An escalating stalemate in Syria

February 20, 2014
U.N.-Arab League mediator Lakhdar Brahimi sent the Syrian people a heartfelt apology. (DENIS BALIBOUSE/REUTERS/Newscom)

U.N.-Arab League mediator Lakhdar Brahimi sent the Syrian people a heartfelt apology. (DENIS BALIBOUSE/REUTERS/Newscom)

The second round of Syrian peace talks ended in Geneva last weekend with very little progress reproted. In recognition of that failure, the U.N.’s Arab League mediator, Lakhdar Brahimi, sent an apology to the Syrian people: “I am very, very sorry, and I apologize to the Syrian people, [whose] hopes were very, very high,” that nothing happened.

Since the Syrian civil war began four years ago, a stream of apologies have gone out to the Syrian people. But those words haven’t made much of a difference. According to some reports, more than 140,000 Syrian civilians have been killed in the fighting, including some 7,000 children. Millions more have been displaced and have fled the country, stretching resources and increasing instability in Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Iraq.

Syria itself has been left in what has been called an “escalating stalemate,” where the only change in the conflict is that it gets uglier and bloodier.

While the U.S. intended the Geneva talks to address a transition to a post-Assad Syria, it couldn’t find a negotiating partner on the other side of the table. Indeed, according to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, rather than focusing on peace and transition, Assad’s forces have done “nothing except continue to drop barrel bombs on their own people and continue to destroy their own country.” Kerry also observed that Assad continues his agression “with increased support from Iran, from Hezbollah and from Russia.”

In the face of these realities, can the diplomatic approach work? We think so, but only if the effort is accompanied by a new sense of urgency on the part of the U.S., Europe and Middle East friends. That urgency needs to face the stark reality that Russia’s political goals and efforts to preserve influence in the region shouldn’t be tolerated at the expense of a never-ending cycle of worsening violence. But in order to make that point, America and its allies need to feel, and then express clearly, the deadly reality that an escalating stalemate in Syria translates into both a humanitarian and strategic disaster.

Among the options being suggested are nonlethal approaches. For example, in an op-ed in The Washington Post, former National Security Adviser Sandy Berger called for imposing “carefully targeted sanctions on banks that finance arms shipments to the regime and on financiers of al-Qaeda.” It’s a wonder this isn’t already being done. But even if such sanctions were in place, could they succeed without unifed international support?

As far as possible lethal support is concerned, Americans and the Obama administration have been leery of getting tangled in “another war.” And even the effort to arm trusted rebel groups has been halfhearted. So what can be done?

Perhaps the administration should consider increasing support for trusted rebels and orchestrating symbolic actions that challenge the Assad regime, like dropping food on cities under siege. The goal here would not be to bring about the collapse of the Assad government, but to end the escalating stalemate and to help facilitate productive negotiations. We urge consideration of these and other creative approaches, because while Mr. Brahimi’s apology to Syrian civilians may have been heartfelt, it will take a lot more than words to halt the tragedy befalling the Syrian people.

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