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The only way forward on Syria

 

United States-Russia diplomacy is finally making headway on Syria. Monday, as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met in Paris to discuss their joint proposal for peace talks, they were encouraged by news over the weekend that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad will attend the talks.  

If all goes according to plan, next month's peace conference in Geneva will bring together the Syrian government and opposition leaders to broker a ceasefire and establish a transitional government.   

We are finally witnessing the kind of U.S. diplomatic engagement that is desperately needed in the region, irrespective of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's vote last week to arm Syrian rebels, a decision which directly undermines diplomacy efforts.

We must engage every nation that has a stake in Syria, whether it’s Iran, Israel, or Lebanon, not just Russia, Turkey and Iraq.

For too long we have disengaged -- recalling our ambassadors from Damascus when we needed them most -- a strategy that has left the U.S.-Syria diplomatic relationship woefully weak, manifested little in terms of peaceful progress, and ultimately failed at preventing violent conflict.

Nevertheless, the solution to the Syrian crisis does not lie in a U.S. military intervention, despite what many in Congress are calling for.

Instead, Congress should be backing the best possibility of peace presently on the table: a negotiated settlement among Syrian regime officials, internal factions and other regional actors in the conflict. 

The goal of next month's conference in Geneva is a transitional government with members chosen by mutual consent.  

Secretary Kerry should have a green light from the Obama administration to offer a comprehensive diplomatic settlement among all parties, while continuing to offer generous humanitarian aid to  millions in need.

This is how we make headway. And it is critical that these diplomatic efforts include sustained communication with all who are party to the conflict. That means we must engage every nation that has a stake in Syria, whether it’s Iran, Israel, or Lebanon, not just Russia, Turkey and Iraq. 

Going forward, there are three particular avenues we must pursue:

First, the U.S. diplomatic agenda with Iran should be broadened beyond the nuclear issue to address the crisis in Syria. 

Iran has critical influence on the Syrian regime and could play a strong role in getting Bashar al-Assad and his government to accept a political transition. We’ve rightly engaged Russia at the highest levels of statecraft. Now we must engage Iran similarly. Until all key actors are included at the negotiating table, the present political tensions will only escalate.

Second, if the U.S. is serious about supporting diplomatic engagement, the U.S. should push for a rapid and seamless replacement of Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N.-Arab League envoy for Syria who has indicated he will resign from his position this month.  To leave this post vacant will send the wrong message to Damascus about the U.S.’s commitment to diplomacy and would weaken the diplomatic effort.

Third, the U.S. should offer generous humanitarian aid to accountable actors. Our priority in Syria should be to ease the suffering of Syrian civilians. At least 6.8 million are currently in need of humanitarian assistance. 

Proposals from Senator John McCain and others to administer aid through the Syrian Opposition Coalition would be disastrous, however, as it politicizes the aid and further endangers civilians. 

It is essential that humanitarian aid be politically neutral, and it must be delivered to impartial humanitarian organizations.

These three areas are where Washington should spend its energy and effort.  And yet, the drumbeat for war proceeds apace, not unlike it did with Libya, with some in Congress calling for the same military aid and the same no-fly zone.

Military intervention -- whether through a U.S.-enforced no-fly zone over Syria, U.S. troops on the ground, or arming of the opposition -- would undoubtedly escalate the bloodshed. Further militarizing the conflict would destabilize an already volatile region, and it would undermine the potential for successful diplomacy.   

As former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has pointed out, imposing a no-fly zone is technically and effectively an act of war.  

Establishing a no-fly zone would begin with the U.S. bombing Syria’s anti-aircraft system. Given the widespread presence of Syria’s anti-aircraft systems, this would severely endanger millions of already-vulnerable civilians.

The only way forward at this point is through engagement of all of Syria’s neighbors including Iran, continuing high-level U.N. diplomacy post-Brahimi, and assisting civilians with humanitarian aid, but only through trusted impartial international aid organizations. These are the next--and only--steps.  Any other option comes with too much risk and too much additional bloodshed -- and would not leave behind a stable, strong, or safe Syria.

Michael Shank is director of foreign policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation.

Kathy Zager is a policy assistant for foreign policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation.