Steven A. Cook

From the Potomac to the Euphrates

Cook examines developments in the Middle East and their resonance in Washington.

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Syria: The Limits of Diplomacy

by Steven A. Cook
February 29, 2012

Tunisia's Foreign Affairs Minister Rafik Abdessalem addresses the Friends of Syria Conference in Tunis (Jason Reed/Courtesy Reuters) Tunisia's Foreign Affairs Minister Rafik Abdessalem addresses the Friends of Syria Conference in Tunis (Jason Reed/Courtesy Reuters)

Below is the first installment in a series of three posts looking specifically at the prevailing debates on Syria and what to do about the situation there.

In mid January, I wrote a piece on The Atlantic  titled, “It’s Time to Think Seriously about Intervening in Syria.” I am gratified that in the ensuing seven weeks there has been a robust debate on the op-ed pages, blogs, Twitter, Beltway roundtables, and within the Obama administration about what to do about Syria.  No doubt, this has less to do with my 1500 or so words than the deteriorating situation on the ground in Syria, especially the onslaught in Homs.  As the debate suggests, this is not an easy issue.  As I mentioned in the article, “Syria has become a place where violence, colonial legacies, the mistakes of the recent past, and the hopes for a better Middle East have collided to create layers of complications and unsettling trade-offs for policymakers and outside observers.”  It is all these things and much more—the Syria issue intersects with great power politics, international order, the United Nations, the use of military force, and philosophy.  I’ve been struck by the way in which proponents and opponents of intervention have used precisely the same evidence to marshal support for their claims.  For example, Moscow’s support for the Assads is leveraged in a way both to suggest that only force can stop the killing and  as a reason not to intervene because with the help of the Russian (and Chinese and Iranians) whatever force that is brought to bear will do little to bring Assad down while killing a lot of people.  This is not a function of muddled thinking.  (There are many very smart people who are engaged in this debate.)  Rather, we are dealing with a complex problem, with little information, faulty analogies, and fresh memories of a searing decade of violence and intervention in the Middle East.  Unlike Libya, Syria is hard.

When I wrote “It’s Time to Starting Thinking…” I was genuinely both mystified by the Syria narrative in Washington—“it was only a matter of time before Assad fell”—and as a result interested in doing my part to start a debate about how the international community could respond to the situation. I also wrote the article because it had become clear to me that diplomacy has its limits.  The magical words of diplomacy calling on Assad to “go…now” and denouncing him “to the fullest extent;” those “tightened and targeted sanctions,” restrictions on travel for senior leaders—sorry Asma, no weekend jaunts to London to replenish the closet with this season’s Manolos; calls to isolate the regime further (what does that mean?), and generalized moral outrage was not going to move the Assads to alter their course of violence.  After all, despite months of diplomatic effort, Assad continued to kill people at a fairly consistently clip.  At the time I wrote, the UN estimated that 5,000 people had been killed in the conflict.  The same organization now says that the Syrian state has killed 7,500 of its own citizens, suggesting that the Syrians have actually responded to the recent flurry of diplomacy with even more violence.  Unfortunately, there is little reason to be shocked by this as my friend and colleague Brent Sasley points out in a recent blog post.  The regime security literature strongly indicates that Assad will, indeed, fight on.

Let me be clear: I don’t oppose diplomacy.  I support everything my pal and colleague Marc Lynch has proposed in a recent CNAS report on Syria.  It is important to recognize, however, that in the context of incentives and disincentives that Assad confronts, pushing the same or similar diplomatic buttons is unlikely to advance the laudable goal of pushing Assad from power.  It might make outsiders feel better, but it is unlikely to change the situation on the ground.  For all the talk about how Syria is not Libya, they are similar in an important respect: Assad, like Qadhafi before him, perceives an existential threat to himself and the regime. As a result, international meetings intended to censure Damascus, demonstrate international outrage, and reinforce rhetorical support for Syrians under fire are likely to do very little without concomitant credible threats or the even use of force.

Tomorrow.  Is force feasible?  Will it do more harm than good?

Post a Comment 1 Comment

  • Posted by J.H.Walter

    Washington I believe hasen’t yet understood the geopolitical vision of Russia. Russia does not support the Assads, But Moscow is thinking that after occupation of Iraq, then the fall of Lybia, the coalised forces are entering to far inside the geopolitical controled space as they see it. They want to keep influence there in Syria like in Iran. They agree for Kazaksthan to cooperate with the international community for keeping peace in Afghanistan, but they keep it as their own field in the area.

    It’s like in the game of “Go”. At one moment, it brings on a “Moyo”. A line that the other power don’t want to see crossed. the fall of Kadhafi’s Lybia could be sacrified for them. But not Syria. It’s too close to the russian geopolitical space. And even China shall go against any operation.

    Then it starts a deaf diplomatic game with El Assad, that shall refuse any lesson. Then noone has allready talked about chemical weapons and other WMD owns by Syria yet ! While they have. Saddam’s one where obsolete since 1994. But not El Assad’s ones ! And like in Iraq or more than in Iraq, Lebanon Hezbollah shall reveals itself as it is : A support terrorist force in favor of El Assad regime, with the help of Iran ! Opposed to a major sunnite rebelion against Damascus dictatorship ! Then the long fight between pro iranian chiite and sunnite islam shall start there too, in Syria with a revolution !

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