Conflict & Justice

As Western choices narrow in Syria, one critical option remains: diplomacy


Syrian Zakia Abdullah sits on the rubble of her house in the Tariq al-Bab district of the northern city of Aleppo on Feb. 23, 2013.



OWL’s HEAD, Maine — Five weeks ago, the "game changer" in the Syrian civil war was the apparent use of chemical weapons by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government. Senator John McCain, the most vociferous of the "must get involved in Syria" camp, was obviously delighted with the new ammunition to support his warmongering. But President Obama, although it meant some fudging of red lines, has stayed out. And greatly to his credit: a little hypocrisy beats a big war.

A new ''game changer'' occurred last week when Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite organization whose support from Christian and Druze elements has made it the most powerful political bloc in Lebanon, sent thousands of their militia members into Syria to fight for the Assad regime, playing an important role in re-taking the key Syrian town of al-Qusayr.

And once again, McCain was on all the talk shows urging US military action. ''Assad now has the upper hand," he warned, having returned from a PR foray into northern Syria where he hung out just long enough to record a few photographs with rebel soldiers. For all the fact that McCain is an aging loose cannon who hasn't always done his homework — one of the fighters posing with the smiling senator was from a Sunni terrorist group — he has slightly modified his military message to appeal to Americans wary of Republican wars and wary of Republicans calling for another one.

Advised, presumably, that his previous calls for the US to destroy Assad's air bases and air force could risk US casualties, McCain now says what he has in mind can be accomplished by just unmanned cruise missile attacks against Syrian targets. No US pilots or any other US military need be involved in turning the tide of war, a strategy arguably only one step above stroking a rabbit's foot.

And one interviewer called him on it. A series of unmanned missile forays might not be sufficient: "What if it didn't work?"

"Well," McCain replied — had he not considered this possibility? — "OK. Well, that's it. At least we would have tried."

Yeah, 'tis better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all. But we're not talking about the playing fields of Eton here: just give it the old school try? A hands-tied-behind-the-back approach that puts American military, and strategic, prestige on the line; and then turn tail and run? What would Assad learn from that? Or Iran? Or Russia?

Aaron David Miller, who has long been involved with the Middle East as part of the US team that negotiated with Palestinians and Israelis, has it exactly right. Our choices are to go in all the way, thus assuring victory for those we support — call it "the Iraq on steroids" strategy. Or, and obviously Miller's preference: despite hundreds of thousands of casualties and millions of refugees, stay out, limiting our involvement to vastly increasing humanitarian support for the Syrian refugees swamping Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey.

Even flooding the opposition with sophisticated weapons could backfire long term as the extremist Islamist groups, the best organized of all the rebel militias, end up using those very weapons to take over after Assad's overthrow. As for the ability to vet from afar those rebel groups that are safe to arm, McCain's inability to control even his photo op should be a fair warning.

The facts are pretty straightforward: Lebanon's kingmaker faction Hezbollah, Assad's Alawite regime in Syria, Iran's mullahs, as well as the Shiite government running Iraq courtesy of George W. Bush, have indeed created the new Shia crescent that Jordan's King Abdullah warned of.

But the Syrian civil war changes it all: for Hezbollah and the Syrian Alawites, it's a do-or-die confrontation. If Assad goes down, his Alawite community risks massacre or, best case, self-deportation to Lebanon. And with Assad gone, Hezbollah's arms — which come from Iran via Syria — will dry up, axing its military might and subsequently its political heft. Iraqi Sunnis are already actively destabilizing Iraq; Sunni extremists controlling Damascus would greatly increase the danger for Baghdad, so the Iraqi government too has a vital stake in Assad's survival.

Our choices: Stay out. Or McCain's half-baked finger-in-the-dike approach. Or, if military victory is the goal, re-institute the draft and start preparing for a land invasion through Turkey and an amphibious attack along Syria's Mediterranean coast.

There is, however, one more option. And that's diplomacy.

We hold few cards. But the possibility of the center of the Arab World, from the Mediterranean through Mesopotamia, falling into total chaos raises the kind of unforeseen and unintended consequences that surely the Russians fear as well. A Californian congressman, Dana Rohrabacher, the Republican chair of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Europe and Eurasia, was in Moscow this past week discussing the threat of radical Islam, which he referred to as a "major challenge" for both our countries.

Certainly Russia has long agreed that it and the West have a common enemy in radical Islam. Indeed, for that very reason, our support of Assad's ouster is, arguably, a mistake, though early on, it seemed not just inevitable but unlikely to lead to an extremist Islamist takeover.

Now, it's an entirely new ball game. And maybe the only way to salvage something, or at least to prevent the worst, is to accept that we are no longer calling the shots in the Middle East. Sure, three years ago, Iraq, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states all took their cues from us. Syria was in the Russian camp, though even so they remained a reliable peace partner for Israel.

But the whole area is flipping — we can't pretend it's 2010. Secretary of State Kerry, over-eager to make his mark, blundered his way into the Palestinian issue, when the area's real problem is Syria and its rapidly expanding war. To his credit, Kerry has also poked his way into that with the peace talks he and his Russian counterpart have planned for Geneva in the next month or so.

And that is indeed where he can make his mark. In his next meeting with the Russian foreign minister, in preparation for the Syrian peace talks, Kerry proposes a whole new master game: a balance of power approach for the Middle East with agreed-upon spheres of influence.

The Russians in effect ''get'' the Shiite countries — Iran, Iraq, and Syria — and we, the Sunnis. Together the Russians and the US — in a revisit of that old bipolar world that Putin remembers, fondly, from his Soviet days — agree to a coordinated oversight of the entire area.

It won't be easy, but at least the two of us won't be at cross-purposes. Together we work to hold back the Sunni wild-eyes, keep Syria from falling apart and maintain the legitimacy of Lebanon and Jordan. The Russians agree to back off on the S-300 anti-aircraft deliveries to Syria, which the Israelis are panicking about, and we in turn don't insist that Assad has to step down immediately.

It's a give and take. We'd be recognizing the Russians as equal partners, and with an equal interest, in the Middle East in a way we haven't since the Soviet Union collapsed. In fact, we've shunted them aside, made allies of their former vassal states and tried to embarrass them over human rights issues.

This would be a different approach: acknowledging them as a mature nation with which we could work for the least bad outcome in the collapsing Middle East. It may not ultimately save the Arab World from painfully redrawing its colonial-designed borders, but if it could prevent Russia from trying to take advantage of the increasing regional chaos and instead work constructively with us towards a soft landing, it would be well worth the boost in stature Russia gets as its trade-off.

And if it doesn't work? OK, but at least we would have tried something actually worth trying.

Alternatives: all in, all out, McCain charade? Other ideas?

Mac Deford is retired after a career as a Foreign Service officer, an international banker, and a museum director. He lives at Owls Head, Maine and still travels frequently to the Middle East.