The following originally appeared in the Huffington Post:
In early 2011 — almost exactly a year ago — Syria’s citizens began protests against the repression of the Assad regime. While countries throughout the Middle East enjoyed a wave of political reforms — the “Arab Spring” — in Syria, citizens faced a bloody crackdown and have seen nothing but one long and bleak political winter.
Syria’s war has the world’s attention; this is no remote African conflagration but one at the heart of the new Great Game. Syria is of military, political and economic significance to the United States, European Union, Arab League and Russia. For Russia, the country is a major importer of Russia arms, the host of a large military base on the Mediterranean Sea, and one of its last allies in the region. For the European Union, it’s a major source of oil. The political endgame in Syria may well affect the balance of power not only regionally but globally. In their haste to predict the endgame, however, countries seem to have forgotten that first and foremost there must be consideration of how to end the killings of civilians — the Responsibility to Protect.
The United Nations estimates that at least 5,000 people have been killed in Syria, several hundred of them children. Human Rights Watch and others have documented extensive abuse, torture and disappearances on top of these killings. The international community now clearly must invoke the doctrine of Responsibility to Protect. In Syria, this means getting to peace, not supporting protracted civil war — no matter how rosy-eyed our predictions regarding ‘regime change.’
The Arab League has come up with what may be the only practical political roadmap possible to end the Syrian conflict quickly: calling for Assad to hand power to his Vice President, and the opposition to negotiate with the Syrian government. Two things need to happen to make the proposal work. Russia needs to get behind it, and persuade Assad to accept it. And the rest of the world needs to ensure the Syrian National Council, representing opposition forces, comes prepared to accept reasonable terms to end the conflict.
This weekend the Arab League deal was put before the UN Security Council, and Russia destroyed the negotiations — blowing a very cold wind over Syria’s long winter. Russia has done worse than simply sink this proposal; it has continued to sell arms to the Assad regime even as the regime continues to kill its own citizens.
The United States government has acted properly, at first urging all its allies to support the UN Security Council proposal, and then, in the wake of the proposal’s failure, calling quickly for an alternate forum — an urgent meeting involving the Arab League, NATO and other concerned nations. All these countries need to make a convincing case to Russia that Russia needs all the rest of them more than it needs Assad.
Syria may well be facing protracted civil war, and it is not clear what the outcome of such a war would be. A coup would represent an optimistic scenario, assuming Assad’s replacements would see the wisdom of negotiating a cease fire and power-sharing arrangement with the opposition — leading to an ‘illiberal democracy’ with the military still potentially playing a heavy role in government. Worse still would be internecine conflict — a scenario like the tragic Democratic Republic of Congo where, in the mid-1990s, the country’s dictator Mobutu was ousted, but after his demise the country fell apart, and is still a victim to protracted internal conflict.
This is precisely why the doctrine of Responsibility to Protect is so important, and why it is vital to get it right — simple regime change is in no way a guarantee for adequate civilian protection. Many observers are now calling for international support for Syria’s armed opposition. These advocates would do well to remember the famous 18th Brumaire of Napoleon Bonaparte. Revolutionary France saw regime change, but with it, widespread killing of civilians and a new form of dictatorship, not democracy.
Civilian protection must be the primary concern and focus of any new multilateral proposal for Syria — and this means putting together a deal that brings an end to the violence, even if it does not represent a complete political transition. Russia must be a part of that deal, and Russian prime minister Putin might take heed of more recent history lessons before putting Russia’s political clout behind a Syrian civil war — and recall that Russia chose the losing side in Afghanistan in 1979. The Soviet Union sustained that conflict for a decade, but today’s Russia is hardly capable of sustaining its own interests while supporting ongoing conflict elsewhere. Russia’s better bet would be to support a political transition and make the most of a Syrian spring.