The Syrian civil war has the potential to become much more widespread and far deadlier. The response of President Obama to the current situation will go a long way towards deciding how the Syrian conflict will ultimately play out. The possibilities are grim at best.
The stakes are huge because three superpowers, the U.S., China, and Russia, are engaged to varying degrees; Syria and its rebels are being bolstered militarily by the aforementioned superpowers along with several neighboring nations; and the Shi'a-Sunni 1,000 year old religious war will make a peaceful settlement very difficult to negotiate.
For the U.S., the several issues must be considered before any political decisions are made. Americans are not amenable to yet another Middle East conflict that will surely cost many more lives and a great amount of money. Obama's response to the conflict until now has been tepid. The president's tactic of relative non-engagement is effectively decreasing his influence. America's reticence is definitely a weakness in the eyes of the other players.
In a New York Times op-ed piece, Wesley Clark, former NATO supreme allied commander for Europe, offered his take on the current events in Syria and the U.S.'s ability to end the conflict diplomatically. Although I dare to disagree with the majority of General Clark's assessments, he provides many important observations and comparisons to the Kosovo conflict.
Syria is not really compatible to Kosovo. Clark refers to it on numerous occasions in his piece, as he opines about U.S. options. Kosovo is not a strategic location, unlike Syria. It does not have highly-sought-after resources. Ethnic feuds, not religion, were the primary reasons for genocide during the conflict. The neighboring countries, excluding Russia, were not actively involved in the actual fighting.
True, Russian is a common denominator in both conflicts. But, the Russia of 2013 is much more confident, stronger, and confrontational than it was in the 1990s.
Clark provides a tidy formula for diplomacy in Syria based upon a strong American response to the hostilities. It consists of: a cease-fire agreement; a United Nations presence; departure of foreign fighters; international supervision of Syria's military; a peaceful exit for al-Assad (and his family and supporters); a transitional government; and plans for a new Syria. This is the same idealistic rigmarole that our generals sold to Congress and the president before the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began; we should remember how successful those operations have been.
Let's consider Clark's formula in more detail. A "cease-fire" would not be a deal between two warring factions. It would have to include three superpowers, Shi'a Iran and Hezbollah; Sunni Saudi Arabia and Qatar; the rebels, including Al-Qaeda elements; Assad's forces; and the U.S. The motivations of each in this lineup are all over the lot and include religious domination, acquisition of natural resources, ideology, and regional assertion of power. This "cease-fire" will be a diplomatic nightmare.
A United Nations force would consist of neutral third parties such as whom? What government would agree to send troops into this rat's nest?
Departure of foreign forces includes insurgents from every neighboring state that are intent on fomenting unrest and terrorist violence. They will not depart willingly.
Disarmament of Syria's military would be particularly challenging because the country would then be vulnerable to coups, civil war, and assaults on its sovereignty.
A peaceful exit for al-Assad is not going to happen. Too many want him dead or at least prosecuted for crimes against humanity.
A transitional government and plans for a new Syria is code for "nation building." The U.S. is not competent to perform this gargantuan task, based upon recent history. And why, pray tell, would the other countries involved cede this responsibility to America?
One final thought relates to the concept of becoming more aggressive while trying to make peace. This is a dangerous and oft-times unsuccessful strategy. Be skeptical that the impact of threats against the interested parties will have any traction. Frankly, no one believes that the Obama administration has the balls to pull of such a gambit.
On the reverse side, 90,000 Syrians have been slaughtered. The potential escalation of violence between the superpowers is troublesome. The rebels include Al-Qaeda fighters. Syria has used chemical weapons against its own people. Ergo, there are many reasons to hope for peace in Syria.
The only way to proceed in Syria is through cooperation between the superpowers. They must formulate a diplomatic plan to decrease the tension. If each of them provides more weapons, the chances that violence will subside decreases exponentially.