None of the Democratic Candidates Have Gotten Syria Right: Why They Should Be Talking Peace, Not War

Obama has finally taken a tentative path toward a viable solution--but may waffle without support

Stephen R. Weissman

The Jaish al-Islam (Islam Army) a large rebel faction operating just east of Damascus, patrols the front line in Jobar, on the edge of the Syrian capital, on January 4. Significantly, Jaish al-Islam has agreed to join upcoming peace talks. (Amer Almohibany/AFP/Getty Images)

Some Republican presidential candidates are clamoring for increased U.S. military aid to moderate” rebels battling Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorship in Syria.

Nothing illuminates the dead end of military escalation in Syria more than the limited results achieved by the two-and-a-half−year, multi-billion-dollar, semi-covert operation by the U.S. and its Arab allies to arm and train so-called moderate rebels.

Fortunately, President Obama is taking a far wiser course with a renewed diplomatic effort to resolve that horrendous civil war. But he is not getting the support he needs from his potential Democratic successors.

It has been apparent for at least two years that, as the death toll mounts, the Assad government and the rebels, along with their foreign supporters, are locked in what conflict experts call a mutually harmful stalemate”: one in which neither side can hope to prevail in the foreseeable future.

There is a ray of hope in this grim picture. In other conflicts, such as El Salvador in the 1990s and Sudan in the 2000s, stalemates have opened the way for internationally brokered peace settlements.

However, in the case of Syria, the U.S. position has proven unhelpful. First, the Obama administration’s insistence that negotiators focus on forming a transitional governing body” to replace Assad ignored the fact that his substantial constituency must receive security and political guarantees before it will agree to relinquish its leader. Second, the administration’s exclusion of Iran from UN-convened peace talks in 2014 meant the absence of one of the regime’s two major backers. (The other is Russia.)

The administration is now open to a more gradual easing out of Assad, which would come toward the end of a process of establishing credible, inclusive and non-sectarian governance.” It has also abandoned its opposition to Iran’s participation in U.N. peace talks.

Yet this renewed thrust for a diplomatic solution has drawn rather weak backing from Obama’s would-be successors in his own party. For example, in a Nov. 19, 2015, speech at Georgetown University, Bernie Sanders noted that the diplomatic plan for Assad’s transition from power is a good step in a united front,” but quickly downplayed it, saying, But our priority must be to defeat ISIS.”

The same day, Hillary Clinton told the Council on Foreign Relations, We have to prioritize [getting] people to turn against the common enemy of ISIS. … And then we need to figure out how we put together a political outcome [in Syria].”

True, Sanders and Clinton were speaking less than a week after ISIS attacks on civilians in Paris had traumatized the world. Still, to this day neither candidate has publicly recognized that the local forces needed to defeat ISIS in Syria will remain unavailable until the Syrians stop fighting each other. Most disappointing, none of the three Democratic candidates is explaining to voters why and how patient diplomacy provides the only realistic hope for ending a war that is exacting an enormous human cost — 250,000 killed, 7.5 million internally displaced and 4 million refugees — while inflaming regional and sectarian conflicts throughout the Middle East and aggravating U.S. tensions with the major powers in the region, as well as Russia.

To begin with, they have not drawn for voters the central lesson of the last few years of American policy in Syria: Large, incremental doses of U.S. and allied military aid to the fractious insurgents will not break the ongoing deadlock. They will be quickly counterbalanced by support to the regime from Russia, Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah.

Nothing illuminates the dead end of military escalation in Syria more than the limited results achieved by the two-and-a-half−year, multi-billion-dollar, semi-covert operation by the U.S. and its Arab allies — Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar — to arm and train so-called moderate rebels. Moderate” is used to describe a vast array of largely local, Islamist and non-Islamist fighters whose political commitments are unknown; their only common denominator is that they are not ISIS, Al Qaeda or Assad’s forces. Although the program isn’t officially public, journalists who’ve spoken with inside sources have reported that it began in spring 2013 and was fielding 10,000 insurgents in Northern Syria in fall 2014. By June 2015, its CIA component alone had trained and armed 5,000 rebels, mostly in the South, at a cost of $1 billion a year.

Yet these efforts have failed to turn the conflict around, in part because Assad’s foreign backers stepped up their own assistance, including the recent introduction of Russian airpower. In the meantime, the total death toll in Syria has nearly tripled since June 2013. Lacking a solid analysis of what has happened on the ground, none of the Democratic candidates is offering realistic proposals to bring an end to the war. Clinton wants a U.S.-led coalition to impose a no-fly zone, principally” over Northern Syria. This, she maintains, would stop [President Bashar al-Assad] from slaughtering civilians and the opposition from the air” and allow rebel forces to create safe areas where Syrians could remain in the country rather than fleeing towards Europe.” She suggests her policy would reinforce the insurgency and thereby give us this extra leverage that I’m looking for in the diplomatic pursuits with Russia with respect to the political outcome in Syria.”

