Syria Reader Part 3: Robert Pastor

How a diplomatic approach might look.

Previous installments are #1 from Mike Lofgren and Charles Stevenson, and #2 from William Polk.

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.]

In fact, his administration had begun to explore from two different directions a possible rapprochement with Syria. The tragic irony is that then-chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, John Kerry, played a very positive and supportive role. I know that because as a senior advisor to the Carter Center's conflict resolution program in the Middle East, I too was engaged with the Syrian government with a Track Two diplomacy effort and consulted with him. There was evidence at the time that Assad was not only interested in rapprochement with United States but might even flip his country from an Iranian alliance to the West, but he needed some sign in terms of lifting sanctions that had been imposed under the Bush administration. Those promises were never fulfilled, and the initial efforts were eclipsed by the uprising in Syria in the spring of 2011.

In December 2011, I was in Damascus and met with opposition groups and with senior government officials and proposed that the Carter Center mediate political reforms that could offer a bridge towards a political transition. The Syrian government actually proposed six different political reforms on elections, nongovernmental organizations, political parties, the media, and other areas. These were the correct issues, but the reforms were flawed, perhaps disingenuous. I asked opposition leaders how they would like to change the reforms. Some said that it was impossible, and the government would never accept any serious changes, and some of them proposed modifications. I told the Syrian government officials that the Carter Center was prepared to mediate, but the government needed to acknowledge that the reforms were not credible at that time. We would be willing to work with the opposition to make the reforms credible and more importantly, create the basis for a legitimate and transparent democratic process.

The senior government officials were enthusiastic about the proposal, so much so that one of the senior ministers asked me to use their office to craft a memo to Assad and promised to give it to him that evening and get a response the next day.  Unfortunately, hard-liners in the regime convinced Assad that they could crush the opposition, and he did not need to negotiate reforms. They were obviously mistaken, but the question today is, after almost three years of war, whether both sides might be willing to walk back to that point and negotiate a serious political transition, not towards a new government, but towards a democratic or, at least, a more inclusive process for political participation.

Given the intensity of the war, this seems unlikely – until you consider the alternative. It is possible that Syria is now in the third year of what could become a 15-year civil war, like Lebanon's. That prospect should open our eyes to other possibilities. The opposition wants Assad to go first, and they were emboldened when the United States agreed with them. Assad and his supporters increasingly fear extreme Islamists coming to power, and want to avoid that under any circumstances. But they also believe that they constitute a substantial share of the Syrian body politic, and that might be the case.

There have not been any credible polls or free elections to test the power of the different political groups, but if Assad and his supporters were unified, and the opposition is divided – both of which are conceivable – then his group might win a free election. And if Assad’s supporters believe that, then they might very well favor a genuine electoral process. It's not clear how large a proportion of the opposition would favor of a free electoral process, but that is also worth testing.

The Carter Center, working with other groups, is trying to define what such a free electoral process might look like in the context of a political transition.  Of course, even if there was agreement on a free electoral process, it seems extraordinarily unlikely that there would be a successful enough cease-fire to permit a peaceful election.

That brings us to diplomacy and a deal. Russia's principal fear is that the fundamentalists will take over. That is most likely to happen if the war drags on and no political process emerges. Iran and Hezbollah fear that the toppling of Assad would threaten them, but Hezbollah, for one, has learned in its native Lebanon, that there are ways to ensure their survival in a democratic process, provided they have a stake in it.

If the United States changed the way it looked at diplomacy, from trying to get under the skin of its adversaries to getting into their shoes, the framework of the deal could emerge. The United States should go to Russia, drop its demand that Assad must leave as a precondition for a Geneva conference, and focus instead on the political process. I believe it can persuade Russia that a more inclusive political-participation process in Syria is in Russia’s best interests, and that the question is how to stabilize the environment so that can occur. Then the United States should ask Russia to join in assembling a robust and assertive peacemaking mission in Syria to assure the security of a free election. Also, the United States should ask Russia’s help in finding a place at the negotiating table for Iran, which has already accepted a Geneva conference without preconditions and favors a power-sharing agreement that would protect all groups.

All three nations – Iran, Russia, and the United States -- would then have a stake in both negotiations and the outcome. There is no better person to orchestrate and mediate such an agreement than Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN special envoy to Syria and the person who negotiated the Taif agreement in Lebanon. All he needs is the support of the United States and the Security Council. Up until now, we have consistently undermined his efforts.

None of this would be easy, and it would be even harder to negotiate a free election and a peacekeeping force, but if you compare it to the alternatives for each of the regional and global powers, especially the United States, this diplomatic option seems the best. But it will require a great deal of political courage by the president since there are few people in Congress who would like to open up to Iran or to look as if we are making any concession to Russia. Nonetheless, this diplomatic option would pack a more effective punch than cruise missiles.

The more I hear about the administration's strike plans, the less thought-through and strategically wise they seem. (Having time to think about this step, as opposed to just reacting to a fait accompli, is why it was so valuable for the country, and in the long run for Obama himself, to involve the Congress.) As Robert Pastor says, the diplomatic course would be difficult and chancy, but after comparison with the other options it certainly deserves a serious try.