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Syria: Is the answer Diplomacy or War?

by John Brian Shannon | October 31, 2015

The only good thing to come out of the Syrian situation has been the organized removal of chemical weapons from the country

No doubt, tiny numbers of chemical warheads are in the hands of extremist groups who stole them from the Syrian Army at some point over the past 30 years. And it is possible that the Syrian Army has small numbers of such weapons that they can’t presently retrieve because they are well hidden in abandoned bases or in regions of the country now controlled by ISIS or other terror groups.

Regardless, the removal of most of Syria’s chemical weapons is by far the best success story to come out of the whole Syrian situation.

Something to build on. Except that nobody has…

Which is a shame. Because had the path of (careful, quiet, but firm) diplomacy continued, we might not have ever seen a Syrian civil war. Or if we did, it would’ve amounted to a number of small skirmishes, and only that.

SCUD missile destroys neighbourhood near Aleppo, Syria.

A man at a site hit by what activists say was a SCUD missile in Aleppo’s Ard al-Hamra neighborhood. Photo dated February 23, 2013. REUTERS/Muzaffar Salman

State Department policy makers and Pentagon war strategists knew that going to war against Iraq in 2003 would create a huge number of refugees that would flee to neighbouring states, including Syria.

The fact that there *is* now an ISIS (or ISIL) was no surprise to them, these are eventualities in every war. Refugees will flee to countries in the region and tell their stories to the locals. Which generates anger and thoughts of revenge.

In WWII, this led to many underground groups operating (heroically) to fight their Nazi oppressors.

In the Iraq War (and since) this led to the formation of a multitude of (wrong-headed) groups being formed with names like ISIS and Al-Qaeda in the Levant in order to fight their perceived oppressors.

Syria was already the most fertile ground in the region to produce a cadre of anti-Western fighters and anti-Assad-regime fighters. Ergo, the rise of terror groups in Syria and a two-track war (from the point of view of the terrorists) was inevitable. One track being dedicated to the fight against the coalition that invaded Iraq and the other track dedicated to the overthrow of Bashar Al-Assad.

These things were and are utterly predictable and foreseen by the State Department and the Pentagon.

What has been lacking are policies to deal with the eventualities of the Iraq War

Due to the power vacuum that created the right conditions to enable five years of Syrian civil war, Russia, Iran, and now Iraq, cobbled together a (mostly military) response to the disaster in Syria which has some Americans angry at their news channel.

However, before a coherent Syria policy can be devised by the United States, some questions need answers:

  1. Is the United States the world’s policeman?
  2. Should the U.S. get involved in every internecine squabble in the world?
  3. Can the U.S. afford that?
  4. Is that what taxpayers are paying for?
  5. Does the U.S. belong in Syria?
  6. Does fighting Muslim terrorists only create more terrorists?
  7. And does fighting Muslim terrorists only convince them to look with renewed vigor at the U.S. as a target?

It should be a major topic of discussion by 2016 presidential candidates as the answers to those questions will determine U.S. policy in the region for the next decade (at least) and will affect everything from the economy (Iraq War $1 trillion, for one example) to (potentially) civil unrest in the U.S.A. (see: Vietnam protest movement of the 60’s and 70’s) to America’s future standing in the world.

Situations like we see in Syria are not something a president can dispatch 10 military helicopters to solve over the course of a weekend.

Indeed, Syria is in such disarray and there are so many variables there that the best U.S. policy might be complete non-involvement by the U.S. — as every other option is almost certainly worse.

Of course, there are some U.S citizens who would approve without further ado, another $1 trillion dollar war bill, another 5000 U.S. military dead, and another generation of America-haters bent on destruction of the U.S.A.

These people fall into two broad groups:

  • The do-gooders, who want peace, democracy, and freedom to one day flourish in Syria — they want to see Syria as the next Costa Rica or UAE. (Wouldn’t that be nice? Yes!)
  • The war-economy people, who think that any war is good for the overall economy and for the largest number of Americans, even though comparatively small numbers of military people may get killed or maimed in battle.

On those two broad groups, I think both camps are naive people who’ve not had the chance to travel the world and see what it is really like, nor have ever served their country in a combat role, nor have any experience in international relations. The fact that they are likely to be incredibly patriotic citizens, is a different matter altogether.

