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Debating Syria

Is diplomacy really dead in Syria, or has it even been given a chance?

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Foreign Policy in Focus

It’s easy to dismiss diplomacy as feckless. The art of negotiation always appears amateurish until it manages, against all expectation, to succeed. Even then, an agreement is only as good as its longevity. The February 29 pact between the United States and North Korea, the result of painstaking negotiations, lasted all of 12 minutes after Pyongyang decided to launch a satellite that eventually proved as fragile as the bilateral agreement it upended.

Diplomats are currently scrambling to find a solution to the problem that is Syria. The country is already in a civil war. The dictator Bashar al-Assad doesn’t look like he’s packing his bags any time soon, though plenty of pundits are quick to label him a “dead dictator walking.” Russia and China are reluctant to support measures that would precipitate regime change. Talk about a diplomatic nightmare.

Recently, The Washington Post and The New York Times squared off with diametrically opposed editorials on Syria. The Post, invoking its liberal hawk credentials, declared the diplomatic efforts to resolve the standoff in Syria to be worthless, with the UN-brokered agreement “unworkable.” It’s time for Plan B, intoned the Post, though Plan B is a bit short on details. More sanctions and an arms embargo are both “non-starters.” Instead, the Post pundits recommend further support for the opposition and the creation of a humanitarian corridor on Syrian territory, “a step that could be accomplished with a modest military force and could cause the regime to collapse.”

This Plan B approach — which has attracted support from the usual liberal-conservative consensus of Anne-Marie Slaughter, Richard Cohen, John McCain, and Joe Lieberman — suffers from all the defects that the Post ascribes to Plan A and then some.

For one, the Post’s epitaph on diplomacy is premature. The ceasefire negotiated by Kofi Annan has been in place for little more than a week. The Syrian government has continued to attack civilians. It has not withdrawn troops to barracks or allowed in humanitarian relief. But all of 10 monitors are on the ground to keep the peace. Even the 300 additional monitors recently authorized by the UN are not enough. Still, the presence of monitors led to a decrease in violence where they were deployed. Moreover, the ceasefire is only an opening gambit. Successful diplomacy is almost always fertilized by its preceding failures.

Plan B is also premised on “modest military force.” Any military option concerning Syria will more likely require significant military resources. Assad has considerable firepower and the desperation to deploy it. The Post should not be cavalier in its recommendations of force, particularly given the risks of escalation and the huge costs associated with boots on the ground. Supporting the opposition seems like a reasonable alternative, and indeed the Obama administration is already doing so. But this is by no means a unified opposition. Both the political and the military components are riven with factionalism.

The New York Times similarly acknowledges Assad’s violations of the UN ceasefire. It has no illusions about the diplomatic challenges. But it expresses skepticism at the potential of creating humanitarian corridors without air power and possibly troops as well. Samer Araabi, in a Right Web analysis, provides more detail: “The implicit meaning of terms like ‘humanitarian corridors’ is belied by the extent of violence and militarization that are required to implement such measures. These can include massive bombardments to rid entire areas of government forces and their sympathizers, or the direct arming and coordination of local forces in order to carry out the cleansing themselves.”

The Times continues to back Plan A, namely diplomacy plus sanctions. It pins its hopes on turning Russia and China. “The place to start is to push Moscow and Beijing to cut their losses,” the Times urges. The problem, of course, is that the United States has not been particularly flexible with Moscow on other issues. When it comes to missile defense, President Obama has been reduced to pleading with Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev to be patient until after the November elections.

But Syria can’t wait until after the elections. The United States needs to make some sotto voce assurances to Moscow that the Fifth Fleet won’t take advantage of any regime change to seize the military base at Tartus. Perhaps some compensation for revenue lost because of an arms embargo on Syria could also be part of a persuasion package for Moscow.

The United States is also in a rather delicate position to do successful diplomacy. Even as it calls for regime change in Syria, Washington has been shoring up the regime in Bahrain. As Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF) contributor Kate Gould argues, the mote in Washington’s eye is very large indeed.

“The United States continues to be one of Bahrain’s chief weapons suppliers, furnishing $53 million in weapons and other equipment even as the regime tortures and murders pro-democracy activists,” she writes in Bahrain : United States :: Syria : Russia. “The two countries have united, among other issues, over their aggressive postures toward Iran, and according to an April 2008 U.S. diplomatic cable revealed by Wikileaks, Bahrain and the United States have ‘about as good a bilateral relationship as anywhere.’"

If the United States wants Russia to sever its relationship with Assad, it should begin by severing its relationship with the Bahraini dictatorship. The first and most important sign of such a divorce would be the withdrawal of the U.S. Fifth Fleet from Bahrain.

“The huge U.S. naval presence in Bahrain has not improved western security in the Gulf; has not altered Iran’s behavior; and, more important, has not silenced the anti-regime opposition in the Gulf and in other Arab countries,” writes Emile Nakleh in the Financial Times. “Moving the U.S. military presence from Bahrain to ‘over the horizon’ would be a clear signal that Arab dictatorship will no longer be tolerated, whether in Bahrain, Syria, Saudi Arabia, or elsewhere.”

The Washington Post has recommended using the military stick, not the diplomatic carrot, with Syria. But to truly resolve the twin problems of Syria and Bahrain, removing the military stick might have a much more salutary effect. As for the diplomatic side of the equation — to turn John Paul Jones on his head — we have not yet even begun to negotiate.

John Feffer is co-director of Foreign Policy in Focus and a contributor to Right Web.

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