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Jo Comerford and Mattea Kramer: Putting Out the Syrian Fire

Can diplomacy do what war couldn't?

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Photo taken by Flickr user syriafreedom.

By Jo Comerford and Mattea Kramer
By arrangement with TomDispatch

As war between President Bashar al-Assad and various rebel forces raged across Syria, as the Obama administration and the CIA armed rebel factions of their liking while continuing an air campaign against the militants of the Islamic State (ISIS), as Russia entered the quagmire with its own airstrikes, and as millions of Syrians fled for their lives amid untold violence, a Connecticut congressman decided to do something.

At the end of September, Connecticut Representative Jim Himes, a House Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, corralled fifty-four of his colleagues into sending a letter to President Obama calling for the start of international negotiations that would include Iran and Russia and be aimed at ending the Syrian civil war. President Obama is reportedly listening.

This could prove to be a critical turning point in a brutal conflict that has, until now, seemed without end—not because Himes has a quick, sure-to-succeed solution, but because every other course of action is overwhelmingly likely to fail. To understand why, it’s necessary to take a brief look backward.

Pouring Gasoline on Syria’s Fire

More than four years ago, in 2011, passionate Arab Spring protesters rose up to overthrow despised leaders from Tunisia to Libya, Egypt to Yemen. In Syria, citizens filled the streets, voicing their opposition to the murderous regime of President Bashar al-Assad. His government responded by unleashing its military on the protesters. Some of them, along with soldiers from Assad’s forces, went on to form the Free Syrian Army (FSA), thanks, in part, to financing from the CIA and the Saudis, and a civil war began. As months of fighting turned into years, hundreds of thousands of civilians died, and millions more were uprooted.

A Syrian father laid bare the choices he faced. Asked why he was “risking the lives of his children on an illegal and potentially lethal seaborne passage,” he answered, “in Syria, they are dead already.”

In the process, more extreme factions among the rebels, including the al-Qaeda-aligned al-Nusra Front, gained ever greater traction, while ISIS spread across parts of Syria and Iraq, proclaiming a “caliphate” and drawing foreign volunteers by the thousands. ISIS had grown and prospered within the mayhem and power vacuum created by the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq and then its dismantling of Saddam Hussein’s army. (Some future ISIS leaders, in fact, first met inside US military prison camps during those years.)

Turning the fog of the Syrian civil war to its advantage, ISIS claimed ever more land in northern Syria and, emboldened, launched an offensive in Iraq, routing the army the US had created there and taking the country’s second largest city, Mosul. But ISIS was more than a brutal, terrorist insurgency. It was also a darkly savvy PR operation. In September 2014, it filmed beheadings of American prisoners and put them online.

That was the moment when the US public really began paying attention to Syria.

And so, just over a year ago, relying on a 2001 authorization to wage war against al-Qaeda, President Obama ordered the first of what are now more than 7,000 airstrikes against ISIS, stationed thousands of US military advisers and trainers in Iraq, and soon launched what would be a disastrous program to vet, arm, and train “moderate” Syrian rebels to counter the militants of the Islamic State.

In the year that followed, the Syrian refugee crisis escalated dramatically, thanks to the growing strength of ISIS, the brutality of the Syrian regime, and an ever more violent civil war. The entry of the US and other countries into the conflict likely only increased the chaos and misery.

The US effectively helped equip ISIS. How’s that for gasoline?

As a result, Lebanon alone, with a population of around 4.5 million, has taken in more than a million refugees. In other words, approximately one in every five people in that country is now a refugee from Syria. And while Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey have struggled to accommodate this deluge of asylum seekers, refugee Syrian families endure chronic and debilitating poverty, inadequate health care, and lack of access to education for their children.

Enter Russia, Stage Right

Just a couple of weeks ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin, a longstanding supporter of Assad, launched his own air war against ISIS. On September 30th, soon after Russian explosives began dropping, reports started to surface that they were hitting FSA fighters and infrastructure. In other words, Russia was dropping bombs on some of the rebels who have been receiving support from Washington.

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter promptly (and accurately) accused Russia of “pouring gasoline on a fire.” And he would know, since the US has been among the biggest gas pourers of all.

According to the National Priorities Project, US taxpayers have already forked over an astonishing $6.5 billion in the administration’s failed air war against ISIS, even as Pentagon officials acknowledge that airstrikes alone won’t snuff out the terrorists or their “caliphate.”

Meanwhile, Congress allocated $500 million for the failed “train and equip program” that was meant to produce 5,000 “moderate” Syrian rebels to fight ISIS. That program yielded only a handful of fighters, some of whom the al-Nusra Front reportedly kidnapped or killed. Some American-supplied trucks and ammunition were also turned over to Nusra Front fighters.

Yes, you read that correctly. The US effectively supplied arms to al-Qaeda in Syria, just as—thanks to the collapse of Iraqi army units, which abandoned their equipment in Mosul, Ramadi, and elsewhere—we in effect helped equip ISIS, too. How’s that for gasoline?

What matters most, however, is the staggering human toll of all this. More than 6.5 million Syrians are now displaced, impoverished, and adrift inside their own country. Another four million have become refugees, spilling into Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey, and more recently heading for Europe in staggering numbers.

