war on the rocks

Get Real(ist) About the Geneva Talks

January 30, 2014

Let me start by saying that I hate the Syria debate.  I think it shows the worst of our national tendencies toward oversimplification, wishy-washiness, blind ideological fervor, and hopeless optimism.  And yet, I feel compelled to participate.  Clearly, I need an intervention.

What sparked this epiphany was the recent article in by Michael Doran and Michael O’Hanlon entitled “Why Syrian Peace Talks Will Fail.”  Then another article by Anne-Marie Slaughter entitled “Stopping the Syria Contagion” was brought to my attention.  Last, but certainly not least, the latest contribution to the Syria debate is Zachary Keck’s “America is Winning the Syrian Civil War.”

Starting with the last, because the last shall be first, Keck’s article is very interesting, and I am not sure I disagree with many of his conclusions.  He leads with a haymaker: “The U.S. is right to seek a quick settlement to the civil war in Syria…[but] the legitimate desire to end the conflict does not diminish the reality that the U.S. is winning in Syria.”  He further states,  “Just as the U.S. has been the primary benefactor of the Syrian civil war, no third party has been a bigger loser in Syria than Iran.”

That second bit—that no party has been a bigger loser than Iran—is important, but underappreciated.  The material and moral costs for Iran (and Hezbollah) have been significant.  Scarce resources have been utilized to support Assad’s regime, which could be used elsewhere.  Equally importantly, as Keck points out, Iran’s stature in the Arab world has collapsed, and its relations with both states and key non-state actors such as Hamas have deteriorated.  These are important things to notice, since a consistent trope in the “take a hard line on Syria” side of the debate has been that we have to halt the rise of Iranian power and influence in the region.  Keck concludes with the warning that humanitarian concerns, the growth of potentially explosive sectarianism, and the possibility of spillover into neighboring countries make a negotiated solution in America’s best interest.

This is an important observation.  My chief quibble is with the word “winning.”  In a conflict this bloody, to claim we are “winning” when most of what we are doing is hand-wringing, debating, and keeping ourselves from getting dragged in even deeper reeks of undeserved triumphalism.  I would hate to think that some new theory of soft power in international relations (“decisive inaction” or “the art of pivotal paralysis” perhaps) could emerge from this experience.  At best, I would say we are benefitting somewhat from self-restraint, but still bear a heavy responsibility for failure in bringing the conflict to a close.

This leads me to Anne-Marie Slaughter.  She focuses on the spillover effects in the region, arguing that the post-World War I boundaries of the Middle East are now being called into question.  Her solution is three-fold.  First, the international community must “change the principle parties’ incentives.”  This includes having outsiders set criteria for participation in elections, allowing humanitarian aid to flow in, and condemning and stopping war crimes and crimes against humanity.

That all sounds reasonable, although optimistic.  Then came the kicker.

Here the UN must reaffirm its “responsibility to protect” doctrine, not as a justification for military intervention, but as a fundamental principle agreed by all countries: governments must protect their citizens. If Assad’s Ba’ath party cannot uphold that responsibility, it forfeits its own legitimacy as a participant in any future government.

It is hard to believe key participants in the Geneva talks have any interest in applying this doctrine (abbreviated as R2P) in Syria.  Russia, China, and Syria all have very good reasons to oppose doing anything to bring credit to a doctrine that would allow international regimes to meddle inside their borders.  Given recent Chinese activity in the South China Sea, which is all focused on sovereignty and territorial claims, why would the author think this would pass the giggle test?  Why introduce it in a situation where it can only harm the broader cause of negotiating a solution?

Perhaps more importantly, it may be time to consider the fundamental difficulty of R2P.  It might have been possible two decades ago to introduce and even implement this very ambitious change in international norms.  At that point, the U.S. was far more assertive ideologically, had an abundance of resources to expend, and faced much less opposition in the international community.  We might, arguably, have also had a better international reputation.  International norms change when they have a powerful advocate willing to support them.  It is far from clear, in the aftermath of the economic crisis and twelve years of costly, divisive wars that the West will back up revolutionary but stirring concepts with resources and action.

