Micah Zenko

Politics, Power, and Preventive Action

Zenko covers the U.S. national security debate and offers insight on developments in international security and conflict prevention.

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Time to Rethink Syria

by Guest Blogger for Micah Zenko
May 27, 2014

UN-Arab League envoy for Syria Lakhdar Brahimi pauses during a news conference at the UN European headquarters in Geneva January 27, 2014. (Balibouse/Courtesy Reuters)


Julie Anderson is an intern in the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations.

After three years of recurring conflict, an estimated 162,000 people killed (10,000 in the last two months), and millions displaced, international policies to stem the violence in Syria have been a clear failure. These efforts hit a new low on May 13 when United Nations (UN) mediator Lakhdar Brahimi resigned from his post, citing frustrations with the diplomatic process and the lack of common ground from which to build a negotiated solution. As the Syrian government, opposition forces, and international powers, particularly the United States and Russia, continue to stake out entrenched positions, and the regime prepares for sham elections in June, many have questioned if the Syrian conflict is ripe for a mediated solution.

Brahimi’s resignation is the latest in a series of roadblocks that hinder peace negotiations. Domestically, the June elections, which will likely result in a new seven year term for President Bashar al-Assad, threaten the possibility of future negotiations. Brahimi stated repeatedly that if elections proceed they will signal to the opposition parties a lack of commitment from the government to reform. This will likely cause the opposition to refuse to rejoin the negotiating table given that their stated terms for taking part in a deal include Assad being removed from power. Complicating matters is the fractured nature and increasing radicalization of Syrian opposition groups like Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) and the al-Nusra Front, posing a challenge to determining which parties, and who within them, should have a seat at the negotiating table. Regionally, powers like Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Turkey, and Israel exert their influence, either directly or indirectly, on both the peace process and the ongoing violence, treating the conflict in Syria as a proxy war for regional hegemony. At the international level, the United States and Russia cling to fixed positions on both the future makeup of the Syrian government, as well as how to engage (or not engage) with Iran. This dynamic is exacerbated by the deepening rift between western countries and Russia over the ongoing political crisis in Ukraine and the Russian annexation of Crimea

Given the current dynamic, the UN must take a step back and strategically refocus its peacebuilding efforts. As Brahimi wisely recognized, a third round of talks at present would bring about little change. Brahimi’s resignation is unfortunate as it signals the depth of the divide between the negotiating parties. However, the silver lining is that it provides the UN mediation team time and space to craft a new strategy.  In order to break the deadlock, this strategy should be two pronged.

First, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s office and the UN Department of Political Affairs (UNDPA), which manages conflict mediation efforts, should focus on influencing Russia, the United States, and regional powers that can exert influence on the regime or opposition forces to play a more constructive role. Quoting a U.S. official in its June 2013 Syria report, International Crisis Group said: “what was once a Syrian conflict with regional spillover has now become a regional war with a Syrian focus.” The mediation effort ignores this reality at the peril of its own irrelevance. If the Assad regime ever comes to the negotiating table in good faith, it will be at the urging of its backers, primarily Russia and Iran. The UN team must pressure these countries to accept that any future solution will include changes to the Syrian power structure. Only once Russia and Iran accept this can they begin to influence the regime to do the same. Their vested economic interests in the country give them an incentive to facilitate an end to the conflict sooner rather than later.  Additionally, while activity in Ukraine has strained Russia’s relationship with the United States and European Union, it has also stretched their resources thinner, possibly providing an incentive to seek an earlier solution to Syria’s conflict.

Simultaneously, the UN team should work to exert similar influence over the United States and Western powers, which have established equally unrealistic positions. These countries must accept two facts: 1) Iran must be offered a seat at the table, and 2) any brokered solution will include Assad. For the West to continue to draw a line in the sand on Iran’s participation in talks undermines the entire peace process. Iran’s interests in Syria are deep, and if they are not included Iran will simply find other ways to ensure its objectives are met, evidenced by the recent Wall Street Journal report that Iran has recruited thousands of Afghan refugees to fight in Syria, offering five hundred dollars per month and Iranian residency to help the Assad regime.

Second, the UNDPA should enlist Track II mediators to engage in diplomatic efforts with the regime and the opposition. Official channels are not making progress, but that does not mean there is no progress to be made. Organizations like the Center for Humanitarian Dialogue and the International Institute for Sustained Dialogue should be encouraged to form ties with both opposition leaders and members of Assad’s regime and pro-regime forces. Track II efforts have already taken place, including a meeting in Geneva in April with government officials, former government officials, civil society leaders, and opposition leaders from Syria and Syrian diaspora communities. UNDPA could do more to quietly encourage these interactions, which bring together lower ranking officials who are less likely to hold inflexible positions and viewpoints, by facilitating meetings, or convening with Track II organizations to make sure they have access to the same level of information as the mediation team.

