by Robert E. Hunter
With the collapse of the latest round of negotiations over Syria’s future, the tragedy of its people — of all ethnic and religious backgrounds — continues into its third year. Military forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad are doing better than was expected a few months ago. The opposition, a heterogeneous group directing their disparate energies to the common goal of ending Assad’s rule, is increasingly dominated by Islamist extremists. Meanwhile no outside country has been prepared to act to bring the conflict to a halt and take responsibility for what comes next.
The phrase “outside country” is assumed to mean the United States, ignoring the fact that Europe is far closer and, as hundreds of thousands of refugees flee Syria, many will find their way to that continent rather than America. But the European Union is in dis-union over economics, uncertain of its foreign policy future — though it has now succeeded in Ukraine where the US failed — and still expects Washington to look after shared Western interests in the Middle East.
For the US to take the lead and pursue effective diplomacy, it must decide what final outcome to Syrian fighting will best suit American interests and values — begging the question of whether the US or anyone else can determine results. Washington has still not made this decision. If and when it does, it must also convince its friends and allies in the region to follow suit and, in the case of some of them, to stop poisoning the well. As of now, that course is unlikely, as each regional country pursues its own interests, heedless of the best interests of the Syrian people as a whole.
Much of what has been happening in Syria stems from the political, cultural, economic, and — to a degree — religious earthquake that began in Tunisia in December 2010, and spread to Libya, Egypt, Yemen and Bahrain, sweeping up Syria in the process. But what is happening in Syria has proved to be more complicated and perhaps more consequential than what has been happening in the other “Arab Spring” countries. Unlike Libya, Syria is not remote from the rest of the region; unlike Bahrain, its struggles are already spilling over onto other countries; and Syria’s turmoil is impacting other US foreign policy concerns, including negotiations with Iran and those between Israel and the Palestinians.
To begin with, the Syrian civil war has become part of the age-old struggle between the descendants of the Prophet — Sunni vs. Shia. The latest round began when the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq toppled a Sunni minority government that had for centuries dominated its Shia majority. For Sunni states, especially Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE, and to a degree Turkey, Syria is payback time. That means doing all they can, both directly and with whatever support they can muster from the US and Europe, to depose Assad and, with his departure, the political dominance of the minority Alawites (a Shia sect).
Syria has also become a surrogate struggle for preeminence in the region, pitting Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arabs against Iran and perhaps also Turkey. To top it off, rich Sunnis in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the UAE have been providing inspiration, cash, and thus access to arms to al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations to operate in Syria, just as they have been operating in Yemen, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, in the last-named country killing Americans and other troops in the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). The Saudi government has not been directly involved, but it has not stopped the heinous practice, while the US has turned a blind eye.
Further, at the behest of Saudi Arabia and Israel, the US has blocked Iran’s participation in the Geneva talks on Syria, a sine qua non for success that might give Iran some incentive to reduce its own destructive role in Syria as well as Lebanon, a role motivated in part to show that Iran cannot be excluded from planning over the region’s future.
Unfortunately, by proclaiming two years ago that “Assad must go,” President Barack Obama fell into a trap and made himself and the United States handmaidens to Sunni and Saudi-led political objectives. The premise of diplomacy has thus been “transition” beyond the Assad regime, rather than just searching for an end to the conflict, even if Assad were left in place. But given that he is not likely to negotiate his own demise (figuratively and perhaps also literally); and given that the Alawites have little confidence about their own survival in the chaos that would likely follow Assad’s departure, it is no wonder that diplomacy has led nowhere.
Further, Obama and his team have not been willing to say “we got it wrong” in calling for Assad to step down, rather than viewing that as a possible, if desirable, result down the road. Few leaders have the courage to admit being wrong, and the President would be hammered in the media and on Capitol Hill if he did. Nor has the United States done more than make vague declarations of hope to show the Alawites that they would not risk life and limb if Assad did go — perhaps as the result of a coup d’état by disaffected Alawite military leaders. So, “negotiating the transition” remains the (untenable) premise of diplomacy.
No one has yet done the hard work of fashioning a process whereby all the different sects in Syria would have a reasonable chance of security, equality and fair political representation. “Holding free elections” is a nice slogan; it is not a policy or on its own a serious process for getting from here to there. And if anyone doubts the difficulty, he or she should take a look next door at Lebanon — to an extent Syria in microcosm — which for decades has tried and failed to find a workable recipe for governance.
This throws outsiders back on second best, which is to try providing humanitarian relief in Syria, as well as relief to the millions of refugees who have fled Syria. It means the US, Europeans, and Russia need finally to devise a diplomacy that has a chance to work for all Syrians, including the Alawites, whatever the outcome for Assad. It also ratchets up the need for the US and other Western states to lean heavily on Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arabs to stop using Syria for their own sectarian and geopolitical ends. This includes bringing Iran into the Syria negotiations and then impressing on Tehran that its future in the outside world requires it to limit its regional ambitions.
The Saudi government recently announced that any Saudi citizen fighting in Syria will go to jail when he gets back home. But this is a “day late and a riyal short” and is no doubt linked to Obama’s scheduled visit to Riyadh next month, ostensibly to reassure the Saudis and other friendly regional states that the US will not compromise their interests in diplomacy regarding Syria or with Iran. Between now and then, however, the Saudis should be required to demonstrate their bona fides. The US president must not go to a country that is just throwing gasoline on the fire.
The point should be made in even broader terms: why is the United States rushing to reassure regional countries that it will not sell out their interests either in Syria or with Iran? For decades, the US has moved heaven and earth in an attempt to make the Middle East safe for all our friends and allies, with little or no thanks for doing so and often uncooperative behavior. But with the radical reduction of US dependence on the region’s oil, the balance of advantage has swung radically: friendly local states across the Middle East now depend a lot more on the US than we do on them.
President Obama should use his trip to Saudi Arabia to make that point clearly, while US diplomats fan out to underscore that our patience has run out with rivalries among countries ostensibly on our side, that we will not tolerate efforts to sabotage the talks with Iran, and that if we are expected to help stop the Syrian conflict, we will do so to advance the cause of humanity in Syria and US interests in a region with a chance for peace — not to be a cat’s paw to others’ ambitions.
The US also needs to finally start seeing everything that happens in the Middle East as related to everything else and design policies based on that fact. That involves filling the senior levels of the administration, the State Department, and the National Security Council Staff with people who truly understand the region and can think strategically. If he does this, President Obama can actually start putting the US on the right track to a viable way out of the Syrian tragedy and to fashioning a coherent approach to the Middle East as a whole.