Monday, November 24, 2014

Saving Syria and America

DENVER – Critics of America’s Middle East policies are reminiscent of Woody Allen’s quip in Annie Hall: “The food at this place is really terrible...and such small portions.” The United States is seen as the culprit behind many of the regions ills, and yet it is accused of not being sufficiently engaged, of “leading from behind,” of failing to support democracy, of abandoning its friends, and so on. Given all the accusations that the US faces for its involvement in the region over the decades, one would think that America would be invited to stay home.

But the region cries out for leadership, and the US remains the only country that can provide it. The problem for the US is not the divisions in the Middle East that it must understand and navigate better, but rather the divisions within the US that have eroded domestic consensus on many foreign-policy issues. Those internal differences are what have kept the US on the sidelines during the latest Middle East upheavals.

America used to have essentially two varieties of foreign-policy positions: realist and idealist. But today opinions are fragmented across a broad range of positions – a situation that also cries out for leadership.

President Barack Obama’s oft-stated view that “we need some nation building at home,” combined with his antiseptic waging of drone warfare, indicates that he is erring on the side of the isolationists of both the left and the right. Unilateralism, it seems, is fast becoming the isolationists’ internationalism.

What the US needs is to explain better to its own people why America should engage more deeply with the Middle East’s mounting problems. This is not to say that the US should necessarily engage with every problem. But, whether America is engaged or not, it does need a policy.

Syria is a case in point. The situation there, predicted by every pundit around, has metastasized and threatens to become a full-blown regional civil war. The US has reacted to this international catastrophe by providing light arms to some rebel groups in order to inflict a pinprick on President Bashar al-Assad’s regime for its use of chemical weapons months before.

This is not serious policy. Military assistance should support a political plan, not serve as a substitute for one.

A month ago, there was a brief moment of hope when US Secretary of State John Kerry began an effort to find a way forward with the Russians. The Kremlin’s consequential and sustained support of Assad is serious policy, and suggests that if the US is to make progress short of confrontation with Russia, it should work with Russian leaders to narrow the differences so that, at the end of the process, a peace conference is held.

Indeed, successful US policy in the Middle East has usually included a serious Russian track. Instead, the talks with the Russians seem to have run aground on the question of calling a conference among the warring parties to agree on elections. But elections in sectarian conflicts tend to be merely a census, and the Assad regime and all the other players know full well that Syria is a Sunni-majority country. There is no need for an election to determine that.

What is not known is whether there is a set of future political arrangements on which the parties could agree. It is not known, because it has not been tried.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration has made no effort to explain what it is doing and why, engaging instead in public handwringing over the complexities of the problem. But building monuments to difficult problems is not a policy. As Churchill once wrote about the “Mulberry” harbors (his ingenious plan to install prefabricated floating piers a day after the Normandy landings), “the difficulties will argue for themselves.”

Obama’s explanation of a Syrian policy might look something like this: “Syria is a difficult problem that, left unchecked, could threaten US interests in the region. No side can prevail and win outright, so there must be a negotiated settlement on the political arrangements that follow the conflict. The US will work with partners in the region and internationally to assist the Syrians to find a way forward. Syrians need to understand what their country will look like in the future, so that all sides can see a solution that can be secured through negotiation rather than violence.”

He should then announce concrete action to achieve this goal: “Today, I have directed State Department teams under Secretary Kerry to visit key international capitals – in Europe and Arab League countries, as well as Moscow – in an effort to agree on a set of principles around which Syrians can find common ground.”

The first principle could be that Syria should continue to exist within its current borders. Another might be that Syria will be a federal state, with broad local autonomy. A third could concern the shape of a future parliament. And so forth.

When agreed, these principles could be announced as an international peace plan. Only when one or more parties to the conflict reject it has the moment arrived to consider a serious effort to arm some of the combatants.

In the end, a solution in Syria will depend on Syrians’ agreement on future political arrangements. But the US demand that Assad step down or be removed from power has not been helpful; indeed, it has marginalized the US more than it has Assad. No one can be expected to join negotiations aimed at his or her own political demise.

But all that is water under the bridge. There are those who say that the Syrian crisis could have been addressed two years ago, but that now is too late. Two years from now, some will say the same thing. But if the US can work with partners on the specifics of a future political plan, it can still rescue Syria, not to mention itself.

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    1. CommentedTheStudent Economist

      Quite a few good points. While the policy you described is obviously more concrete than anything coming out of this administration, I'd like to focus on other problems that have exacerbated the Syrian Conflict. 1) No Leadership: as you pointed out there is very little political leadership coming from actual Syrians, even Egypt is suffering from this. 2) Water Under the Bridge: At this point, the war is on, and there is little we can do but sit on our hands and wait for this one to play out. Russia/Putin doesn't mind playing political chess and our international power has eroded to a point where unless chemical weapons are involved, we have no merit for serious policy.

