Within days or weeks, President Barack Obama and his new foreign policy team will make decisions with huge ramifications for U.S. interests in the Middle East. The president’s cautious interventionism against the besieged Assad dictatorship in Syria has come under fire as a result of the regime’s recent gains in the stalemated conflict and its reported use of chemical weapons on a small scale. As a president who takes domestic politics strongly into account in his foreign policy decisions, Obama could be particularly sensitive to charges by congressional hawks, media pundits and some “liberal interventionists” that he is “indecisive” and abandoning “U.S. leadership in the world.” No doubt some of his political advisers worry that such accusations could damage his ability to lead on other issues.
But what is likely to happen on the ground if the U.S. increases its military support — via advanced weapons, protected “safe zones” or strikes on air bases — to an insurgency that is so fractured by Islamism (including a strong extremist force), other political quarrels and local concerns? According to many Syria experts, even “military success,” the fall of the Assad regime, would constitute a hollow victory. It would usher in an era of lawless militias, secessionist resistance to Sunni rule by Assad’s Alawite minority fearing annihilation and spreading sectarian violence in the region.
Yet such “success” is by no means assured. Unlike the late Qadhafi regime in Libya, Syria’s is well-organized for war and has powerful allies — Iran, Hezbollah and Russia — to respond to U.S. actions with advanced arms, advisers and volunteers or other fighters. The U.S. must also anticipate that another instance of Western-pushed regime change, after Libya, will inflame America’s already difficult relations with Russia, Iran and North Korea, which are critical for American security interests.
Looking down the road at such consequences, Secretary of State John Kerry has proposed that representatives from the Syrian government and the opposition attend a U.N.-U.S.-Russia-sponsored peace conference to begin to negotiate a political solution based on an inclusive and consensual transitional government and a timetable for democracy. A negotiated settlement holds the promise of more orderly political change, including the maintenance of state institutions needed to serve the Syrian people and the insertion of an international peacekeeping force. However, the opposition coalition is refusing to attend unless there is a prior agreement for Bashar Assad to relinquish power and Hezbollah forces stop supporting his army.
Actually, the U.S. and its NATO allies arrived at a similar juncture just two years ago. Then, South African President Jacob Zuma met NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen in Sochi, Russia, to convey the African Union proposals for a framework agreement for a democratic transition in Libya. The AU also aimed for an inclusive transition that would have eased Qadhafi out within months and put in place a U.N. peacekeeping force.
Zuma wanted NATO — whose forces were bombing the Libyan military — to persuade Libyan insurgents to drop their precondition that Qadhafi depart in advance of negotiations. He argued that AU diplomacy had made considerable progress amidst the ongoing military stalemate. The Libyan government had agreed to talk directly with the rebel Transitional National Council and withdraw troops from contested cities if the TNC would do the same. Most important, Qadhafi had accepted that he would not participate in the negotiations.
But the U.S. and NATO refused to put pressure on the TNC. Months later, NATO achieved a largely Pyrrhic victory against a government far weaker than that of Syria. While a brutal dictatorship was displaced, it has been succeeded by a reign of lawless militias (including the one that murdered the U.S. ambassador), and a chaotic outflow of arms and fighters that resulted in the detachment of half of Mali and the spread of Islamic extremism in North Africa and West Africa. Iran and North Korea publicly drew the lesson that Qadhafi’s fatal error was to abandon his nuclear program. And Russia concluded that the U.N. must never again be used to sanction Western-supported regime change.
In the face of Syria’s horrors, it is easy to despair of finding a political solution. Yet since the Cold War ended, the international community has mediated settlements in comparably bloody civil wars in Bosnia, Burundi, Cambodia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Sudan and Mozambique. It would most likely take many meetings over many months under the neutral auspices of the U.N. special envoy and with the involvement of key outside powers to convince the parties in Syria that neither side is likely to prevail and to agree on a political transition. But this is the option that Kerry correctly senses will best serve American interests and values.
The burning question is whether Obama and his new team will have the wisdom and foresight to push patiently for a negotiated solution, or whether they will succumb to the temptation to demonstrate the president’s political command.
Stephen R. Weissman, former staff director of the House Subcommittee on Africa and senior governance adviser to USAID, is author of the recent In These Times article “In Syria, Unlearned Lessons From Libya.”
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