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.

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3 thoughts on “What’s wrong with ICG’s approach on Syria”

  1. I see the Syrian war in the first place as a rare opportunity for Washington and Moscow to work together. While the two are seemingly on the opposite sides of the conflict, there is enough room for common ground, since neither power wants to see jihadists taking control of post-Assad Syria. While Iran also plays a critical role in Syria, it is obviously more convenient for the Obama administration to reach out to Moscow than to Tehran. Russia may be no U.S. ally, but it is not an adversary, either – at least not an outright one.

    Of course, I do not expect Obama to publicly ask Putin for help, and vice versa. Neither of the two presidents would like to appear weak in the eyes of the other one or his domestic public. Therefore, what is needed is an intensive and adroit diplomatic engagement in order to convince the Russians to try to negotiate the departure of Bashar Al Assad, his family and other close aides, while preserving influence by retaining middle- and lower-ranking officials of the regime. The United States should concurrently work with moderate elements of the Syrian opposition in order to set the stage for as orderly political transition to post-Assad Syria as possible.

    If successful, this joint U.S.-Russian effort would help bring the war to an end sooner rather than later. Even then, however, there likely will be needed an international peacekeeping force to safeguard major population centers against local militias – especially the Alawite community as the major target of retaliation by Sunni extremists – until the institutions able to effectively control the entire country are rebuilt. That would undoubtedly take years, but is nevertheless better than continuation of mass suffering of innocent civilians.

    To be sure, this solution would almost inevitably entail making a number of concessions to the Russians, including beyond Syria, but I believe the reward would outweigh the risk. After all, there also would be risk on the part of Moscow. Much worse is that Bashar Al Assad would in all likelihood escape justice, as he would demand political asylum from the Russians in return, but every great achievement unfortunately comes at a price.

    There is another, but a much riskier option: to unilaterally undertake a military intervention which is both long and intensive enough to weaken the regime to the point where it has no other choice but to surrender. But while such a scenario would remove the Al Assad clan from power, it would hardly bring peace, as various rebel factions would continue to fight each other to take advantage of the power vacuum caused by the regime collapse. Furthermore, the Iranians would intensify sending their militant proxies to the battlefield in hopes of limiting the potential damage to their interests, and the Saudis would respond in kind.

    But aside from all these considerations, what we usually fail to take into account is the position of those Syrians who have not taken up arms – especially women, children and elderlies – and who do not necessarily support any side in the war but only want their country back to peace and normal life as soon as possible, regardless of who will be in power once the fighting is over.

  2. for the sake of Syria and peace, I don’t like that you are right about the overgeneralization and simplification of the actors in this conflict. its a good response. perhaps ICG is idealistic in its imagination that a country might care about the people it invades more than the people backing the themselves the invaders…but I suppose peace is a big dream fest in many ways… in any case, good response.

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