    2. CommentedWalter Gingery

      The pessimist in me says that the parties to the Syrian conflict will be ready for a conference if, and only when, they see that, having exhausted themselves and their foreign allies, they cannot achieve their aims by military means . Alas, that will be a very long time coming. And by that time, Syria of the late 20th century will be unrecognizable.

    3. Commentedhari naidu

      For once, a cogent and undeniably realistic policy to find a solution in Syria.

      First principle, boarders of Syria must be maintained and its sovereign entity more or less guaranteed by US-Russia.

      Second, federalism may be a way out of sectarian revolution. However how to guarantee it requires US-Russia acquiescence.

      Third, Obama (The Pasha!) is remotely inclined to spill blood and treasure in Syria, so far.

      Bottom line, the Sunni-tribal support from Gulf States must be put on notice that the way forward demands compromise; same apples to Assad & Co.

    4. CommentedWim Roffel

      The article assumes that all Sunni support the opposition. But it well known that in places like Aleppo and Damascus and in Raqqa province the majority of the population prefers Assad over the rebels. And with the increasing Islamization of the opposition many believe now that Assad has majority support and would win elections.

      The suggestions what Obama should do sound right. Unfortunately I have the impression that the only thing Obama cares about is "regime change" and that he prefers to do that with the fewest possible American finger prints.

    5. CommentedGary Tucker

      I would only propose that for a truly long term peaceful solution to not only the Syrian crisis but much of the Levant that your wonderful proposal have an important single reset in thinking.

      Thus the nation evolving from what is currently Syria would indeed include the entire existing nation of Syria within its borders. Not to be divided. It would also be true that the nation evolving from what is now Syria would be a federal state, with broad local autonomy. And indeed the third also involves a carefully drafted and agreed upon parliament and constitutional framework.

      But this could also be said, word for word, for Iraq. Or Lebanon. Indeed it is much of what the Palestinians have been demanding for their future nation, in principle with regards to Israel.

      What is missing in this thinking is that what really makes sense, in the long term and for the entire region is if your statement is not just about Syria. But it is about a single nation that is the combination of Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan and the Palestinian Territories. The Nation of Syriaq if you will.

      All remain within their current borders. It would just be a single all inclusive border. All would be part of a federal state with broad local autonomy. All would concern the shape of the future parliament and constitutional framework. And again so forth.

      Just as Iraq is sliding ever so closely to a three part Shia/Sunni/Kurdish state so too would a Nation of Syriaq become a Federal Nation of Shia/Alawite, Sunni, Kurds. Druze, Christians and even remarkably perhaps a great number of Jews.

      As all the nations of the region are falling apart the ironic answer may be that what they really need instead is all join together.

      What the US could do is create a scenario of a central core for such a nation in a compromise capital of Amman. For decades now Amman has been the go to place for diaspora refugees from virtually every surrounding and inclusive nation mentioned. The only group who have not shown up in numbers are perhaps the Kurds.

      What the US needs to be able to do is show what a unified Syriaq would entail. To the Shia, the Sunni, the Kurds, the Arab League, the Russians, Iran, the EU, the Israelis.

      What the US also needs to do is allow that the Syrian Army, to a very great extent, would remain intact and become the core of a Syriaq Army. What the US also needs to do is let Russia take the wheel on making it work from ground. Alone and with the people within Syriaq.

      What the US could do however is convince all parties, including the Jordanians, that a nation of Syriaq has its best chance of succeeding as a Hashemite Kingdom. And with Amman as the central axis of a much larger Federal State, first of all as the capital of a nation of 70 million, Amman and surrounding region would no longer be a city without a major industry. Being the capital would provide a stable economic base for the entire region. It would also mean hundreds of thousands of refugees could go home. And this time for good. This is a concept the people of Jordan have not had since the nation was created.

      The second part of the axis is that it is between all the other nations and the Palestinians. While Palestinians may not have considered merging with Jordan one on one in the past to any great degree, being part of a much larger Syriaq would be a tempting proposition. Both for the Palestinians in Palestine and those elsewhere in Syriaq.

      It is no accident that the Iraqi national anthem is a Palestinian song. It is no accident that before the troubles in Syria, Syrian children used to stand in class and recite "we are all Palestinians."

      As members of the Nation of Syriaq, the negotiating stance between Syriaq and Israel might have a much more peace oriented nature and foundation. The people of Syriaq would need to turn inward to both create and rebuild a new nation.

      Before the end of World War I this was pretty much the hope of millions of Arabs in the Levant anyway. A single united country. It would be a century late but better late than never.

      A single nation with Basra, Baghdad, Damascus, Erbil, Aleppo, Beirut, Al Quds, and Amman. That is a nation that has a promise to do great things.

      And again. the people of Syria would remain united within the same border, as would the people of Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan and perhaps the Palestinians.

    6. CommentedJ St. Clair

      "The first principle could be that Syria should continue to exist within its current borders. Another might be that Syria will be a federal state, with broad local autonomy. A third could concern the shape of a future parliament. And so forth." ...the gist of your article is to force the structure of the their govt. to be the same/similar to as one's own.