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Sawoushka Ahmed, a Kurdish rebel fighter, stands with a gun in Aleppo, Syria on April 14. (Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP/Getty Images)

5 Wise Ideas for Syria

Don’t listen to the hawks: A non-military solution is possible.

BY Stephen R. Weissman

Once again, there is a plausible path, however rocky, towards a less violent and less costly solution consistent with American values and interests.

This is part 2 of a series on how the U.S. can apply lessons from Libya to interventions in Syria. Read the first part here.

As the death toll of Syria's two-year-old civil war reaches the 80,000 mark, the U.S. has upped the ante by announcing that it will provide $123 million in “non-lethal” assistance to the Free Syrian Army, including body armor, night-vision goggles and communications equipment. In addition, partly in response to new, non-definitive reports of the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons against small numbers of insurgents, administration officials are reportedly thinking of dispatching heavy weapons to the rebels and establishing “no fly” safe zones, as in Libya.

Yet, as I argued in my critique of U.S. and NATO intervention in Libya, the West’s increasing fixation on military solutions can be counterproductive. A U.S.-driven military “success” in Syria, defined as the fall of the Bashar al-Assad regime, is likely to have even worse dangerous local, regional and international consequences than it did in Libya. If, as I maintain in my analysis, the violent overthrow of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi was to a large extent a Pyrrhic victory for NATO, then a Western-aided overthrow of Syria’s al-Assad threatens to be even more costly. Syrian insurgents are even more fractured by geography and sectarianism (including Islamic extremism) than their Libyan counterparts were, multiplying the chances of renewed fighting in a post-Assad power vacuum. Moreover, the significant Alawite minority that has benefited from the long rule of the Assad family has such fears of annihilation that it is likely to fight to the death even if the regime is driven out of Damascus. Sectarian conflict is already spreading to such fragile neighboring countries as Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq. And another case of Western-sponsored regime change will no doubt exacerbate the insecurities of Russia, North Korea and Iran.

A military solution isn’t the only way forward. A glimmer of hope for an eventual political solution has just appeared in the form of a U.S.-Russia plan for an international conference in early June that would bring together the Syrian parties to the conflict. This is an attempt to revive a dormant, year-old initiative by a United Nations-sponsored “Action Group for Syria” made up of key Western and Arab countries, Russia and Turkey. As in the African Union’s proposed “Framework Agreement” for Libya, the Action Group’s plan centered on the creation of an inclusive transitional government and a timetable for democratic change.

Yet even as they endorse a peace conference, both the United States and Russia are simultaneously ignoring the plan’s warning against “further militarization of the conflict” by stepping up military aid to the rebels and Al-Assad, respectively. Their inconsistent behavior jeopardizes a major objective of the conference: to begin to persuade the combatants that they are locked in a military stalemate where–despite the ebbs and flows of battle–neither side can prevail, and that a political solution is therefore their best option. One insight of the African Union mediators in Libya was that a “humanitarian pause” in outside military assistance before the conference would help prompt both sides to reconsider their dreams of total victory.

Few details are available at this writing regarding the planned conference. But several other lessons from the Libyan mediation experience could serve the U.S. well as it attempts to advance peace:

  1. If you want a dictator to agree to give up power via a democratic transition, you should avoid humiliating him by demanding his immediate resignation as a precondition for negotiations. In Libya, this rebel and Western condition delayed Gaddafi’s acceptance of negotiations. Keeping the former leader in the picture at the beginning can also help bring along his constituency and army. (Recent public statements by Secretary of State John Kerry suggest that he, at least, has come to understand these points.)
  2. A neutral mediator–in the case of Syria, a U.N. special envoy, currently Joint Special Representative Lakhdar Brahimi–is best positioned to lead the parties toward a negotiated settlement. In doing so, the envoy will need to work closely with the foreign powers possessing military or political clout with Syria’s regime: both Russia and Iran, both of whom should attend the conference.
  3. In working to enlist the insurgents in a political solution, the mediator must be able to summon pressure from their Western and Arab supporters. In Libya, the lack of such pressure permitted the rebels to avoid negotiations.
  4. Forging a political solution cannot be accomplished in a day or even a few weeks; it can take months of patient negotiations. It took two months to persuade the Libyan government to agree to direct talks with the rebels and another month to get Colonel Gaddafi to recuse himself from the negotiations.
  5. In the aftermath of such a violent and fragmented conflict, peacemakers must be prepared to provide a neutral international force that will both keep and build the peace.

We have arrived at a dangerous moment in Syria. The Obama administration’s trajectory towards military intervention has begun to frame the public’s view of the crisis and helps legitimize hawkish senators’ and pundits’ calls for “more effective assistance.” In this context, reports of possible Syrian government use of chemical weapons and of Israeli air strikes against Syrian missile shipments (said to be headed to Hezbollah forces in Lebanon) are adding to the momentum for the U.S. to “do more,” ignoring the possibility of severe consequences for U.S. interests in reducing violence in the region and addressing larger issues in relations with Iran, North Korea and Russia.

Given Syria’s critical position in the Middle East, the stakes for the U.S. are much higher than they were in Libya. Once again, there is a plausible path, however rocky, towards a less violent and less costly solution consistent with American values and interests. But will the Obama administration take it and have the patience to see it through?

Stephen R. Weissman, former staff director of the House Subcommittee on Africa, is the author of two books on U.S. foreign policy, including A Culture of Deference: Congress's Failure of Leadership in Foreign Policy. Weissman has been a Political Science Professor at Fordham University, the University of Texas at Dallas and the Universite Libre du Congo.

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