Recent events in Syria demonstrate that diplomacy can be difficult and frustrating. I don’t think anyone is prepared to defend Syrian President Basher al-Assad’s repression against his own people. At least 1,700 Syrians have been killed and thousands more beaten by Assad’s police and security organs. In short, he is revealing himself to be one of the most brutal leaders in the Middle East.
The problem the world community faces is is “What Is to be Done,” to use the title of a pamphlet by Vladimir Lenin. The goal is clear: Get Assad to stop the slaughter. The international community has been aware of what is going on. Saudi Arabia, a close friend of Syria, has withdrawn its ambassador to signal its displeasure with Assad. Bahrain and Kuwait quickly followed suit.
Other countries have also been trying to persuade Assad to stop the killing. India, Brazil and South Africa have sent representatives to talk to him, but with little success. Even Turkey has pulled back after its foreign minister failed to convince Assad to stop the military action.
What about Washington? President Barack Obama’s actions have complicated diplomacy in this area. No one knows what U.S. policy is in the region. For example, there is the war with Libya in which the United States is heavily involved despite what the White House spokesman says. NATO could not continue its bombing campaign without U.S. support I am still trying to figure out the U.S. goal in that “war.” Moammar Gadhafi remains in power. He might still be forced to give up, but it is also possible that he will continue to resist and in the process become a hero to many in the Arab world.
Early in his administration, Obama said he was going to talk to the world’s leaders in a “new” way, and they would be easier to deal with. Unfortunately, as is clear from the Islamic regime in Iran, Obama’s policy has fallen on its face. If anything, Iran is more anti-American now than it was when he took office.
Washington also faces a serious problem with Syria. Until recently the United States did not even have an ambassador in Damascus. Syria has been in the forefront of opposition to Israel and perceives the United States as one of Israel’s primary supporters. Damascus also has blocked the ability of outsiders to report on events there. Foreign media have been banned, and local media have been told to follow the regime’s line that it is fighting thugs and religious extremists.
The U.S. ambassador tried to shed some light on events in Syria by visiting areas of resistance. As a result, the regime said diplomats who traveled outside of Damascus without government approval would have 48 hours to leave the country. We are now limited to comments from Syrians themselves. Unfortunately, there is no way to check their accuracy.
There is an effort under way to gather enough evidence of brutality to take the case to the International Criminal Court, which is subordinate to the U.N. Security Council. This is an interesting propaganda exercise, but I doubt it will have much influence on the Syrian government.
Events like those in Syria raise the question of military action. Does the United States, NATO or the United Nations have an obligation to use force to stop Assad? There is little doubt that much of Syria’s population would welcome outside forces. Unfortunately, military intervention could set off a regional war. Iran is Syria’s close ally, and according to some reports, sent $20 billion to help Assad. An outside military force against Syria would bring not just Iran into the conflict but also Hezbollah, which operates in Lebanon as well. The ensuing conflict also could involve Israel.
Is compromise possible in Syria? Assad has called for the introduction of democratic institutions, but no one believes him. Indeed, demonstrators appear to have become even more estranged from the regime, with crowds now calling for Assad’s death.
As gloomy as this sounds, there is little the United States or other countries can do. If Assad won’t listen to Turkey or Saudi Arabia, he certainly won’t pay attention to Washington. Our sanctions give the impression we are doing something, but in fact there is little we can do. Sometimes one has to live with horrible situations. This may be one of them.
Dale R. Herspring, a University Distinguished Professor and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, is a retired U.S. diplomat.