With the humanitarian crisis deepening, international attention shifting away from Syria, and relations between influential powers like the Russia and United States deteriorating, it is clear that the strategies of the last three years have not and will not work. As Brahimi departs the mediation team, the UN must take this time to revamp its strategy if it wants to make progress.

Post a Comment 2 Comments

  • Posted by Tyler P. Harwell

    Dear Miss Anderson & Friends,

    Thank you for once again focusing attention on the terrible state of affairs in Syria.

    Yes, it is time to rethink policy on Syria. Any time is a good time to rethink a policy that is wrong, and policy, specifically, American policy, has been wrong from the start. Wrong in what way ? Wrong in its premise that the United States can afford to stay uninvolved in a struggle that poses a threat to the interests of key allies, and to its leadership and influence in the Middle East and elsewhere.

    Your reasoning seems to proceed from an unacknowledged premise. The premise is that the United Nations has, or can have, a crucial role to play in bringing about an end to the Syrian Civil War. I say this because your essay is almost entirely devoted to things that the UN could do to make this happen.

    Here, I would disagree, and say that you err. And here, I would offer my counter-argument.

    The UN is powerless to stop the civil war in Syria. And all nations, with the exception of one, are powerless to stop the civil war in Syria by resorting to the UN as a means of leverage.

    The one nation that represents the exception to this rule is the Assad regime’s benefactor, protector, and arms supplier: Russia. Russia could bring about an end to the Syrian Civil War. How ? By abandoning Syria as a client state. But Russia has no intention of doing this. And Russia has no interest in seeing an end come to the Syria Civil War, except on terms that are mutually acceptable to its leadership and to the Assad Regime. Which is to say, by putting down rebellion.

    Russia holds a veto in the UN Security Council. The security Council is the only UN agency capable of making a difference in Syria. It is powerless in the face of a Russian veto Hence, the UN is substantially irrelevant to the outcome of the Syrian Civil War. Lahkdar Brahimi knows this. And that is why he has quit.

    So let us get back to basics.

    I begin by stating that I argue from a position of what is best for the United States and its allies. Though sometimes I will attempt to reason from a position of what is best for Russia, or some other party, this is merely for purposes of argument.

    Russia is now supporting the Assad Regime, with help from Iran. This is not a casual policy. Russia is intent on it. Russian naval vessels conduct weekly supply missions to Syria. And until recent, that mission was protected by an aircraft carrier.

    Without this support, the Assad regime would collapse. With it, it should be able to linger on indefinitely.

    Though it was once said by a former naval intelligence officer whose views I respect, that the Russian Black Sea Fleet would be no match for the Italian Navy, still, we must concede that for all practical purposes, there is only one force that is capable of bringing an end to Russian support for the Assad regime, and that force is the United States. Only the United States is up to opposing Russian involvement in Syria.

    To date, the Obama administration has given no signal that it has any intention of challenging Russia over its support for the Assad regime. It has none, so far as anyone can tell. Thus we can only expect that the Syrian Civil War will drag on. Eventually, the Assad regime will become a puppet. Hezbollah will come to dominate western Syria. The desert will belong to the Sunni extremists. And with Russian assistance, Iranian dominance in the region will be established.

    How this will affect Iranian-American negotiations, relations with Israel, Saudi-Arabia, and Turkey, and the standing of the United States in the Middle East and elsewhere, I leave it to you to consider. You should, if as it seems, this subject is of concern to you.

    Respectfully submitted,

    Tyler P. Harwell
    New London, NH 03257

  • Posted by Phillip Bolster

    Good article, good comment. There’s always a hardcore realist response to these things I suppose and it is always hard to argue with well informed Realists. So often self confessed Realists are less informed, not so in this case. Which leaves ñ where? Well we can just describe the world that we see as accurately as possible and simple accept this world and it’s historically stubborn self…as above… OR…one can attempt to hope that a good idea (like this article) becomes more than just that. I choose the latter because jumping for an apple you most likely can’t reach is not a waste of time.
    Trying to reach higher is noble and worthwhile and tells the world that old ways, old positions are eventually going to die because they are just that- ‘old’ and barbaric and the people of Syria and Russia deserve better.
    The Putins of this world cannot beat the movement of dark to light of bad to good of corrupt dictatorship towards democratic leadership. That party is coming to an end, it’s getting towards last call at the bar.. Putin knows this. But to play it as it is, to choose inaction, is to accept it as it is, and we simple shouldn’t. Putin’s intereses are not Ruassia’s interests… Not the Russia the people of Russia or the world want. There are many things which have come about in the last 100 years which were against the ideas of puré
    Realism. The world continúes to surprise us.. It might take too long for the Syrian people now, unfortunately they die in their thousands every month while selfish men like Putin cling to old ideas but it is that injustice which should make us strive to write articles like above and I comment the writer for doing so… even if doing so is jumping for that unreachable Apple.

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