The world is closely — and, for the most part, skeptically — watching the progress of a ceasefire brokered by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan in Syria. More than 9,000 Syrians are dead since the start of the uprising against the regime headed by Bashar al-Asad. Amidst a general sense of despair over this grim situation, there are mounting calls for more robust outside intervention to aid the Syrian opposition in its quest to topple the regime. Such views are hardly a consensus, but neither are they marginal, as they once were. In the April 11 New York Times, law professors Asli Bali and Aziz Rana published a very different prescription for ameliorating the crisis, one based on direct political engagement with the regime. Below are their responses to my questions about their piece.

You argue for a political solution to the Syrian conflict. But both the regime and the rebels have taken hard rhetorical lines against talking with each other. What signs do you see that the stalemate could be broken?

At least as an initial matter (in its first 72 hours), the Annan plan, including the ceasefire, seems to have reduced violence. The six UN observers are reportedly on their way to offer an international perspective on the viability of the ceasefire. The purpose of the cessation of violence — however long the window remains open — is to enable meaningful negotiations for transition. The only way for that to happen is to persuade the Asad regime that it will lose Iranian and Russian support unless it pursues a transition (not unlike the one in Yemen) that enables it to have a role in determining what the transitional process looks like, but which ensures the departure of Asad.

Of course, the next logical question is: Why would Russia and Iran place serious pressure on their ally once the ceasefire is in place? The answer is only if others in the international community make concessions on the security concerns and interests of these two countries with respect to Syria. In the case of Russia, this may mean something along the lines of continued guaranteed access to warmwater ports on Syria’s Mediterranean coast. In Iran’s case, inducements may take the form of concessions related to sanctions and the current P5+1 talks on the nuclear file. Absent some kind of grand bargain to enable negotiations to move toward political transition, the ceasefire will likely prove tenuous and the window of opportunity for negotiated transition created by the Annan plan will close. There is no reason to expect that the Asad regime’s principal sponsors would participate in an international strategy that results in dispatching their ally unless they are convinced their own interest in a regional sphere of influence will not thereby be harmed (or at any event that the costs to them of the internationally sanctioned plan are no higher than the best alternatives from their perspective).

The other requirement, of course, is that mixed messages from the regional and international supporters of the opposition — particularly the armed rebels — also cease. It is not credible to suggest that there is international support for a ceasefire at the same time that major powers are committing to pay salaries and otherwise offer logistical and communications assistance to armed groups seeking to depose the regime by force. Even less credible is commitment to a ceasefire as arms flow to the rebels from such regional players as Saudi Arabia and Qatar. If external support for violent strategies within Syria is not suspended on both sides, there is no reason to expect the current stalemate to be broken. Rather, we should expect an incremental escalation in violence and ultimately a full-fledged civil war that may well also prove to be a regional proxy war between major Sunni actors allied with the US, on the one hand, and resistance forces allied with Iran, on the other.

Do not the reports of shelling in Homs during the ceasefire support the views of those who argue that the regime cannot be trusted in negotiations? Won’t it use any such timeout in Security Council deliberations to press its advantage on the battlefield?

For the reasons adduced above, both sides have an incentive to pursue a strengthening and hardening of violent strategies during a ceasefire unless external support for use-of-force strategies is clearly ended. This is an asymmetric conflict; as a result, the regime’s advantage is significant on the battlefield and its ability to use a ceasefire to consolidate its position should be the most important concern. But so long as armed opposition groups can wage a low-grade insurgency with outside support, they can also use a ceasefire as a time to impose significant costs on the regime. Specifically, their best strategy is to erode the confidence of Syrians in the regime’s ability to quell the uprising. As a result, opposition groups also have an incentive to use the ceasefire to regroup and rearm as they attempt to reach a “tipping point” in persuading business communities and minorities to abandon their ambivalence toward armed resistance and to support the opposition.

We appreciate the difficulties of a peaceful resolution. It may well be the case that the various forces on the ground are ultimately unwilling to negotiate a compromise that avoids greater bloodshed. But given the civilian cost to date and the likely consequences of a deepening civil war, we believe that all diplomatic options — including real engagement with Iran — should be pursued seriously.