Sanders and Martin O’Malley have pointed out the real risks of Clinton’s plan. Sanders warns that it would get the United States more deeply involved” in the conflict and lead to a never-ending U.S. entanglement in that region”; O’Malley cautions that it might provoke confrontations with Russian aircraft and lead to an escalation of Cold War proportions.” Both express concern that it could be a step toward forceful regime change, which had disastrous outcomes in Iraq and Libya. However, neither of these aspirants to progressive leadership has addressed the more fundamental flaw of the no-fly zone: Even if its risks could, as Clinton argues, be minimized, it would do nothing to break the enduring military deadlock and pave the way for a political settlement, and it could threaten upcoming international negotiations.

By their reticence, the candidates are failing to mobilize political support to bolster the administration’s fragile commitment to the diplomatic path. 

An unsteady push for peace

U.S. policy toward the Syrian civil war has veered back and forth between military escalation and diplomacy. Unfortunately, the temptation to raise the military ante persists. Just over a year ago, Obama asked Congress to supplement the secret CIA program with an open Pentagon one to train and equip 5,000 rebels a year to fight both Assad and Islamic extremists.” After ISIS ominously expanded from Syria into Iraq, the administration repackaged its request as an anti-ISIS measure. Following congressional approval in September 2014, however, officials suggested an additional objective was to strengthen the opposition’s defensive capacity” against the brutality of the regime.”

More worrisome, in late October, even as the administration was preparing to launch its push for negotiations, the State Department renewed its recurrent recommendation to establish safe zones” or no-fly zones” in Syria. As in Clinton’s plan, the aim was not only to protect refugees and other civilians, but also to bolster the rebels. Secretary of State John Kerry’s advocacy was overcome by Defense Department concerns about air confrontations with Syria and Russia, and by the president’s reluctance to embark upon another large military commitment while pursuing ISIS. Still, in the aftermath of ISIS and Islamic extremist attacks in Paris and San Bernadino, Calif., and under pressure from Clinton and other former administration officials to implement no-fly or safe zones, there is a possibility that the president will reverse his October decision in order to project a more muscular image.

This danger could grow if the administration allows impatience to undermine the nascent diplomatic process. Two years ago, the United Nations, with American support, convened peace talks between the Syrian government and opposition, then abandoned them after two weeks due to lack of progress. Now, a U.S.-supported December 2015 U.N. Security Council Resolution says a new round of negotiations should aim to establish credible, inclusive and non-sectarian governance” within six months and elections under a new constitution within 18 months. In view of the international community’s experience over the last two decades in helping resolve comparably bloody conflicts in Burundi, Cambodia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, El Salvador, Mozambique and Sudan, this schedule is completely utopian. All required more than two years of negotiations and at least another two years to transition, and in cases where transitional governments were created, they were preceded by detailed agreements on such critical matters as army reform, constitutional principles, human rights protection, ceasefire, troop demobilization, international peacekeeping, foreign relations, humanitarian aid and return of refugees — none of which has been hashed out in Syria. By raising expectations for impossibly rapid progress, the United States and the U.N. could be setting themselves up for another diplomatic failure.

Political calculations

Of course, the Democratic candidates must weigh pragmatic concerns. Can a progressive position on the Syrian civil war endure the heat of a general election? The 2016 Democratic presidential nominee may face a Republican, such as Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush, who favors more aid to Syrian rebels, including an ambitious no-fly zone. In addition, no matter who she or he is, the Democratic candidate will probably have to bear the burden of the current majority perception that Obama has been weak” in foreign policy. In these circumstances, can it really be good politics to insist on diplomatic rather than military action in Syria?

The answer is yes, it can. Ever since 2013, when the American public rejected air strikes against the Syrian government for using chemical weapons against the rebels, opinion polls have shown ongoing popular resistance to increasing U.S. military involvement in the Syrian civil war. For example, a May 23, 2015 Economist/​YouGov survey found that Americans opposed taking sides in the civil war nearly 2-1 (even while they supported air strikes against ISIS in Syria by more than 3-1).

It is significant, too, that some potential Republican candidates, notably Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, have expressed opposition to further intervention in the Syrian conflict. With most Americans reluctant to escalate the civil war, a full-throated justification of the alternative diplomatic route— including how it would help mobilize Syrians against ISIS — should fall on ready ears. By supporting ongoing negotiations, instead of simply warning about escalation, Democrats could offer a positive approach that would address Republican complaints that they have no strategy.”

In a century in which liberal Democratic political elites, constituencies and media have paid too little attention to foreign policy and failed to resist disastrous military interventions in Iraq and Libya, a dark struggle in the Middle East furnishes an opportunity to renew a progressive vision of international peace.

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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. His recent articles on U.S. policies towards Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Congo and South Africa have appeared in Foreign Affairs, Presidential Studies Quarterly, Intelligence and National Security, Politico, Roll Call, The Hill and in Foreign Policy in Post-Apartheid South Africa: Security, Diplomacy and Trade, eds. Adekeye Adebajo and Kudrat Virk.
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