By Mark N. Katz, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Mark N. Katz is professor of Government and Politics at George Mason University, and the author of ‘Leaving without Losing: The War on Terror after Iraq and Afghanistan.’ The views expressed are his own.
The ongoing civil war that is devastating Syria is increasingly threatening to spill over and engulf neighboring countries. Indeed, all the ingredients are there for what would be a disastrous region-wide Sunni-Shiite conflict.
Just look at what has been going on. Turkey is hard pressed to deal with the growing number of Syrian refugees flooding into its territory, while tiny Jordan may soon be overwhelmed by them. In addition, the conflict between Syria’s Alawite minority regime and its Sunni majority opposition is spilling over and re-invigorating Sunni-Shiite conflict both in Iraq to the east and Lebanon to the west. Meanwhile, Shiite-dominated governments in Iran and Iraq, as well as the radical Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah movement, are all actively assisting Syria’s Alawite regime, while Sunni-dominated governments in Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Jordan are helping the Sunni opposition.
And what has been the Obama administration’s response to all this? Surprising – and troubling – restraint.
While Washington has called for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down and not to use chemical weapons against his opponents, it has done little to respond to his failure to comply on either count. No doubt due to fears the Sunni opposition in Syria has become dominated by radicals, and also a desire to avoid the problems that America experienced in Iraq and Afghanistan, President Obama appears determined to do little more than provide non-lethal assistance to some Syrian opposition groups. This has been underscored as recent talk of the U.S. providing the opposition with lethal assistance has been downplayed now that a Russian-American agreement to convene a peace conference on Syria has been reached.
Moscow’s continuing – or even increasing – supply of arms to Damascus, though, should raise serious doubts about the Russian government’s commitment to peace in Syria. Motivated by a desire to keep Russia’s last remaining ally in the Arab world, conviction that the downfall of al-Assad will somehow lead to the rise of Sunni radicalism in Russia’s North Caucasus, and resentment toward the United States despite Obama’s efforts to improve relations, President Putin appears to be promoting the peace conference approach simply in order to dissuade the U.S. and its NATO allies from increasing their support to the Syrian opposition.
But the experience of the past half century should already be enough to demonstrate that multi-party peace conferences by themselves are not what resolve conflicts. What it takes to do so is one party – usually the U.S. – that is willing and able to apply the requisite combination of carrots and sticks to basically impose a settlement on the warring parties. Attempts to serve as an “honest broker” and help them come to an agreement among themselves, no matter how earnest, usually fail for a simple reason: if they don’t have to reach an agreement, then they won’t.
Moscow insists that the warring parties in Syria must agree upon a settlement. But it should be clear that the al-Assad regime and its opponents will not do so. Indeed, this is undoubtedly clear to Moscow, which cynically pushes this approach in the hope of stopping the U.S. from aiding the opposition while Russia and others provide sufficient aid to al-Assad to enable him to get the upper hand.
With the support of Russia and others, the al-Assad regime may well avoid being overthrown. It is unlikely, though, to be able to defeat its Sunni opponents who are also receiving external support (even if not from the U.S.). The conflict, then, is likely to continue, possibly spread, and become even less amenable to control by any outside party.
The United States, as well as its allies, have a strong interest in preventing this. To do so, it needs to bring the conflict to an end. But as long as al-Assad remains in power, it will not.
While the Obama administration understandably wants to avoid getting bogged down in another prolonged conflict in the Muslim world, there are steps it can take well short of this that can contribute to ending the conflict. First and foremost, the U.S. has the means to quickly and effectively remove al-Assad and his closest associates from power. Washington can also launch a diplomatic effort to negotiate the formation of a new government from among the various opposition movements – whose internecine rivalry is likely to increase once al-Assad is gone. Further, the U.S. can coordinate efforts to protect those Alawites willing to make peace with the Sunni majority.
Accomplishing all this will not be easy. America will need the help of its NATO and Arab allies. But active American efforts to resolve the Syrian conflict surely have a much greater chance of success than holding a series of multilateral peace conferences at which nobody agrees to anything while the conflict continues.
The Obama administration cannot afford to fiddle while Syria burns. For if the fire is not put out soon, far more than Syria will end up in flames.