Syria's Crisis of Transition

March 1, 2013 Topic: Security Regions: Syria

Syria's Crisis of Transition

Mini Teaser: History shows that an internationally led negotiation is the best way out of the civil war, but the situation isn't yet ripe for action.

by Author(s): Chester Crocker

U.S. negotiators found leverage by engaging with the backers of all factions in the complex Cambodia diplomacy of the early 1990s. It worked because of broader geopolitical dynamics and the ability to exploit the appetite for exit in the key “patron” capitals.

In Liberia in 2003, U.S. officials brought minimal military presence (mainly offshore) to bear, but the main action was to catalyze the military and diplomatic support of Nigeria, Ghana and the Economic Community of West African States (and then the UN secretariat) to shape a two-year transition plan that removed Charles Taylor from office, set up a transitional regime and paved the way for elections.

The United States acquired leverage (as well as some less welcome initiatives) from UN mediators and Central American leaders in the diplomacy preceding the 1992 El Salvador settlement, snatching success from the jaws of a domestically controversial quagmire.

UN credibility and professional skill provided the backdrop to sustained U.S. efforts that ultimately succeeded in a 1988 agreement ending the colonial regime in Namibia and the major Cuban military presence in Angola with the help of leverage borrowed from neighbors, allies, the Cubans and the Soviets.

And finally, French and UN forces, along with rhetorical support from the African Union, enabled Washington to play a quiet but firm backseat role in removing a stubborn tyrant from office in Ivory Coast in 2011.

IN SYRIA, U.S. diplomacy has focused on mobilizing a wide circle of roughly one hundred states in the Friends of Syria ad hoc group, which meets periodically outside the UN context to evade Russian and Chinese vetoes. In parallel, U.S. diplomats have elicited the help of Arab states in birthing the Syrian National Coalition in hopes of unifying diverse opposition forces and getting them widespread international recognition. Unifying the opposition camp is essential to gain and hold the strategic initiative. This is a form of leverage.

But the ultimate and most important source of potential leverage remains Moscow. Washington pursues this target by unifying and recognizing the opposition; engaging on the UN track, which provides Moscow (and many others) with some face-saving; backing broad economic sanctions against the Assad regime and providing nonlethal assistance to the opposition; and working behind the scenes to screen and channel third-party lethal aid. These efforts—properly understood—serve to bleed Moscow’s client while offering the Russians the possibility of a way out. This would consist of their pulling the plug on Assad (while denying they were doing so, of course) while playing a key role in shaping the next phase of a transition endorsed by the Arab League and the UN. Official Washington will need a sober realism to pull something like this off. If Moscow is being asked to join in birthing a “new Syria,” it will want to know what kind of baby is being conceived.

Borrowing leverage is the essence of good diplomacy. But it is not the only diplomatic tool in the arsenal. If the troubled regime is a friendly one at some level (e.g., the Philippines under Ferdinand Marcos), Washington has the option of withdrawing or reducing its support. If the target is a rogue warlord or an unfriendly regime, U.S. diplomacy can facilitate a leader’s exile by speaking to those who might accept him, as Washington did successfully in Liberia in 2003. An unheralded but brilliant example of arranging a soft landing occurred in Ethiopia in 1991, when rebel forces were on the outskirts of Addis Ababa. The Soviet-backed thug Mengistu Haile Mariam and his immediate coterie escaped to Zimbabwean exile just before the Tigrayan rebel chieftain Meles Zenawi entered the city. That diplomacy was conducted by U.S. officials using one of the most powerful modern diplomatic weapons: a cell phone. In Syria, tasks like this are more likely to fall to the Russians or the Iranians.

Another conundrum in transitional diplomacy is to be found in relationships with opposition movements, both armed and civilian-led. Washington needs to define its real purpose and motivations as it reaches out to Syrian groups (or refuses to) and considers including them in meetings and providing them tangible assistance. Are we trying to help them win, to warn them against certain kinds of behavior, to curry favor with them in case they come out on top, to send a message to the regime’s backers, or simply to have a seat at the table and keep options open as events unfold? Are we aiming at regime collapse or a brokered transition? What lessons have we learned about such choices from earlier examples that might be relevant today?

