When even David Ignatius of the Washington Post begins to suggest that a possible tectonic shift in US foreign policy just might be impending, it is time to take notice. Ignatius's piece entitled "The unthinkable is now in motion" in the print edition describes how discussions with Iran over its nuclear program as well as the first steps being taken in dismantling Syria's chemical weapons have radically shifted perceptions of two allegedly intractable conflicts.
Indeed, the agreement over the Syrian weapons might be a sign that the regime in Damascus just might be ready for possibly Russian-brokered talks to create the framework for a political settlement to wind down its civil war. Other journalists and politicians from a number of countries have also noted the shift and are beginning to explore what needs to be done to end the conflict. Many have, like Ignatius noted, though with some caveats, that the breakthrough negotiation over the issue of chemical weapons has opened the door for additional positive developments.
Most observers would agree that the tragedy in Syria has reached its current proportions largely due to outside meddling, starting some years ago with the Saudis, and continuing more recently with Turkey backed by France and Britain and the United States. What started out as a domestic protest movement that was largely peaceful has morphed into a full-scale civil war that includes plenty of outside players, and which has also drawn in nearly all of Syria's neighbors with regional security implications. The hopes in Ankara, Western Europe and in Washington for a quick removal of Bashar al-Assad followed by a new government that would be more "democratic," decoupled from Iran and Hezbollah plus friendly to western interests proved to be a chimera.
Given the scale of the disaster, with possibly as many as two million refugees, many more displaced internally and at least 100,000 dead, no one is eager to claim responsibility for what went wrong. As the insurgents have grown to include large numbers of foreign jihadis who have been caught on film burning churches, carrying out summary executions and eating hearts, only Saudi Arabia and Qatar, driven by their fear of Iran, persist in their support of regime change with any enthusiasm.
The sidebar debate in the international media has revolved around the usual American obsession with numbers, focusing on calculations of what percentage of the rebels are truly radical, with the guesstimates floating between 20 and 80. Countries like Turkey, which has more than a half million refugees on its soil legally and probably that many more there illegally, are now desperately looking for a way out. A large majority of the Turks oppose any military involvement in Syria and the conflict has badly damaged Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, contributing to street demonstrations and making his plan to change the constitution to strengthen the presidency so he might step into it a non-starter. He is mulling whether to run for president at all next year and may decide that it would be safer to stay on as prime minister.
Though the immediate political impact has been less outside of Turkey, the clear desire of the American people to eschew military action against Syria forced President Barack Obama to back down, raising for the first time serious challenges both from the public and congress to the post 9/11's "unitary executive's" ability to use the armed forces without any accountability. Large majorities of the public in France and Britain, both of whose leaders were inclined to support the US bombing and had no constitutional restraints limiting doing so, have also forced their governments to rethink taking military action. Britain's parliament has even formally rejected planned intervention in a major defeat for Prime Minister David Cameron.
Like Ignatius, some pundits are beginning to suggest possible ways to exit from the status quo, which is going nowhere, and they are speculating on possible scenarios that could obtain sufficient traction from enough of the engaged parties to permit a negotiated settlement. There are, of course, some irreconcilable positions. Both Saudi Arabia and Israel strongly support an American attack, with the Saudis wanting to bring about regime change to weaken Iran, even if it comes with the price tag of introducing increased radicalism to the region. An estimated 800 Saudis are currently fighting with the jihadis. Israel meanwhile would like to see the Syrian civil war continue indefinitely with the rebels eventually winning to weaken that nation's ability to take any aggressive action against Tel Aviv and to cut its links with Iran and Hezbollah. Even though it is nervous that an extremist regime might well replace the predictable and manageable al-Assad, it would prefer that option to the current government remaining in place.
Apart from the extremes there is a mixed bag of interests, many of which can be reconciled in one form or another with a little tweaking. The United States has no real interest in the conflict, Susan Rice notwithstanding, apart from the nebulous "responsibility to protect" which has been interpreted to mean an obligation to intervene to aid the Syrian civilians caught up in the conflict. The problem with that reasoning is that military action by Washington will not demonstrably protect anyone and would almost certainly end up killing more civilians. Which suggests that the Obama Administration interest, such as it is, might be best served by pushing for a cease fire to be followed by some form of brokered election under United Nations auspices that would include all parties except the radical insurgents, who could at least in theory be marginalized and forced out. That type of solution would presumably be supported by Britain, France, and even Russia, which wants an orderly transition so it can continue to be seen as a friend of Syria, enabling it to retain a foothold in the region through its only Mediterranean naval base in Tarsus.
The "moderate" rebels, insofar as they actually exist and present a united front, have rejected negotiating with the al-Assad government, but that position would quickly be abandoned if their western and Gulf supporters were to lean on them a bit. But would Bashar al-Assad go for such an arrangement? He might do so, foregoing his reelection next year for the "good of the country," willing to be eased out into comfortable retirement in some place like Dubai as long as his supporters were protected from reprisals. His Ba'ath Party and the existing state institutions, including the army, must be preserved if only to avoid a complete collapse such as took place in Iraq while steps could be taken to ensure the physical security of the minority Alawite and Christian communities and others who have supported the government.
A transitional arrangement could include steps to protect or even guarantee minority rights in an election that might be supervised by the United Nations. Turkey, the front-line state in the conflict over the past two years, would likely accept an arrangement that includes a security zone along its border as well as a handover of the million or so refugees on its soil to the UN. Jordan would likewise turn over responsibility for its refugees, though many of the millions of displaced would presumably return home immediately if some level of security were to be restored.
For those who argue that a negotiated settlement can't happen in Syria because too much blood has been shed, one need only point to the examples of similar conflicts in Africa and Asia over the past 50 years. They too seemed intractable and some of them have continued to fester but, by pushing the right buttons and enabling the right compromises, most of them have been resolved or at least have receded from a state of full-scale civil war and genocide. All it requires is a serious commitment to diplomacy as opposed to arming one side or the other.
Nearly everyone would be able to find a comfort zone if the Syrian civil war were to end, so there is strong motivation to take whatever steps are necessary to accomplish just that. And it would be a political victory for nearly everyone involved, with the US and its allies claiming that they had stopped the bloodshed while blocking the extremists from forming a government. Turkey could claim that it had secured its border from terrorists. Best of all, a seriously pursued negotiated solution might actually end much of the killing while giving al-Assad a respectable exit.
Do President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have what it takes to do the right thing? We shall see.