The West’s overall approach to Syria since the uprising began in March 2011 has been a combination of empty sloganeering (“we strongly and unequivocally condemn this violence”), wishful thinking (“it is only a matter of time before Assad falls”), and hand wringing (“Syria is not Libya”). Yet recently, there seems to have been a subtle, yet important shift that would augur a more active American and European role in managing the conflict. The recent Friends of Syria meeting in Istanbul gave Secretary of State John Kerry an opportunity to signal an evolution of U.S. policy and the British and the French have publicly entertained the idea of lifting the arms embargo on the rebellion. This all seems to be good news, yet it may be more apparent than real. This is not to suggest that Washington will renege on the pledge that Kerry made in Turkey or that the Foreign Office and Quay d’Orsay are not serious about the prospects of supplying weapons to the Free Syrian Army, but this support is far from unequivocal.
The rethinking in Europe about how best to assist the rebellion masks a continuing deep ambivalence about Syria’s civil war and the prospects for bringing it to an end. Like American officials, Europeans tend to mouth all the right words about the “cost of doing nothing being too high” and that “Assad has to go,” but it is hard to be convinced that they believe what they are saying. If you listen carefully and parse the Europeans’ comments about Syria, they actually contradict the more robust policy they are suggesting by lifting the embargo. They say:
1) There is no magic formula for resolving the conflict in Syria;
2) While Assad has already lost, the opposition can only win at high cost;
3) As a result of 1 and 2, plans must be made for a “political transition” central to which is “re-opening political space.”
This strikes me as European prevaricating at its best. In essence, they are calling for that mythical “Russian solution,” which would have Bashar and Asma living out their days in the company of other discredited dictators on the outskirts of Moscow while the rebels make a deal with regime loyalists who were not part of Assad’s inner circle.
In the abstract there is, of course, a compelling logic to this plan. If you want to mitigate the possibility that Syria rips itself apart in a post-Assad maelstrom of factional violence, you have to avoid the mistakes the United States made in Iraq with de-Baathification. Fair enough, but both the regime and the rebellion have taken the Russian solution off the table and Moscow has little influence over Assad’s decision-making. Who exactly from the opposition is willing to talk to whom within the regime? It is clear that the fight has become existential for both sides, making compromise difficult even with the intervention of the most skilled diplomats.
There is a sense that the Europeans know they are being unrealistic, leaving one to wonder why they are even peddling the idea. Even though they emphasize the importance of a political solution when pressed, the Europeans freely admit that the prospects for a negotiated transition “may have been overtaken by events.” Indeed, they have. Many months ago. Syrians are thus left to draw the conclusion that despite some movement in Washington, London, and Paris, they remain on their own.