Hard Truths on Syria from the Clinton-era

The passage of a United Nations Security Council resolution to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile is a major victory for U.S. diplomacy. It came about by implementing some of the major lessons of the post-Cold War decades — the importance of force to back up diplomacy and a willingness to use force outside the UN context. Now President Barack Obama must use these lessons in the endgame. But he must also apply a third lesson: keeping the world’s attention on the much more important, and harder, task of ending the civil war.

I’m wary of tactical victories. Throughout much of the 1990s, I watched senior officials at the White House and the capitals of Europe celebrate small diplomatic victories. All too often, this seeming progress ended up distracting leaders from the more difficult task of devising and implementing strategies to stop killings at their source.

In March 1993, for instance, there were signs that diplomacy might succeed in getting the Serbs to end their drive to take over much of Bosnia. Former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic had indicated he might be prepared to enter into a cease-fire within 72 hours, remove the “heavy weapons” that were being used to attack civilians in Sarajevo and open routes for UN operations. For weeks, senior officials in President Bill Clinton’s administration discussed whether to use force against those heavy weapons and whether to send troops to enforce the agreement. The Serbs reneged on the decision — and 100,000 had died by the time the U.S. married force and diplomacy to end the war in 1995.

Similarly, in the early days of the Rwandan genocide in 1994, U.S. officials focused on restarting peace negotiations, not on sending troops to end the killing. Even the response to the now-famous “genocide fax” sent by General Romeo Dallaire, the commander of the UN peacekeeping force on the ground in Rwanda, centered not on the report of a threat to exterminate Tutsis, but rather on the request by Dallaire to seize an arms cache. The discussion was about the possibility of a diplomatic or military “trap,” not the threat of genocide. As in so many conflicts, the international community put its energy into negotiating incremental steps toward peace rather than advancing the bolder strategies required to end the conflict.

What will happen in the Syrian crisis? For the next few months, the international community will focus on Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons. It will spend weeks putting to rest fictitious claims by Syria that the attacks were the work of the rebels. A long back and forth will ensue with the government on access to sites and procedures for destroying the weapons. Throughout this process, Syrian officials will be legitimized — and even praised — for their cooperation with the UN.

Although ridding Syria of chemical weapons is a good thing, this process also risks weakening and diverting efforts to end the Syrian civil war. The Security Council resolution devotes only two out of 22 paragraphs to this goal. One endorses the moribund Geneva Communique from last June that calls for the establishment of a transitional governing body made up of government and opposition figures; the other calls for an international conference to figure out how to implement it. Left only to that track, the effort to end the war in Syria will result in another 100,000 Syrian men, women and children killed.

In the near term, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad will not voluntarily agree to any kind of meaningful transition. Instead, he will use the rehabilitation conferred on him by his cooperation as a cover to continue and perhaps intensify the killing.

The lessons of the past must be applied. Only by threatening military action to degrade Assad’s ability to wage war and stepping up the arming of the opposition to defend itself can the international community alter Assad’s calculus so that he does not need to negotiate an end to the crisis.

That marriage of force and diplomacy is the only acceptable endgame in Syria. The question is how long the international community will sit on the sidelines while the killing continues.

(Nancy Soderberg is chairman of the Public Interest Declassification Board and a visiting scholar at the University of North Florida. She served as deputy national security adviser, then as an ambassador to the United Nations from 1993 to 2001.)

To contact the writer of this article: Nancy Soderberg at n.soderberg@unf.edu.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net.