Syria and the Limits of Diplomacy

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Understand what will and won't work in pushing Bashar al-Assad from power.

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British Foreign Minister William Hague and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at a UN Security Council meeting on Syria / Reuters

In mid January, I wrote a piece 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.

This article originally appeared at CFR.org, an Atlantic partner site.

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Steven A. Cook is Hasib J. Sabbagh senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square. He blogs at From the Potomac to the Euphrates.

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