The current US, Turkish and Gulf approach is to lead with confrontational policies that intensify rather than reduce the conflict. Although humanitarian in name, these policies squeeze out diplomatic solutions, give incentives to both sides to harden their stances and, in reality, undermine truly humanitarian ends.

In a sense, there is a tautology at work here. The US is employing strategies that underscore to the Asad regime and its backers that war is the only potentially winning option. And then, precisely because of the effects of these strategies, commentators are saying, “See, diplomatic solutions are impossible because the regime refuses to desist unilaterally.”

On the other side of the ledger, won’t the regime see the Security Council’s action on April 14 — approving “peacekeeping” monitors when there is no peace to keep — as a step down the road to more direct military intervention? If so, why would Damascus entertain serious talks?

Peacekeeping need not be intrinsically escalatory. Everything depends on the mandate given to the peacekeeping operation. For instance, peacekeeping is typically consensual, meaning that the terms of the operation will depend on the Asad regime’s willingness to allow the peacekeepers in.

We have, however, witnessed several parties call for measures on “humanitarian grounds” that would lead to escalation — such as humanitarian corridors and no-fly zones. Should the peacekeeping operation include a mandate to use force under circumstances other than self-defense, then this would clearly have a more interventionist character. And, if such a peacekeeping force were to be deployed without the regime’s consent, then it would likely undermine the possibility of serious talks. At present, the regime has allowed the first six-person team of international observers into the country. The regime’s willingness to cooperate with this element of the Council’s mandate is not a substantial concern as yet. If the subsequent 250-person force also limits its mission to observation of compliance with the ceasefire, then there is little reason to expect escalation from the authorization issued by the Council to date.

All of this being said, the principal reason we have not seen more decisive action out of the Security Council is not Russian and Chinese opposition. In fact, none of the proposals that have been debated by the Council (as opposed to Beltway analysts) involved more direct actions. This is because none of the Western players on the Council have the appetite to mobilize their own resources in an intervention that may destabilize their geostrategic interests (in Israel, for instance) and that might ultimately result in a Muslim Brother-dominated government in Damascus. As a result, the likeliest scenario remains one of a proxy war rather than military intervention.

One should note that such an emerging posture among Western powers and their regional allies may prove just as destructive as more direct military intervention. It means the growing possibility of a long and drawn-out civil war. This is because even with additional arms, opposition groups resisting the repressiveness of the Asad regime may remain outmanned by their state adversary. Moreover, since much of the opposition is based in cities, there is a high likelihood that more arms will ratchet up the level of violence in densely populated urban areas. In other words, additional arms, given the countervailing military power of the Syrian government, may accelerate threats to civilians (such as by intensifying the regime’s already harsh response), while prolonging and heightening the conflict. One way that this heightening would occur is by accentuating the sectarian character of internal violence, since the opposition will be armed by regional Sunni actors including those operating in Turkey, Iraq and Lebanon. Given these factors, we strongly believe the best strategy for transition and minimizing harm to Syrian civilians is to put pressure on all sides to come to the table rather than continue fighting.

Could one say that the Syrian regime is in a corner similar to Qaddafi’s in, say, early March 2011? The West is talking of bringing an ICC indictment; foreign boots may soon be on the ground; the opposition has the clear sympathy of both chanceries and peoples across the world.

The Asad regime is no doubt cornered, but there are key differences with Qaddafi’s situation a year ago. First, unlike Qaddafi, the regime in Syria provides significant geostrategic value to Iran, a central regional player, and to a lesser extent to Russia as well. In a sense, Qaddafi was less moored to the region’s balance of power and so had limited external assistance to draw upon when faced with internal resistance and external intervention.

Second, given that the preferred Western scenario appears to be proxy war, it is very possible that the state’s countervailing military power may be able to push back armed opponents (or at least prolong a bloody conflict). What this means is that the regime may well rationally conclude that despite its growing isolation, not only does it have no choice other than violence, but that violence may be a successful strategy. Under these circumstances, we believe that an ICC referral would be deeply counterproductive, further reinforcing the sense within the government and its social constituencies that the relevant choices are war or annihilation.

