Let’s End the Empty Talk about Syria
5th June 2012
In every conflict, there are clarifying moments of horror, episodes that cast into stark relief the reality of the forces at work and the complex obstacles to peace. The massacre of Al Houla, where more than a hundred civilians were murdered with savage intimacy, is such a moment in the Syria crisis – but not for the reason that you may think. It will not trigger an air war or an invasion; it will not lead to the forcible removal of the Assad regime by Western troops; and it will not tip the balance of choices among the regime’s supporters. Syria has now entered a cavern of civil conflict from which there is only the slightest of hope of escape – and achieving it requires a far more honest reckoning with the realities of power, and the West’s strategic priorities, than is currently on display in the Western debate over intervention in that country.
The Assad regime is a predatory, deeply illegitimate entity that will stop at nothing to retain power. It needs to go, one way or the other, sooner rather than later. To say this, however, is the easy part. There is little moral or strategic accomplishment in such a declaration – though you’d imagine otherwise from the bombast and bluster with which the end of the regime has been urged by Western politicians, diplomats and commentators. Far more difficult – and therefore carefully and comprehensively dodged by the self-appointed avatars of Western conscience – is constructing a credible way to transition power in Damascus to a broad-based government in the absence of the use of force.
From the criticism of Kofi Annan’s mission expressed by some commentators – and the damning with faint and cowardly praise heard from the very Security Council members who pleaded with him to take on the role as envoy – you’d imagine that the former United Nations Secretary-General and Nobel Peace Prize winner is the only thing that stands in the way of a blossoming democracy in Damascus. The truth is almost certainly the opposite. When the Security Council went to Annan 14 weeks ago and asked him to set aside his philanthropic activities in Africa to take on this perilous mission, nearly a year had gone by with the world condemning the crackdown in Syria – all to no effect. The world, including the United States, was out of options – and out of ideas – when it turned to Annan to create a process that would seek an end to the killing in Syria.
What Annan did by creating his six-point plan was, in reality, to pave the path for Assad’s exit. Either, on the one hand, Assad would be forced by intense, creative diplomatic pressure backing Annan’s diplomacy to accept and implement the six-point plan – and in that case, the only logical conclusion to a proposal that calls for a broad-based rule would be a new government in which Assad, by definition, would have no place. Or, on the other hand, Assad would maneuver and manipulate his way around the plan’s demands, and thereby unleash the kind of sectarian fighting that his minority clan will win only until the day it loses, and then gets destroyed. So far, both sides have played their predictable roles: Western powers unwilling to think beyond conventional ideas in their attempts to apply material pressure on the regime; and Assad, dogged and deeply delusional, maintaining his fantasy of an elected government in Damascus besieged by a jihadist-Western conspiracy.
If Assad is unlikely to change his stripes, it is high time for the West to engage the conflict on terms that reflect the complex requirements of a successful removal of Bashar al-Assad from power. What Assad recognizes, first of all, is that there is zero appetite in Western capitals, or the Middle East, for an armed intervention in Syria of the kind we saw in Iraq or Libya. He knows that Russia will continue to block the legal foundation for enforcement action in the Security Council as long as he’s offering them a better deal than the West is prepared to do. And he understands that as long as the West looks to the external opposition for coherent leadership of the transition he can sleep easy in his bed.
To achieve the fundamental aims of the international community in Syria – an end to the bloodshed and a transition to a broad-based, legitimate government – the West will have to reverse its approach on all three fronts. On the matter of military intervention, empty talk that does little to frighten Assad – and a great deal to alienate critical members of the Security Council, such as Russia and China – needs to stop. To shift its position, a Russian state that has little love for Assad and greatly fears the salafi-jihadist aftermath of a Syrian civil war requires genuine engagement on its core interests: stability in Syria and a say in the country’s future commensurate with the West’s. Finally, the external opposition has to be understood as incapable of achieving the organizational coherence or domestic legitimacy to lead the transition.
The answer, if there is one short of all-out war, is to focus on the pressure points at the top of the Alawite security structures, whose calculation of their balance of interests has not been sufficiently altered by the diplomacy of the past 14 months. Beneath the surface image of a brutally successful regime set on prosecuting a war on its people, there is in fact a highly dynamic situation, with fluid shifts in power within the country and among interests outside, making this a moment of opportunity. Rather than focusing on a transition process in the hands of the opposition, all efforts must now center on bringing the Russians along to create a united international message to the Alawite elites: Distance yourselves from Assad and his immediate circle of henchmen and you will be part of a transition that keeps the army, and other Alawite centers of power, at the table in the design of the new, multi-party, governance of Syria.
If the Annan plan “fails,” or “has failed,” as pundits are falling over themselves to declare, it will be because the Security Council powers, and the United States in particular, did not will its success. He is their envoy, appointed to carry out their mandate, and no ruler is better placed than Assad to call a Western bluff when he sees it. The pillars of his rule – those whose betrayal is the only sure path to Assad’s speedy end – will know when Annan’s diplomacy is backed by a united council determined to effect a change at the top. There are, in other words, today two ways to see the end of the Assad regime: either by giving the Annan mission the backing it needs to make clear to the people around Assad that their survival is incompatible with their leader’s continued hold on power; or by way of a vicious civil war that will see many more Houlas yet before Syria’s people have the prospect of living without fear in their own homes.
Diplomacy, more often than we’d wish, is a matter of limited, available alternatives. For Syria, there is no deus ex machina, no intervention force waiting to provide a clean removal of the regime in Damascus with the simplicity or speed than anyone would like. This is, at heart, a profoundly Syrian conflict of power and survival – it started in the streets and alleys of Syria, and it will end there. The real tipping point in Syria still awaits – the day when a small group of men around Assad’s command center look each other in the eye and conclude that a bullet to his head is the only way to save their own. What remains is one last chance to avoid an all-out civil war whose consequences are unpredictable except in one respect: that we will all look back on this time and ask ourselves why more wasn’t done to support and sustain the one diplomatic strategy designed to shift the elite’s allegiances, and negotiate the transition away from Assad’s ruinous rule to a new, legitimate, government in Syria.