And there are the people who think the U.S. should pursue a course of non-involvement in Syria and those people too, fall into their own two groups:

  • Those who feel that the U.S. should return to being a near-isolationist nation and that the Executive and the Government should expend their efforts on the domestic economy and other domestic issues.
  • Those who feel that Syria is a no-win-situation for the U.S. and see it for the moneypit that it could represent to America.

On those two similar groups, I think that isolationism can work well in the short term. However, history shows us that after only one decade of an isolationist posture it begins to work against America’s best interests and for that reason should only be invoked for ten years per century at the most. As for U.S. involvement in Syria to continue being a no-win situation, I think there is only a remote chance to pull success out of the epic disaster that is Syria.

To summarize my view of the entire Syrian situation, let me say this; If there is a return to the long term, careful, quiet, but firm diplomacy — of a kind that worked to allow most of Syria’s chemical weapons to be removed and destroyed without firing a shot — then we might see the chances for successful U.S. involvement in Syria rise past 50 percent. Otherwise it’s a losing proposition for the U.S.A. with zero chance for a win by any metric whatsoever

But even a qualified success requires that a president have a significant mandate from voters, support within the State Department, the Pentagon, and a good relationship with the various partner nations poised to assist in the rebuilding of Syria.

Without all of that, even a U.S. president with the best of intentions has no chance of pulling a success out of the Syrian situation. And I think that’s what we’re seeing. A U.S. president who knows what to do, it’s just that not everyone is there yet.

How do I know that?

Let’s look at the building blocks that have been placed in and around Syria in recent years:

BB1: The first ‘building block’ of a successful Middle East policy for the U.S. was the removal of American combat troops from Iraq.

BB2: The second ‘building block’ was the successful program to remove chemical weapons from Syria and its success is almost unprecedented.

(Yes, Moammar Ghadaffi gave up his WMD’s and was promptly killed for his good deed — not a good precedent for similar diplomatic initiatives in the future. And yet, in spite of that terrible precedent, the Obama Administration was able to secure the Syrian chemical weapons deal. And now Bashar Al-Assad is ‘under fire’ literally and politically, for his good deed. Such obscene precedent-setting in the case of Moammar Ghadaffi and Bashar Al-Assad is not conducive to other world leaders giving up their WMD’s in the future — something many people would like to see happen within their lifetimes)

BB3: The third ‘building block’ was a successful nuclear deal with Iran.

BB4: The fourth ‘building block’ must now be a lowering of the rhetoric surrounding the Syrian situation and a return to consensus-building between all of the interested parties — and that must occur without any preconditions, save for the safety of the negotiating teams.

(Preconditions such as removal of Bashar Al-Assad from power are non-starters. Regardless of his actions, he is still the democratically-elected leader of Syria and that country is fully engulfed in civil war. Until such times as he loses an election and refuses to step down, we have no legal case to be in the country except by invitation)

BB5: The fifth ‘building block’ must be a high-level diplomatic push by all interested parties. If former President Jimmy Carter were in better health I would nominate him to lead the American team, and I suggest that the Russians would respond with their best retired diplomat to lead their team.

All other diplomatic teams too, must be led by high level retired diplomats of the highest calibre — ones that have long ago surpassed the desire for media accolades or career advancement. It’s time to ‘get it right’ it’s not the time to ‘use the present situation to get a better career posting’.

I’m only half-joking when I say that all of these diplomats should be locked away in a conference centre in Geneva or Istanbul and not let out until they have arrived at the best plan to save Syria as a viable nation-state, save the Syrian people from five more years of horror, return the Syrian economy to a steady-state and restore Syria to a place of good standing among the nations.

I believe that President Obama has been quietly ahead of everyone on all of this and has put the ‘building blocks’ in place right under everyone’s noses. His only limitations are the people he must work through in order to accomplish these things. And he has limited time, as January 20, 2017 will be his last day in office.

Those who seek confrontation with Syria, Iran, Russia (or any country) are operating at the lowest-common-denominator level (to put it politely) and have no concept whatsoever of what it takes to build a safe, prosperous, and interdependent world order (that is also) compatible with American values.

A safe, prosperous, and interdependent world order is the obvious goal for humankind. Therefore, all of our policies and actions must always be in accordance with our mission otherwise we will without doubt, fail as a species.

And that, my friends, is where we are today.