Syria At A Standstill

May 20, 2013
BY David Holzel

Proposed peace conference has hosts, will it have any guests?

From Washington and Jerusalem, it’s hard to tell the good news from the bad in the stalemate that is the Syrian civil war. This week the government forces of President Bashar al-Assad appeared to gain some ground and momentum against the rebels fighting to force him from power.

Former U.S. diplomat Aaron David Miller looked at the situation and concluded that there are “no good options in Syria” for the U.S. and its allies.

“Choices run the gamut from unacceptable (do nothing) to ineffective (provide nonlethal assistance) to risky (arming the rebels or establishing a no-fly zone),” he wrote in Foreign Policy magazine.

Critics of military intervention in Syria have called for a stronger diplomatic initiative to bring the warring parties together. Perhaps heeding these calls — or because other options are so unpalatable — Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov announced in Moscow on May 7 that the two countries will work to convene an international peace conference on Syria.

The location and date have not been set, although reports indicate it might be in June.

Russia is one of the Assad regime’s few supporters, along with Iran and the Hezbollah Shiite militia. The U.S. has been unable to get the Russians to support sanctions against Assad in the United Nations.

There’s no guarantee that the conference will go farther than the flurry of statements following last week’s declaration. President Barack Obama himself said “there are going to be enormous challenges,” during a joint press briefing Tuesday with British Prime Minister David Cameron.

The two leaders reaffirmed their support for the Syrian opposition. Cameron announced his government would double its nonlethal assistance to the rebels.

The Obama-Cameron meeting came as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu flew to Moscow for talks with Putin about Syria. Israel is concerned about Russian arms sales to the Assad regime. Syria has been seeking to purchase the advanced S-300 missile batteries, which can intercept manned aircraft and guided missiles, from Moscow for many years. Israel and Western nations oppose the sale because the missiles would significantly boost Syria’s ability to stave off intervention in its current civil war.

Last Friday, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced that Russia will not sell the S-300 advanced air defense system to Syria. Lavrov’s statement came in reaction to the publication of an article two days earlier in The Wall Street Journal reporting that Israel had informed the United States of an imminent deal to sell the advanced ground-to-air missiles.

The proposed peace conference now has hosts, but will it have any guests? Both the Assad government and the opposition asked for more details before deciding whether to attend.
“At this point there’s very little there there,” said David Pollack, a senior fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Despite a high chance of failure, the proposed conference does serve a purpose, Pollack said. “I’m not sure it’s the right purpose. It serves the purpose of buying time for everybody. The question is, whose side is time on? And right now it seems to be on Assad’s side.”

Obama hoped that after Putin agreed to the conference, the Russian would “ease off on his support of Assad,” Pollack said. “There’s no sign that is working at this point.”

That change toward Assad is crucial. Stephen Sestanovich, the top Russia expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, said “success will depend on whether the Russians are prepared to tell [Syrian president Bashar al-] Assad and his supporters that the jig is really up for their regime,” according to the think tank’s website.

Pollack said he disagrees with the argument that there are no good options for the West in Syria. “There are good options, but they’re a little bit risky. A much better option is to increase our tangible support of the opposition — right now. That would produce a better balance on the ground. Paradoxically, if we really are going to try to broker a settlement, that’s exactly what we should do.”

It is still to be determined which of Syria’s neighbors — Turkey, Iran, Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan — will attend the conference. Pollack said the next steps include a visit to Washington by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who will arrive today, followed by a meeting of the Syrian opposition in Istanbul, Pollack said.

Aram Nerguizian, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, believes that peace talks could help defuse other conflicts in the Middle East.

“They could play an equally important role in efforts to de-escalate broader regional tensions, especially between Israel and Hezbollah in the Levant, and indirectly vis-a-vis Saudi-Iranian and Sunni-Shi’a competition in the broader Middle East,” he wrote last week on the think tank’s website.

Meanwhile, the military stalemate tips back and forth, with the current advantage belonging to Assad, Pollack said.

“But the government’s getting more and more support from the outside, while the opposition is getting less and less.”

While many are increasingly concluding that it will be a disaster no matter which side prevails in the civil war, Pollack believes that the fall of the Assad government would be the “fortunate” outcome. “There’s no guarantee about what comes next. But it would be a strategic loss for Iran and Hezbollah.”

That would be a boon to Israel which, while neutral in the civil war, is committed to preventing Hezbollah from strengthening its position. That concern was behind Israel’s recent unacknowledged attacks inside Syria on missile batteries bound for Hezbollah control.

The Syrian civil war, with or without a peace conference, presents Israel with another benefit. “It has helped bring Turkey and Israel back together,” Pollack said. “They have a common interest in stopping the spread of the civil war across Syria’s borders.”

But Syria should not become America’s responsibility to clean up, according to Miller. “Caution,” he wrote, “is still the order of the day.”

dholzel@washingtonjewishweek.com Twitter: @davidholzel
JTA contributed to this story.