Syria presents thorny diplomatic challenges

By Dale R. Herspring

If the diplomats we send to represent the United States in other countries and the ones we receive from abroad are smart — and they are — why haven’t we gotten a better handle on the world’s problems?

Diplomatic problems are among the most difficult issues in the world today. Consider, for example, the Arab-Israeli crisis. When I joined the American Foreign Service in 1973, Arab-Israeli relations were considered one of our most difficult problems. When I retired more than 20 years later, it was still all but intractable and was one of the most dangerous problems we faced. Twelve U.S. presidents — from Harry Truman to Barack Obama — have devoted considerable attention to the issue, but there is no sign it will be resolved soon.

There are a number of reasons for this, all of which can be illustrated by a close look at the situation now in Syria, in which the killing of innocent people — including women and children — is beyond the pale. Reports of slaughter are nearly daily occurrences.

Extensive news coverage of events in Syria means that Washington must at least act like it has a policy. We want to think that our foreign policy experts, in-cluding the president, are on top of things. 

The problem is that when you begin dealing with a problem like Syria, you’re dealing with the actions and wishes of a number of other countries. In this case, it is not only a question of developing a policy that the Europeans   agree with, one also has to consider Russian, Chinese and Middle Eastern policies and interests as well. Russia and China strongly oppose any use of force against the government of of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Moscow’s stock in the Middle East has taken a turn for the worse in recent months. Russia used to have a presence in Libya through oil contracts, and used to have a presence in Egypt. Now both countries are up for grabs.

The situation in Iran is also complicated. I have witnessed Russians throwing their hands in the air in frustration when it comes to Iran. “We are forced to deal with religious nuts. We never know what they will do next,” is the way one of my Russian friends put it.

Syria is Moscow’s last toehold in the region — and a good market for Russian weapons.  Moscow fears that if it permits greater U.N. involvement, the United States will again take charge as it did in Libya. That would leave the Russians with little or no presence in the country. It is also worth remembering that before we trump the Russians, we continue to need their help in other parts of the world, such as Afghanistan.

Going it alone is always a possibility. However, there are problems.  First, President Obama eschews international leadership roles. Second, while the massacres are horrifying, it is hard to find many Americans who upset enough to support the use of U.S. military power in Syria, even if only in the form of air power. Furthermore, Obama reads poll numbers, and he knows he has a high rating among Americans because of the Navy SEALs’ success in killing Osama bin Laden, and because he is pulling troops out of Afghanistan and cutting back on their numbers, weapons and equipment. 

As long as the American people are “tired” of sending U.S. troops abroad and the Russians make a joint effort difficult, if not impossible, the Syrian problem will remain too difficult to solve. Indeed, the only visible resolution at this point is to work with whoever is still standing after thousands more have killed one another at the end of a civil-war.

That may not be the most desirable solution for Syria, but it may be the only realistic one. Sometimes, might does make right in the world of Realpolitik.

Dale R. Herspring, a University Distinguished Professor at KSU and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, is a retired U.S. diplomat and Navy captain.

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