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Debating Syria

 

I'm in Riyadh for the week (where I've been hearing a lot of support for arming the Syrian opposition and an intensely sectarian Sunni-Shi'ia framing of the conflict -- but more on all that next week). But the FP column I filed before I left on intervention in Syria came out yesterday and I wanted to just quickly make a few comments on it and some of the responses I've received here. 

The column looks back at the failure to achieve a negotiated political solution to the crisis, and some of the flawed assumptions (including my own) which might have contributed to that failure. It is not a happy column -- how could it be amidst Syria's devastation? The failure of Annan's diplomacy does not mean that it should not have been tried, though, for reasons I outline in the column.  But some of the people discussing the column slightly missed the point when they suggested that I'm still supporting the Annan/Brahimi approach.   Actually, what I tried to argue was that the conditions which made it worth attempting last year have mostly disappeared.   It's too late to avoid the militarization of the conflict  or to prevent the sidelining of non-armed groups.  There's no diplomatic process or international consensus to save.  It's hard to imagine the "soft landing" for which that political track so desperately -- and correctly --  strove.  There's no going back.

The last year should be a lesson to those who called for arming the rebels, too. The shift to armed insurgency in the face of Assad's brutality and refusal of genuine political change has produced catastrophic results.  The poorly coordinated funneling of weapons and money to armed groups by various external players has produced greater bloodshed, the eclipsing of non-violent protest leaders, fragmentation into competing emergent warlords, the creation of an attractive open field for jihadist groups to exploit, the retreat of the uncertain middle ground into hardened camps, and the greater likelihood of post-Assad chaos. The problem is not that the U.S. or other outside powers didn't provide enough weapons, it is intrinsic to the nature and logic of such an armed insurgency.  

More broadly, if political negotiation backers too easily assumed that levers could be found to push Assad from power, intervention advocates too easily assume that a military intervention would have made Syria today look substantially better.  They refuse to consider the very plausible possibility that such a Syria would be just as violent and militarized, that al-Qaeda affiliated Islamists would be just as active, and that Assad would be just as entrenched and with far more robust domestic, regional and foreign backing.  And they rarely consider one of the major risks identified by most of those opposed to limited intervention, that the United States would now be deeply enmeshed in an inescapable and escalating quagmire.

The last year have to impose greater analytical humility on everyone, myself very much included.  There may have been a solid logic behind the political track which I supported, but it didn't work and massive suffering has followed.  I've heard enough confident predictions of Assad's impending demise to last a lifetime, and wish that we as an analytical and policy community could have done better in supporting that political process and finding the levers to force a political transition.  

A lot of people are trying hard to come up with good ideas.  Along with my piece, I'd recommend having a look at a number of strong proposals for more direct intervention this week, by Andrew Tabler, Fred Hof, and Salman al-Shaikh and Michael Doran.  Their pieces offer up a range of ways to speed up Assad's fall short of direct military intervention, with a range of ideas from arming the opposition, trying to organize the opposition, disabling the regime's air power, and more.  I see serious problems with a number of these proposals and find some intriguing, but given the horrifying conditions of Syria today and the absence of real diplomatic options, it's worth giving them all careful thought. I hope you'll read my piece, read theirs, and contribute to a serious debate about what realistically can be done. 

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