By the way, none of this should be read as implying that direct military intervention is preferable. If there were to be foreign boots on the ground, the only foreign boots likely to arrive on Syrian soil are either Turkish or Qatari, both of which would have extremely destabilizing implications for Syria and the region as a whole. Again, a significant worry in the Syrian context is the possibility of sectarian violence, given the ‘Alawi identity of the Asad regime. Having foreign soldiers perceived as supporting Sunni interests in Syria could simply deepen sectarian animosities not to mention heighten tensions regionally with Iran.

The Asad-must-go line that has been embraced in Washington and is repeatedly reiterated by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is already a very bad sign that the US has little interest in investing in a negotiated transition. This is because any such negotiation would have to include both sides to the conflict (as well as all the key regional forces) and cannot impose as a precondition the removal of one party from the process.

What about the Syrian opposition? Why would they participate in meaningful talks when, arguably, time is on their side in terms of bringing a more direct outside intervention in their favor?

The only reason the Syrian opposition would take part is if they were persuaded that real pressure was being brought to bear on the regime to negotiate an exit and that no clear armed alternative was available. This will only happen if any prospective pledges of assistance by outside powers to the opposition are made contingent on meaningful participation in the Annan plan and a negotiated transition.

What the question highlights is the profound moral hazard generated by the international community’s prevailing approach. The reality is that the Syrian resistance remains outmanned and the real possibility exists of bloody urban combat that leaves the regime in control. But despite the internal asymmetries in the conflict (between the Syrian state and its opponents), external actors are promoting incentives in which even outmanned rebels see an interest in refusing to negotiate. This is because pledges of armed support and “non-lethal aid” reinforce the sense that complete victory — by reaching an internal “tipping point” of popular opposition — might be possible without any compromises or accommodations. It is therefore essential that the US and its allies address these incentives and put pressure on rebel forces to participate seriously in talks.

I take your views on Syria to be derived from the same principles as your published views on the Libya intervention before it occurred. Wasn’t the Libya intervention a success?

The central justifications for the Libyan intervention were humanitarian: protecting civilians from mass atrocity. On these humanitarian grounds, our view is that the intervention has been a tragic failure.

There is no doubt that Qaddafi was a brutal dictator who responded to protests in Libya with violent repression. But once the NATO intervention began, the toll on the civilian population actually escalated — and dramatically so. Since aerial bombardment failed initially to topple the regime, NATO’s definition of its mission expanded, exceeding anything authorized by the UN Security Council. First, NATO began attacking not only regime forces threatening civilian populations, but also Libyan troops in retreat. Next, they targeted Libyan forces wherever they might be, even when not involved in any threat to civilians, but stationed far from conflict in the western provinces. As even these tactics failed, NATO resorted to increased airstrikes in Tripoli. At the close of the six-month NATO intervention, the civilian death toll in Libya (according to conservative estimates from the National Transitional Council’s own health minister) was perhaps 30,000, some twenty times greater than the death toll in the first month of the uprising, prior to the intervention. In a deep sense, rather than offering the civilian population protection — as the international community promised — the intervention profoundly intensified the violence. Indeed, none of the measures taken by NATO actually directly safeguarded civilians caught in the crossfire. Even more tellingly, after the regime fell (in brutal fighting in Tripoli and elsewhere) NATO did nothing to prevent reprisals from killing thousands more civilians in villages and towns deemed overly loyal to regime forces. This was even though the threat from Qaddafi has been removed.

Just as tragically, the international intervention has been marked by the wide-scale destruction of Libyan infrastructure, the absence of a viable transitional governance arrangement, ongoing internal strife between tribes and the utter failure to commit international resources to rebuilding Libya. Indeed, even where Libyan funds (as opposed to international assistance not derived from Libya’s own assets) have been unfrozen, it has been a slow and incremental process with onerous conditions attached. The fact that much of the Libyan sovereign wealth that was frozen — allegedly in the interest of the Libyan people — remains unavailable to them over six months after the fall of Tripoli is eloquent testimony to how in the name of humanitarian protection the actual welfare of ordinary Libyans has been compromised.

How to cite this article:

Chris Toensing "Six Questions for Aslı Bâli and Aziz Rana," Middle East Report Online, April 16, 2012.

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