Syria and Iran, which Assad will probably not want to imperil. The borders with Turkey and Lebanon are the likely infiltration routes for foreign special forces and support to the Syrian rebels.
Yesterday, moreover, Russia dispatched two planeloads of humanitarian assistance to Syria. Raise your hand if you think the two IL-76 cargo aircraft contained only “humanitarian” goods. (OK, you with the hands up, go demine the Syrian border.)
The hour is late. The fact that the US and EU have no momentum doesn’t mean no one has; with each passing day, it is more likely to mean the opposite. If Assad is able to regain control of his territory, there will be no acceptable – no unifying – pretext for intervention. The battle for this objective appears to have already started. As between the dithering of the West and the cynical pragmatism of Russia and China, the latter seems to be looking pretty good to the Arab League.
The road not taken
What should the US have done by now? Adopted a determined objective of our own – in my view, it could only have been removing Assad, preventing a takeover by Islamists, and brokering the establishment of a consensual, multi-party government – and pursued the objective pragmatically but in a principled manner. It is very possible the objective could have been achieved without military action.
Regarding the pragmatism: Russia has a stake in Syria. It doesn’t matter whether we think she should or not; she does. Get over it; stop haranguing Russia pointlessly in public forums, and concentrate on herding Russia toward our objective. If Syria is not taken over by Islamists, Russia wins. So do we. That should unite us in riding herd on the plans of the Erdogan government, as well as Iran’s and the Muslim Brotherhood’s.
In any case, Russia has always been the key to removing Assad without the need for military intervention, and in late January and February, Russia was even obliquely communicating a willingness to trade Assad for a new model. The character of Syrian territory as a strategic factor for Russia – whether it is hostile or friendly – is of more importance to Moscow than Bashar al-Assad is.
A solution in which the Syrian people were empowered to operate more freely in a true multiparty government, under the aegis of multinational protection against both Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood, would be the most desirable, achievable outcome. It is not possible to broker this outcome while ignoring Russia, but it would be possible to broker it by including Russia. There are enough competing interests, between the US, the Arab world, the EU, Russia, and Turkey, to leverage everyone into a favorable compromise. The overriding principle should be that the Syrian people be relieved of Assad but not fall prey to Islamists – and that is a principle that the governments of most of the Arab League, as well as Europe and Russia, could unite around.
A key principle of the Reagan administration, that negotiating with the old Soviet Union on human rights was integral to global security, should underlie the US approach to Syria. We need not hand Moscow a third-party revolution in Syria; we would do better to warn Russia that that’s what she’ll get if she doesn’t work with us – and then focus on the political conditions in Syria. If we are watching over their liberalization, Russia may even retain a special relationship with Syria, but the guarantee of a more liberal political atmosphere will do what it always does: empower the liberalizers and foster transparency and truth. Russia’s relationship with Syria should depend on adapting to that.
But only the US has the power to ensure that condition. None of this would be easy. I can think of few things less fun than dealing with Russia and Turkey on Syria. But a program like this is feasible, or at least it has been, because there are so many competing interests to leverage. US leadership is what is missing in all this – and it will not look like leadership to anyone else unless it contains an element of enforcement. (The reason why Russia’s position is starting to look more like leadership to those in the region is precisely that it does.) Everyone should be worried that if he doesn’t compromise and accept the basic features of the US position, he won’t be in on the solution.
That’s not the situation our leaders in Washington have created, however. There is and has always been an alternative to either intervening militarily, against the strenuous objections of Russia and China, or leaving Assad to do whatever he’s going to do. But crafting that alternative would require positive leadership from the United States. (It would, for example, require changing our intelligence focus from generic – plaintive – questions about whether Assad will survive to what would happen if the US took specific actions.)
We would have to take a position, one beyond simply getting rid of Assad. We would have to start knocking heads together to line up a coalition for it. It seems absurd to have to explain that – but then, we did elect Obama in 2008.