Their misery and utter desperation are beyond imagining as they push off rocky coasts heading for Europe, clinging to shoddy rubber rafts, or are crammed into suffocating cargo trucks—sometimes to be met on arrival by water cannons and tear gas. A Syrian father recently laid bare the choices his family faced. Asked why he was “risking the lives of his children on an illegal and potentially lethal seaborne passage,” he answered, “in Syria, they are dead already.”

A Congressman Decides to Do Something

Until Congressman Himes sat down to write his letter, there had been remarkably little talk of international negotiations as an alternative to this endless devastation. It should be clear enough by now that continued violence, with ever more parties joining the fray, will bring only what it’s brought for the past four years: chaos and destruction. While some war hawks in Washington have previously urged more “decisive” military action to oust Assad as well as destroy the Islamic State, that path would most likely leave Syria in still greater chaos—and ripe for further exploitation by ISIS, the al-Nusra Front, and other extremist outfits.

Negotiations it must be. They won’t be quick or easy. It’s a guarantee, in fact, that they’ll be messy and wrenching. When it comes to Syria, that’s nothing new. But diplomacy does promise gains over the situation as it stands today. The hard-nosed and principled diplomatic negotiations involving the US, Russia, China, Great Britain, France, and Germany around Iran’s nuclear program prevailed when naysayers swore that they would fail. They stand as a remarkable example of what’s possible when nations resolve conflicts with diplomacy instead of bloodshed.

Philip Gordon, the former White House Coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa, and the Gulf Region, has laid out a blueprint for how such negotiations might proceed on Syria. All the international players would have to be brought to the table, including Russia, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Gordon notes that, since this group includes vehement supporters of Assad as well as those who are invested in his departure, negotiators would have to postpone any decision about Assad’s fate and focus first on common interests.

And there are common interests—in de-escalating the violence, addressing the refugee crisis, and defunding and defeating ISIS. Shared objectives might include negotiating localized ceasefires between the government and rebel forces and establishing a structure in which representatives of Assad’s regime could begin a dialogue with the rebels. Then the group of negotiating nations could turn its focus to ISIS. Indeed, the ongoing wars and the disintegrating states of the region have created a fertile habitat for that terrorist group to spread its radical agenda and claim new ground. A de-escalation of the civil war, paired with meaningful humanitarian aid and cohesive and coordinated international efforts against ISIS, could prove the best hope for changing the fate and fortunes of the region.

If asylum and humanitarian aid are essential measures to heal the wounds of millions, diplomatic negotiations are essential for preventing a future crisis that could leave this one in the shade.

Here, Washington bears responsibility—both to quit pouring gasoline and to help repair some of the devastation. President Obama has recently taken modest steps in the right direction, ending the failed program to train moderate Syrian rebels and stating his willingness to work with Russia and Iran to find a solution to the civil war. Yet these positive developments come as the US renews its pledge not to train but to equip “vetted leaders” of rebel groups with new weaponry (including TOW anti-tank missiles), and as tensions and fighting escalate not just between Assad and the rebels but also, by proxy, between the US and Russia. That will make finding a diplomatic solution all the more difficult, yet all the more urgent.

A Path to a Different History

Meanwhile, the US has been roundly criticized by the international community for its closed-door policy toward the millions of Syrians who are running for their lives. While Germany will have admitted 800,000 of them by year’s end, the US has taken in only 1,500 to date. For that reason mayors, faith leaders, and thousands of ordinary citizens are calling for more refugees to be welcomed into our country.

It appears that this movement has helped build a political appetite for such an approach, as some members of Congress are now demanding that the US admit tens of thousands more Syrians and expand humanitarian aid. President Obama has announced an increase to 10,000 refugees next year, but some lawmakers are advocating taking in ten times more. In a letter co-signed by twenty-six of his Senate colleagues, Democratic Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut compared the paltry number the Obama administration has announced to the more than 700,000 Vietnamese the US admitted in the years after the Vietnam War. They insist that on this subject Washington must not “sit on the sidelines.”

Another step in the right direction came from a bipartisan duo in the Senate. Senators Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Patrick Leahy of Vermont unveiled legislation to provide $1 billion in humanitarian aid for the refugees, noting that the Syrian crisis “dwarfs anything we have seen for decades.” Such funding could be used to resettle Syrian refugees more quickly as well as to provide immediate lifesaving assistance, since the World Food Program has run out of money to feed the millions of Syrians currently outside its camps and has been forced to make painful cuts even within its settlements. The approach of winter threatens food supplies still further, leaving some refugees so desperate that they are returning to war-torn Syria.

If asylum and humanitarian aid are essential measures to heal the wounds of millions, diplomatic negotiations are essential for preventing a future crisis that could leave this one in the shade.

As Russian missiles rain down alongside American ones, as ever more groups, nations, and areas are embroiled in the Syrian conflict, as yet more innocent blood is spilled, it’s obviously time for international negotiations to finally begin. Diplomacy doesn’t promise a speedy end to the almost unfathomable suffering in the region, but it does offer a potential path to a different history, a path away from ceaseless violence and toward the imperfect rule of law.

Jo Comerford is a national campaign director for MoveOn.org, helping lead that group’s Syria-related organizing, and Mattea Kramer is a writer. Both are senior advisors at the National Priorities Project and TomDispatch regulars.

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