What Will It Take To End the Suffering in Syria?

Americans concerned about the crisis in Syria should consider an insightful quote from an August 31 op-ed by the Brookings Institution’s H.A. Hellyer: “Give the people of Syria a better choice than one type of madness over another.” One madness being the Obama administration’s proposed strikes in Syria, the other being a perpetuation the status quo, which entails the steady escalation of violence in Syria.

For the time being, ostensibly punitive but practically aimless US strikes in Syria have been halted in favor of the widely publicized plan to confiscate the Assad regime’s chemical weapons. The international reputations of both Obama and Putin are left essentially intact, along with the grinding, miserable status quo that is Syria’s brutal civil war and unsustainable refugee crisis. Madness still reigns in Syria and Hellyer is right to argue that Syrians should be granted “a better choice.”

What’s less clear, given the parameters of the conflict, is whether or not peace activists and opponents of intervention can do more to help foster a peaceful resolution to Syria’s conflict. Given the lack of an apparent solution to the conflict, it may be worth engaging in some conjecture. Perhaps, an attempt at a sort of international diplomacy from below could serve as a starting point to building a more constructive American antiwar movement.

In this context “international diplomacy from below” means: purposeful efforts to resolve the Syrian humanitarian crisis through international coordination and communication between domestic civil society and activist groups rather than governments (e.g. imagine Britain’s Stop the War Coalition coordinating with an anti-Putinist group in Russia).

To see how this sort of activism could fit into the broader framework of traditional diplomacy on Syria, it’s worth thinking through what a diplomatic process to resolve the Syrian Civil War might look like.

The Rough Layout of a Diplomatic Solution

On August 28, the editors of The Nation magazine published a piece paradigmatic of the diplomacy-over-military intervention position in which they state, “Instead of bombing Syria, the United States should join Russia in its effort to renew the Geneva negotiations.” They view the nascent chemical weapons confiscation deal as a testament to the potentialof this approach.

They and others in favor of renewing international negotiations, like the Institute for Policy Studies’ Phyllis Bennis, also propose using diplomatic channels to stem the influx of arms into the country. The hope is that such a move will de-escalate violence and keep conflicting parties at the negotiating table.

Extremists and a Diplomatic Solution

Let’s assume then that the Assad regime and some rebel elements do go to the negotiating table. That still leaves unattended the all-or-nothing, extremist opposition groups like Al-Qaeda affiliated Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

To join those drawing lessons on Syria from the Iraq War, if these Syrian extremist groups are anything like their Iraqi counterparts – and they are – it’s also not so clear that a drop in the state-sponsored arms support and aid they receive will be enough to stop them from wreaking significant havoc in Syria. The ability of Al Qaeda affiliates in Syria to recruit is an issue of comparable importance to the material support they receive, and their recruitment efforts are clearly bolstered by the brutalization and oppression of a mass of Syrians by Bashar al-Assad.

Assad as an Obstacle to Peace

In other words, the butcherly Assad regime, which cynically claims to be defending Syria from a “terrorist” or “takfiri” takeover, has actually transformed itself into a lightning rod for extremists over the past two and a half years.

Therefore, the resignations, and perhaps trials, of Bashar and other key regime figures should be placed firmly on the negotiating table in any diplomatic process aimed at establishing a long-term peace in Syria.

Otherwise, short of a partition of the state of Syria that would create new problems even as it solves old ones (e.g. potential border disputes, complications in refugee reintegration, the precarious position of outgroups in whatever new rump states emerge), brutal conflict in Syria will likely continue for some time, even if the war de-escalates to an extent and military tactics change.

The notion that a functional diplomatic process will need to involve the eventual ouster of key elements of the Assad regime is hardly controversial. A statement cited in a latter Nation editorial from conflict prevention think-tank Crisis Group, opposes a US bombing campaign in Syria, but concedes that, “A viable political outcome in Syria cannot be one in which the current leadership remains indefinitely in power.”

The Obstacles to Ousting the Assad Regime

But proponents of diplomacy should have no illusions: Lest we forget that given the choice between a cushy life in exile and holding onto to power at the expense of peace, his country, and his countrymen, he chose the latter. Assad will need to be coerced from power.

In this, Iran and Russia, the regime’s primary backers, could play a role in pressuring key regime figures out of government. Russia’s crucial role in convincing the Syrian regime to give up its chemical weapons stockpiles is an indication of Russia’s influence over the regime.

But, even given the disastrous implications of Bashar’s continued rule, it’s not clear that Russia and Iran would support a transition away from the Assad regime via a diplomatic framework.

How American Peace Activists could Help

The US does have leverage over both Russia and Iran that could incentivize a change of attitude towards the Assad regime. For Russia, disagreements about missile defenses in Europe and the expansion of NATO could be brought to the negotiating table. In the case of Iran, the already implemented sanctions come to mind.

Persistent domestic political pressure from a lively anti-war movement committed to a diplomatic solution to the Syrian crisis could presumably push the administration to consider using more of its leverage in negotiations. But where domestic activism falls short, maybe international diplomacy from below could pick up some slack by applying pressure to the other relevant powers involved in Syria.

It’s no secret that the Iranian regime is particularly resistant to the pressures of domestic oppositional movements. But, the Russian government, for its flaws, could conceivably be affected enough by a domestic opposition movement to alter some of its diplomatic calculus. There may be a unique an opportunity for US groups interested in peace in Syria to coordinate with oppositional activist groups in Russia – all of which have a stake in a peaceful Syria, if not for humanitarian reasons, then certainly for long-term strategic ones.

To conclude, it should be noted that international diplomacy from below is just a rough frame, with no claims on novelty, for an approach to Syria related-activism in the US. It’s a sketch, not a foolproof imperative. The imperative is finding some way — any way — to end the mass suffering in Syria.