Monthly Mind June 2013 - "Standing Idly By - No Longer"
After two years of Western passivity and Russian and Chinese blockade in the UN Security Council, the firestorm European politicians like to incessantly warn of has now materialized: Close to 100,000 deaths, a collapsing state with potentially loose chemical weapons in the middle of the world’s most volatile region, a regional proxy war, Hizbullah as a fighting force, a new playground for jihadists from around the world – all right on NATO’s border. And if Tehran were to prevail in Syria as a regional power, securing Assad’s regime, what would happen to the chances of convincing Iran to settle the nuclear dispute?
In other words, the lack of meaningful international action has had tremendously serious consequences – and the Europeans bear part of the responsibility. There remain but bad and very bad options – similarly to the situation in the Balkans almost twenty years ago. At the time, it was only NATO bombs that convinced Milosevic to approach the negotiations with a serious attitude. Thus, using, or threatening the use of, military force on the one hand and seeking a negotiated settlement on the other don’t always contradict each other. In some cases, the two are inextricably linked. Is there a lesson for Syria in this?
As urgent and important as the new initiative by the United States and Russia is, it will more likely fail than lead towards a negotiated settlement. In order to give the planned Geneva conference any chance to succeed at all, the parties to the conflict must be convinced that Geneva is their best and only option. If one of the sides speculates that they don’t need the conference in order to survive, the talks won’t yield a result. If we don’t do everything in our power to make them negotiate earnestly, the call for a “political solution,” popular with many decision-makers, would be nothing but empty rhetoric.
To be consistent, the Europeans should introduce a Security Council resolution calling for a complete stop to all forms of military support to the opposing parties in order to improve the prospects for the Geneva conference. At the same time, the EU and the United States should jointly underscore that they are ready to take further steps, such as the establishment of a no-fly zone, if the Assad regime does not negotiate seriously. In Washington, corresponding plans are being prepared.
The concern that weapons shipments could end up in the wrong hands may be justified. Yet the end of the embargo has not changed the fact that the Europeans are wavering. Europe runs the risk of losing any kind of heft necessary to help shape a peace process that deserves its name. UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi is right: Calling for Assad’s end is not a replacement for a political strategy.
Possibly, some calculate, the prospect of military support for the rebels by the West could lead to a delay in further Russian shipments to Assad. But, at this point, the situation does not look entirely terrible from the Syrian regime’s perspective: the rebels’ advances have been stopped, and, in some places, reversed. The military support by Iran, Russia, and Hizbullah continues to become more intense and blatant. The opposition remains fragmented. The West is wavering and hesitating.
If you were Assad – would you negotiate earnestly under these circumstances?
Wolfgang Ischinger was State Secretary of the German Federal Foreign Office and German Ambassador in Washington and London. He is Chairman of the Munich Security Conference and Global Head of Governmental Relations at Allianz SE. A German version of this piece appeared in the German magazine "Focus" on 3 June 2013.