This version comes from Robert Pastor, a friend of mine since our time as colleagues in the Carter Administration -- he was the National Security Council advisor for Latin America. Since then, from his positions at Emory University, American University in DC, and the Carter Center in Atlanta, he has had extensive experience in post-conflict negotiations and the development of democratic processes in the Middle East and elsewhere.
The prevailing discussion about Syria assumes that there are two options, both bad: further U.S. military involvement, or no involvement at all. Pastor argues that given the bleakness of the alternatives, a diplomatic initiative involving Russia and Iran deserves much more attention than it has received.
This item is midway in length between the two previous "Syria Reader" installments, and like them it is detailed and policy-dense. But also like the others it contains a number of significant and clarifying facts and perspectives you might not have seen elsewhere.
There are more than two options for U.S. Policy on Syria
By Robert A. Pastor
Unlike Rep. Peter King and some other members of Congress, Pres. Barack Obama has read the Constitution and recognizes that the Founding Fathers' greatest concern was to restrain the impulse of the executive to go to war without Congressional authorization. The United States is also a party to international agreements, notably the United Nations charter, which was largely drafted by us to provide international legitimacy for military action on behalf of the collective defense of the membership of the UN.
Here are two of the important questions for Congress and the public to address in this coming week:
- Who was responsible for the use of chemical weapons? Secretary of State John Kerry made an effective prosecutorial argument that the probable evidence points to the regime, but he also acknowledged the lack of conclusive proof. In short, he made the case for an indictment, but the juries - Congress and the UN Security Council - have not yet deliberated, and they will need to weigh the administration's evidence, with other evidence from the UN, Russia, Syria and other sources.
-If the evidence is convincing that the Syrian government is to blame for the atrocities, then what is the appropriate and effective response by the international community, and by the United States? Certainly, punishment and deterrence are legitimate responses, but they also take us into the quagmire of the Syrian Civil War.
The war in Syria occurs at multiple levels. At the first level, it is a sectarian struggle in which groups are desperately fearful that if they lose, they could be annihilated. Each side knows it cannot win, but it also know that it cannot afford to lose. Thus the traditional carrots and sticks are replaced by decapitation and nerve gas as instruments of persuasion and coercion. At this level, president Assad represents Alawites, Christians, Druze, other minorities, and many Sunni Muslims, who are desperately fearful of the extreme militias openly affiliated with al Qaida which permeate the opposition. When the United States made Assad the issue by saying that he must go as a precondition to negotiations, we contributed to polarizing the conflict and making it is more difficult to negotiate a political resolution.
At a second level, regional states and powers have lined up on both sides of the conflict, and they are increasingly so determined to win that they have also made their local allies more intransigent. The Saudis, Qataris, and Turks are determined to defeat Assad, Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia, although for different reasons. The United States and Europe, focused as the are on on atrocities, have pursued very uncertain policies, in large part because the opposition includes militias affiliated with al Qaida, such as the U.S.-designated terrorist organization, Jabat al-Nusra, which could attack us as Al Qaeda has done.
Congress now faces the consequences of the polarization by being asked either to approve or disapprove the use of force. If Congress approves, which appears to be likely, and the United States launches cruise missiles -- and in response Syria or an ally chooses to retaliate, then the United States will really have a credibility problem. To avoid failure it will have to escalate its involvement. That would be a disaster for the United States and the region, but Obama may have decided that promising escalation to Sen. McCain was the only way to get his and others' support. It will worsen the Civil War in Syria, leading to more horrific deaths and dragging neighbors like Lebanon, Iraq, and possibly Turkey into the quagmire.
There is an alternative approach, but it requires a serious search for the lost art of diplomacy. Back during the president debates of 2008, the most serious foreign-policy issue was whether to engage our adversaries in negotiations. Back then Barack Obama, following president Kennedy's wise comment in his inaugural speech that we should never fear to negotiate, made the case for engagement with Iran, North Korea, Cuba, and others. And at the very beginning of his administration, he reiterated his desire for engagement, but with a more important domestic agenda on health reform, and severe criticism by his Republican adversaries, who accused him of being weak, he soon backed away in almost every case. [Continued.]