The Logic of US Escalation on Syria

UPDATE: Here’s my spot on HuffPo Live this afternoon. Some very insightful remarks from Ali Gharib and Lara Setrakian, with the excellent Ahmed Shihab-Eldin as moderator.


The White House announced yesterday that it would start providing direct military assistance to Syrian rebels. The New York Times fills in some helpful details:

The Obama administration, concluding that the troops of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria have used chemical weapons against rebel forces in his country’s civil war, has decided to begin supplying the rebels for the first time with small arms and ammunition, according to American officials.

The officials held out the possibility that the assistance, coordinated by the Central Intelligence Agency, could include antitank weapons, but they said that for now supplying the antiaircraft weapons that rebel commanders have said they sorely need is not under consideration.

The logic of this toe-dip does not cut it.

Either you intervene to win; or you don’t intervene at all. Funneling some small arms to the rebels will not tip the balance against government forces who are openly supplied with weapons by Russia and Iran. What it will do is escalate the conflict in the eyes of the Syrian government’s backers international backers.

There is every reason to think that Russia will respond in kind. Last time the Western forces started making moves to arm the opposition was when the EU let its arms embargo lapse. Russia promptly responded by sending some advanced weaponry to Damascus.  Does the White House think Russia will respond differently this time? And if not, does the White House think it can defeat Russia and Iran in a proxy war in Syria?

The alternative to military escalation is renewing efforts on the diplomatic front. Here, two former NATO secretary general’s make a compelling argument for putting all the eggs in the diplomatic basket.

That is why getting to Geneva II and making it work — even if piecemeal and stuttering at first — must become the first order of business. As a recent report by the European Council on Foreign Relations, “Syria: The Imperative of De-escalation” argues, international consensus is an absolute prerequisite for cajoling the warring parties into a space where political negotiations can gain traction. There can thus be no pre-condition on talks and all parties must be invited to the table, including Iran if Assad is also to be pressed. That report suggests that the agenda for Geneva II should be derived from the already agreed Geneva communiqué of a year ago — focusing on an agreed political transition, preserving Syria’s territorial integrity, access for humanitarian assistance and ratcheting down violence and further militarization.

The West’s pro-opposition allies in the Gulf and Turkey will only be convinced if Americans and Europeans are themselves making an unequivocal case for Geneva II rather than hedging their bets. President Obama will need to be personally invested in Geneva II and make this the priority in his meeting with President Vladimir Putin on the margins of the G-8 later this month.

An international accord would mark a decisive return of politics to the scene. While no one expects the conflict to end soon — Syria is too polarized and awash with weaponry — a genuine international commitment to an ongoing political process would mark an important shift in trajectory. Given the deepening political, military and financial dependence of both sides on external backers, united international pressure to push them both toward a power-sharing agreement represents the best strategy for eventually ending the fighting. It will mark a decisive step toward dampening the absolutist ambitions of the warring parties, increasing the incentive to cut a deal, particularly as conflict fatigue sets in.

Given the ongoing cycle of escalation fueled by announcements of new weapon flows, restrictions on which countries can take part in talks, and desired preconditions, Geneva II is already on the ropes. The United States and Europe need to act urgently to reverse this trend. The grim alternative is an internationally backed escalation that could leave Syria and the region in permanent ruins, with likely spillover much closer to home.

So long as he’s backed by Russia, there is little chance that Assad will face some military defeat that will compel him to the negotiating table. It’s high time that the international community engage on the diplomatic front with renewed vigor. The urgency is first and foremost to stop the the fighting. Everything else can fall into place after that. But too many people are being killed right now in a war that is spiraling out of control.