What’s wrong with ICG’s approach on Syria
The International Crisis Group yesterday published a statement on Syria. It has drawn plaudits from some and hisses from others. This is not surprising. The statement is a combination of ICG’s usually sharp analysis with its typically bad policy recommendations.
On the analytical side, ICG notes acerbically that any military strikes by the United States “will be largely divorced from the interests of the Syrian people,” as their purpose will be to “punish, deter and prevent use of chemical weapons.” Strikes would also aim to protect Washington’s credibility, another objective divorced from Syrian interests. This is all accurate as far as it goes.
Then comes the policy frame: “the priority must be the welfare of the Syrian people.” Hardly. The armed forces of the United States don’t exist for the welfare of the Syrians. Their use has to be in the interests of the American people. When that overlaps with the welfare of others, we often talk of “humanitarian intervention.” But there is no way to convince the American president, much less the American Congress, to use military force or other instruments of US power unless it demonstrably serves US interests, including of course commitment to US values and regional stability.
Then we are back to the analytical frame, with the best and most memorable line in the report:
To precisely gauge in advance the impact of a U.S. military attack, regardless of its scope and of efforts to carefully calibrate it, by definition is a fool’s errand.
But then ICG goes on to try to gauge in advance some of the possible impacts of a US attack, with no more success than its memorable line foreshadows.
Then we return to the policy frame, where ICG is not alone in calling for a diplomatic breakthrough based on a “realistic compromise political offer” and outreach to Russia and Iran. The devil is in the details:
The sole viable outcome is a compromise that protects the interests of all Syrian constituencies and reflects rather than alters the regional strategic balance;
This is sloppily over-generalized. Who are the Syrian constituencies? What regional balance? Is Al Qaeda a Syrian consitutency? Is Hizbollah? The regional balance of what? If it is conventional military balance, the US and Israel win hands down. If it is terror, advantage Al Qaeda or Iran. If commitment to a democratic outcome counts, I’d give the prize to Syrian civic activists who started the rebellion and have continued to try to make it come out right. All of the above? Show me the negotiating table that can accommodate them all and I’ll show you heaven on earth.
But this is what really annoys the Syrian opposition:
A viable political outcome in Syria cannot be one in which the current leadership remains indefinitely in power but, beyond that, the U.S. can be flexible with regards to timing and specific modalities;
True enough, but who is the US to decide the issue of how long Bashar al Asad stays in power? Suddenly ICG is no longer concerned with an outcome that satisfies the Syrian people. It is now all about the Americans, who are viewed as the obstacle to a reasonable interval in which Bashar stays in power. The Americans are by far not the greatest obstacle to that.
Then we are quickly back to ICG’s typical empty appeal to do the right thing:
Priority must be given to ensuring that no component of Syrian society is targeted for retaliation, discrimination or marginalisation in the context of a negotiated settlement.
No mention at all of accountability, since that is inconsistent with leaving Bashar in power and fulfilling ICG’s hopes for a kumbaya moment.
So convinced as I am by the need for a political solution, ICG has done precious little in this statement to suggest the ways and means to get one. That’s what’s wrong with ICG’s approach.