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June 19, 2013

Syria: The real costs of diplomacy

Claire Spencer

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Which Syrians should be uppermost in diplomats' minds?

A week is a long time in the diplomatic efforts surrounding the Syrian conflict. Just when it looked as though key elements were coalescing towards convening a US-UK-Russia-sponsored conference to negotiate a way out of the political deadlock, events on the ground took over again. Rather than an aberration, “events” have in fact been a constant of what is better characterised as a game of diplomatic catch-up, in which the main players on the chessboard have been firmly rooted in Syria, and now the wider region, for over two years.

President Assad’s nearest neighbours and allies have kept pace and aligned their strategies and tactics accordingly, knowing that things change fast in a conflict zone as fragmented and complex as the struggle for Syria. The mystery is why it has taken so long for the alliance of western powers, ostensibly on the side of the beleaguered Syrian population, to wake up to just how far their own diplomatic game has strayed from the realities they are seeking to influence.

The sequence of developments at the end of May 2013 illustrated the diplomatic dilemma perfectly. No sooner had the divided European Union agreed to allow its embargo on supplying arms to Syrian rebels to lapse, than President Assad announced that Russia’s delivery of their much anticipated S-300 missile defence system was imminent, if not already underway. Only three weeks earlier, Prime Minister David Cameron, preceded by US Secretary of State John Kerry, had flown to Russia to gain President Putin’s assurances that sufficient common ground existed between them to bring different actors to the negotiating table as early as mid-June.

Did no one explore the potentially negative consequences of the EU rescinding its arms embargo on Russia’s continued military backing for Assad? Were assurances given then, only to be reconsidered in the light of the Israeli airstrikes on weapons stocks in Syria and indications that the UK is now considering supplying arms to rebel groups by August? Was there ever any doubt that Russia, together with Iran (and Hezbollah), would react negatively to any attempt to rebalance the strength of local forces in ways prejudicial to Assad’s regime?

The mid-June conference, if it takes place then or at all, now has a number of missing actors—but not the ones most expected. The Assad regime is still willing to take part, but Russia and France (with clear US support) are divided over inviting Iran. Embarrassingly for the west, the internally dissolving opposition Syrian National Council has reasserted the very preconditions (no Assad, arms to defend themselves now) that preclude their own participation. Western capitals might now be tempted to revert to the kind of long-distance shuttle diplomacy that produced the current conference plan, but with narrower prospects both for its objectives and potential outcome. A preferable option might be to convene a set of low-key meetings, out of the limelight, that would allow all parties to take a hardheaded look at the costs to themselves of further escalation, especially as the month of Ramadan approaches.

This still leaves the question of whose interests should be uppermost in western diplomatic minds—and in this respect, a return to the drawing board is tempting, if the most difficult to execute. The real losers in the diplomatic game are the non-insurgent Syrians, either exiled internally or externally, or struggling to run what remains of their municipalities and local communities in Syria itself. Their representation in the exiled opposition SNC has always lacked weight and substance, and yet it is just short of too late for their role to be reconsidered alongside others across the political spectrum who just want the fighting to cease. Making the views of non-belligerents audible at the height of war has always been the hardest part of attempts to stem the violence and impose reason from outside. They still, however, constitute the majority of Syrians.

While humanitarian efforts are so clearly central to the goals of de-escalation across the wider region, it is surprising that they have played such a small and un-integrated a role in diplomatic goals concerned as much about the future trajectory of the region as with its ugly present. Refocusing policy priorities on the longer-term human costs of the Syrian struggle is not now a question for the UN and aid community alone. It is intrinsic to countering further entrenchment of the inherently contradictory international objectives being pursued in Syria that have thwarted diplomatic efforts to date.

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