Slaughter proposes, as the second element of her article, to escalate the Syria issue to the UN Security Council, and to put pressure on Russia (over the Sochi Olympics) to force its leadership to comply.  The author does not confront the key obstacle to this approach, which is that China would veto anything that smelled like R2P, and has already cast very rare vetoes over other UNSC Resolutions.

Last but not least, the U.S. must “…put the credible threat of force back on the table.”

The threat of cruise-missile strikes last September was enough to send Al Qaeda members in Syria scrambling for the hills. A strike designed to destroy Assad’s air force and prevent him from dropping bombs full of nails on his people would concentrate his mind on a diplomatic solution.

Here is my question—is the United States prepared to give up demonstrable success in achieving a major national objective (the destruction of Syrian chemical weapons) in return for ephemeral promises of grand changes to international norms?  Is the imposition of R2P necessary to achieve a negotiated cessation in the Syrian civil war?  Slaughter, said to be a possible choice for Secretary of State should Hillary Clinton become president, does not really engage these questions, but we should recognize that the destruction of Syrian chemical weapons actually removes one of the most deadly and threatening risks of the Syrian contagion.  It may be prudent, in fact, to work on the Geneva negotiations with the objective of keeping the destruction of chemical weapons as the foremost priority.  Elimination of Syrian chemical weapons is certainly, unfortunately, more likely than the introduction of a controversial new global norm or a reversal of Chinese foreign policy.

Finally, to return to the Doran and O’Hanlon column.  This is, again, a powerful article, written by two serious people taking a disguised but extreme position.  They are arguing that the Geneva talks will necessarily fail unless we provide very significant support to the rebels.  Only very significant U.S. support will enable the rebels to, once again, become militarily competitive, which in turn is the only circumstance that will somehow allow them to become politically unified.

This lack of opposition unity is a critical obstacle in the Geneva talks:

Absent a miracle, the talks will fail. The goal of each side is the complete defeat of the other. But neither has the means to accomplish such objectives, or even understand this profound disconnect. Complicating things further, the Syrian opposition is as fractured as ever, with considerable infighting, and the rise of al-Qaeda affiliates within its ranks makes it harder to work with than before.

What I find so interesting is the argument that neither side “understands” that they lack the means to completely defeat the other.  That seems strange—why do the authors assume this?  Is it not possible (even very likely), instead, that both sides recognize that reality, and are going to the negotiating table in order to score points in the international community?  Or, perhaps, to negotiate the best settlement they can, with the realization that “in war the result is rarely ever final [copyright Carl von Clausewitz, On War]?”  Further, this pessimism obscures the possibility that the outcome might represent a common interest that would benefit both Syria and (coincidentally) the United States.  Both Assad and the opposition in Geneva, for instance, might have a common interest in preventing the ascendancy of Al Qaeda—would a negotiation that secured that outcome necessarily be a bad thing?

The authors also make large assumptions about the relative value of American aid to the opposition.  As we have found in recent months, our knowledge about that opposition is pretty sketchy.  The groups that are most powerful (and therefore most capable of unifying the national opposition) apparently loathe us.  The groups that we have been covertly aiding have been victims of predatory raiding by their compatriots.  Why assume U.S. military aid will be a “magic bullet” given the apparent evidence of our poor aim to date?

The authors also underestimate the apparent resources and influence of our regional allies.  This is curious.  They apparently accept that aid from Iran and Hezbollah was fundamental in restoring Assad’s ascendancy in the current conflict.  But, they ignore the fact that some of our partners, including Saudi Arabia and Qatar, are deeply (and expensively) engaged in arming the rebels.  If that’s the case, why is massive American investment necessary? (Since it will have significant political impact, some of which we might not like.)  Arguably, our regional partners can provide enough aid to the rebels to make them competitive—and they already seem determined to do so.  Are the authors arguing that our money will “trump” Saudi or Qatari money, and that our mere presence at the funding table will drive the rebels to political positions that we prefer (over the positions of regional powers with similar cultures and religions)?  That seems profoundly optimistic—even naïve—and we have some history in the region to prove it.