While many precedents suggest answers to such questions, there has been a lack of conceptual clarity in U.S. decision making and public commentary. The most important choices involve when to reach out to local opposition parties as a regime begins to run into trouble; whether and how to engage with armed actors, including those that may engage in acts of terror or other forms of criminal activity; and what roles armed opposition movements should be allowed to play in negotiating the transition.

The political context shapes much of the answer. In the case of a previously friendly regime that finds itself sliding into political crisis—for example, Iran under the shah, the Philippines under Marcos or Egypt under Hosni Mubarak—the act of engaging opposition groups inevitably sends a powerful signal of distancing and hedging. That, in fact, may be its primary initial purpose. Diplomatic support and institution-building aid may follow. But even in relatively peaceful settings where the goal is to hedge and broaden contacts in the society, engaging with opposition movements should not be viewed as a gift to them. Engagement of this kind is not making nice; it is a test that merely opens the door to a possible roadmap for relations. It may also be undertaken to protect future equities and avoid estrangement from a future leadership. In any event, it should be done early in the process, ideally before political conflict ripens into crisis.

The picture gets more complicated when the crisis facing a previously friendly regime crosses the line toward violence. One reason is that state institutions, and the people running them, may be at risk. Hence, it is important to assess the pros and cons of working toward a relatively soft landing versus sweeping away the old order. As regime brutality converts protesters into rebels (often the result of provocations aimed at precisely this result), we need to know much more about the armed groups that emerge. They may be led by patriots or warlords. The leadership may be pragmatic or ideologically rigid. Its agenda may be homegrown or shaped by those who arm and fund it; that agenda may be driven by principle or by the raw quest for power. The armed opposition may be cohesive or destined for future internal strife when the old order crumbles. Armed groups may or may not respect the rights of innocent civilians.

A deep dive is required to get some answers. And again, that requires early engagement, not as an act of solidarity with future “good guys” but in order to send warnings, clarify positions and interests, ask tough questions and obtain information. As the old regime goes down (assuming the United States lets that happen or cannot prevent it), it becomes increasingly important to avoid rose-colored glasses in viewing likely successors: there are no Nelson Mandelas in most scenarios, especially violent ones.

ENGAGEMENT WITH armed groups entails risks and requires clarity about objectives. Groups that get on the U.S., UN or EU lists of proscribed entities because of terrorist acts pose particular problems. Officials may be deterred by potential controversy or legally prohibited from contact with them in the absence of special waivers—a relatively recent development that severely complicates peacemaking in conflict zones. Since the June 2010 Supreme Court decision in Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project,nonofficial organizations have been directly constrained in their dealings with armed groups that are on U.S. terrorism lists. This prohibition can be interpreted as criminalizing mere training, advising on political solutions or providing humanitarian aid. U.S. legislation, court decisions and executive regulations severely undercut U.S. diplomatic reach and represent a form of unilateral diplomatic disarmament. The net effect is to require communication through private non-American intermediaries, resulting in excessive reliance on intelligence channels or on other friendly third parties that are free from such self-defeating inhibitions.

These recent legal and legislative developments compound an already-complex environment for engaging armed actors. Contact with armed groups operating in friendly states such as Spain, Colombia, the Philippines, Yemen or Northern Ireland is highly sensitive politically. Key exchanges typically take place in the utmost secrecy, often conducted by nonofficial bodies. It is essential that policy makers and citizens regain the flexibility to deal with potential future players emerging during violent transitions, and the earlier the better. After all, in places such as Spain, South Africa, El Salvador, Kashmir, the Palestinian territories, Nepal and Afghanistan, it is hard to imagine how the United States and other outside powers could have exerted influence for constructive change without engaging the men with the guns—even those you would not bring home for dinner.

Image: Pullquote: If Moscow is being asked to join in birthing a “new Syria,” it will want to know what kind of baby is being conceived.Essay Types: Essay