Forget the C-word. On Syria, it’s the D-word that has become unsayable. Yes, diplomacy. To call for a diplomatic or negotiated solution to the Syrian conflict is to invite ridicule and opprobrium from the neoconservatives and self-described liberal interventionists. They still, inexplicably, dominate foreign-policy debates in the west despite their support for the catastrophic invasion of Iraq just ten years ago.
Diplomacy is for wimps, naifs or fools; proposed peace talks in Geneva are a distraction, an evasion and a waste of time. Bashar al-Assad will kill, kill, kill while we talk, talk, talk. Only a military strike by the western powers will deter him – and protect Syrian children from chemical attacks.
This is the seductive mantra that has dominated much of the discussion on Syria. Until, that is, the Russians proposed that the Assad regime place its chemical weapons under international control – and the regime apparently decided to agree to it. Vladimir Putin’s geopolitical judo throw didn’t just put his US counterpart on the defensive; it reminded the rest of us that the world isn’t as black-and-white as the neocons and their liberal fellow-travellers often claim.
Remember this – 99 per cent of the 100,000-plus dead Syrians were killed by bombs and bullets, not by sarin or VX gas. Whether or not a deal on chemical weapon stockpiles is agreed, it won’t stop the Assad killing machine on the ground, nor will it prevent ongoing atrocities by the more extreme rebel groups.
Military action is unavoidable, say the hawks. Thousands of people are dead, millions are homeless. We have tried the diplomatic route, they declare, and found it wanting. Nothing could be further from the truth. Diplomacy hasn’t been tried in Syria. It has been 15 months since the first peace conference in Geneva, in June 2012, while the second peace conference (“Geneva II”) has now been postponed twice – at the request of the Americans, not the Russians. The UN peace envoy Kofi Annan quit in 2012, claiming that he “did not receive all the support that the cause deserved”.
What we havehad, to borrow a phrase from a recent report on Syria by Julien Barnes- Dacey and Daniel Levy of the European Council on Foreign Relations, is “diplomacy-lite” instead of diplomatic negotiations involving “unpalatable compromises – in particular, accepting that Assad’s fate must be a question for the transition process, not a precondition or assumed outcome, and that Iran must play a role in the diplomatic process”. (It is worth noting that in the brief, Annaninspired ceasefire between April and June 2012 civilian casualties fell by 36 per cent, according to the London-based Syrian Network for Human Rights.)
Yet pessimism abounds. Negotiating a solution with Assad is “impossible”, said David Aaron ovitch in the Times on 5 September. However, history suggests otherwise. In an essay for Foreign Affairs in February, J Michael Quinn and Madhav Joshi noted that 60 per cent of civil wars since the end of the cold war have “ended in a settlement”. “Since 1989, combatants in civil conflicts have reached about 180 peace agreements,” they wrote. “[T]here have been 18 rebel victories [and] the majority of rebel victories were achieved within the first year of combat.”
And guess what? If you want to protect innocents and deter adversaries – as the Obama administration professes to want in Syria – then military action is a pretty poor way of going about it. A recent study of “intrastate conflicts” between 1989 and 2005 by three US political scientists found that external military action on behalf of rebel groups resulted in a 40 per cent increase in the number of civilians killed by governments.
As for deterrence, did Ronald Reagan’s decision to bomb Libya in 1986 stop Muammar al-Gaddafi from carrying out the Lockerbie bombing just two years later? Nope. Did Bill Clinton’s decision to launch cruise missile strikes against al-Qaeda bases in Afghanistan in 1998 deter Osama Bin Laden from ordering the attacks on the Twin Towers just three years later? Not in the slightest.
So why would a bunch of Tomahawks lobbed into Damascus by the US navy over the course of 48 or 72 hours deter Assad? Dropping bombs might make us feel a bit better as we rerun the gut-wrenching images of writhing and suffocating Syrian children on YouTube. Yet not a shred of evidence has been produced by leaders in London, Paris or Washington to bolster the breezy claim that bombing Syria will make it a better or safer place to live. In the memorable phrase of the US academic Marc Lynch, a US-led military intervention in Syria “appeals to the soul but does not make sense”.
“Something must be done,” goes the cry. This is the Yes Minister Theory of Military Action. “We must do something. This is something. Therefore we must do it.”
In a bizarre twist, we now have diplomats – such as the US secretary of state, John Kerry, and our own Foreign Secretary, William Hague – loudly demanding air strikes while the generals, including Martin Dempsey, America’s top soldier, and Richard Dannatt, the former head of the British army, quietly express their doubts over the viability of military action and lend their support to a political solution.
I’m with the generals. Inaction isn’t an option. We in the west cannot turn a blind eye to war crimes in Damascus. But to pretend the choice is between firing missiles and sitting on our hands is disingenuous; the choice is between ratcheting up and ratcheting down the fighting.
Diplomacy might not work, but it is our best bet – and I would still rather we try to pour water, not fuel, on the flames of Syria’s terrible civil war.