Against this backdrop, there are only two ways the Geneva talks can influence realities on the ground. The opposition, including its Islamist component, could lower its demands, or the opposition could become militarily stronger and politically more unified. Of the two, the second option is the only realistic cornerstone for U.S. policy.

Why shouldn’t the cornerstone of U.S. policy be a lowering of demands by the rebels, and a negotiated settlement that leaves Assad with some power and authority?  Doran and O’Hanlon do not address this comment in terms of U.S. interests (neither, in fact, does Slaughter), which makes it an assertion—and for the purposes of informing strategy, assertions are inadequate.

Also—we can make the opposition militarily stronger.  But politically more unified?  Especially with partners competing for influence, and the U.S. reputation in both Syria and the broader region?  Really?  What is our record of creating politically unified opposition movements, particularly in the Arab Middle East?  I think that bears serious discussion and analysis.  We have, in fact, been trying to unify the opposition for years, with a spectacular lack of success.

Ultimately, this comes down to a much more complex debate—what exactly is our political interest in Syria, and what should our political objective be?  Doran is refreshingly clear about this—he believes that Assad is too dangerous to remain in power.  Presumably, he is then willing to accept whatever chaos might then ensue in Syria, and perhaps in the region (this does sound disturbingly familiar), to include the rise of already powerful jihadist groups on the ground in Syria.  O’Hanlon wants a Bosnian solution, which may require significant international involvement, including troops on the ground for peace enforcement.

Both seem to think we can achieve these results by resurrecting the Reagan Doctrine—the escalating use of covert military aid to win civil wars. The authors argue that only through strengthening to rebels militarily to the point where Assad is forced to concede can either of these outcomes be assured—again, assuming that American arms lead directly to political unification.  These assumptions ignore our recent history of trying to control covert wars where our allies are involved (and more effective), the poor track record of American military aid in determining the long-term outcome of civil wars, and the possibility that the current negotiations might be an opportunity to make significant achievements that could, at a minimum, enable O’Hanlon’s preferred solution.

I would propose a modest alternative.  The U.S. has articulated three major concerns in this conflict:

  1. Ending the suffering and easing the humanitarian crisis.
  2. Eliminating Syrian weapons of mass destruction (WMD).
  3. Removing Assad from power.

The negotiations at Geneva may be able to secure the first two at the cost (and it is an obnoxious one) of not achieving the third.  In these negotiations, the price of a cessation of hostilities and the continued elimination of Syrian WMD will be some continued role for the Assad family in the governance and rule of Syria.  The fact that we are sitting down to negotiate with him indicates some willingness to accept his continued rule.  If the third objective was one we felt we could accomplish, we would act differently, and we would not negotiate with him (remember how we treat other unacceptable pariahs, like Castro and Saddam Hussein, when we have deemed them beyond recovery).   Negotiations, by their very nature, require some concessions—sometimes very meaningful ones (remember the Paris Peace Accords that ended the Vietnam War).  In this case, a very strong case can be made that the benefits of assuring our first two objectives will be worth the pain of allowing Assad to continue in power.

I don’t expect much from the peace talks.  But, the fact that they are occurring is not inherently a bad thing, and dismissing any possibility of a useful outcome is probably premature.  I imagine Assad would be willing to grant a number of concessions in return for an international stamp of legitimacy.  That might be a good outcome for the seven million refugees, and a temporary respite might be a welcome change in the life of the ordinary Syrian.  Ultimately, the end result of such a negotiation would have only a very, very marginal consequence for U.S. interests—and that consequence might even be a positive one.


Timothy D. Hoyt is Professor of Strategy and Policy and John Nicholas Brown Chair of Counterterrorism at the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed are those of the author, and do not reflect the policy of the U.S. Navy, the Department of Defense, or any other institution of the U.S. government.


Photo credit: United States Mission Geneva