Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Oh, how do you solve a problem like Syria?

The Syrian Civil War is becoming increasingly messy and the need for action is self-evident, but the best solution is a diplomatic one.

By Jon Overton

If the nuns of Nonnberg Abbey in The Sound of Music thought Maria presented a difficult dilemma, their prim and proper sensibilities would have been completely overwhelmed with the brutality and complexity of Syrian Civil War. But that’s okay, because virtually everyone else is in the same boat!

The Syrian Civil War is not nearly as simple as good vs. evil. It’s more like a bunch of disassociated groups fighting the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad and sometimes each other, when the mood strikes them.

A United Nations report from February stated that “Anti-Government armed groups have committed war crimes, including murder, torture, hostage-taking and attacking protected objects ... The violations and abuses committed by anti-Government armed groups did not, however, reach the intensity and scale of those committed by Government forces and affiliated militia.”

The Free Syrian Army is the largest opposition group, which is loosely organized and coordinated by local military councils. Generally, it’s made up of politically moderate forces and funded by Western nations and Persian Gulf states.

Then there are a couple of Islamist groups ranging from moderates to those with stronger religious motivations.

Kurdish groups in northeastern Syria have worked with some rebels against the Assad regime, though they’re mostly concerned with gaining independence.

The Al Qaeda affiliated Al-Nursa Front has both fought and cooperated with various rebel battalions, though the Free Syrian Army and some major Islamist groups have publicly distanced themselves from Al-Nursa due to its extremism.

Hostile to all of these groups is the Syrian government, which is gaining the upper hand and receiving support from Russia, Iran and Hezbollah.

In short, it’s complicated.
Residents walk through a rebel controlled city in Syria after
aerial bombardment by government forces.

So what is the United States to do?

A peacekeeping force from the United Nations probably won’t happen because it requires approval from the Security Council. Russia and China have repeatedly vetoed measures from the council when it tried to take action against the brutal Syrian government.

As Director Jeffery Weiss of Catholic Peace Ministry in Des Moines, Iowa suggested, diplomacy is the way to go, but resolving the war will remain difficult. While the lack of a single unifying leader to unite the opposition makes negotiations problematic, the situation is compounded by fragmentation among disparate rebel groups, many of which are already loosely organized.

“In the absence of that leader, until there is a change in the power balance between the government and the opposition, this may be close to impossible,” Weiss explained.

Obviously, the United States has little political clout with the Syrian Government, especially since President Obama said he wants to “work toward a Syria that is free from Assad’s tyranny.”

But the U.S. relationship with many of the rebels is weak too.

The United States still has not provided promised “military assistance” to rebel allies in Syria, more than two months after President Obama said he would. The rebels, whom the U.S. government agreed to support, also say they do not know when they will receive help from the United States or what exactly the aid will be.

On one hand, this is great because arming uncontrolled militants has gone horribly in the past. On the other hand, people don’t like being stood up. And that’s exactly what the United States is doing to the Syrian rebels.

So how do we get the rebels and Syrian government to come to the negotiating table and ease the situation?

Fortunately, as Weiss pointed out, the United States has strong relationships with the governments of Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, all of whom have been supplying and arming the Syrian rebels.

“That might be the best bet for the United States to put pressure on those countries to put pressure on the rebels to come to the bargaining table because ... the Assad government has been more willing than some of the key rebel groups to come to the table and discuss future power sharing,” he explained.

However, Assad has been inconsistent on willingness to negotiate, flip flopping from time to time, so it may be necessary for Russia to pressure him into negotiations, though don’t expect Iran to budge since Syria is essentially Iran’s only Arab ally.

Weiss suggested that financial and material incentives may be the best way to persuade conflicting groups to negotiate. He cited successful historical precedents for this strategy including the 1978 Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel while noting that it’s also frequently used to obtain votes for resolutions in the United Nations Security Council.

“The only language that the rebels would listen to is the language of money and resources — as history shows,” Weiss said.

Since government-aligned forces have been gaining ground recently, Weiss speculated that realistically, the best chance the Syrian rebels have is to fight on the same side to create a stalemate and thus an atmosphere that more strongly encourages diplomacy.

While the Syrian Civil War remains a great big, disgusting fiasco, perhaps there is one more potential solution: We must find a wealthy Austrian family in need of a governess. If it solved a problem like Maria, it can solve a problem like Syria.

Jeffery Weiss is the director of Catholic Peace Ministry and is an adjunct professor at Des Moines Area Community College. He is available to give 30 minute lectures on the Arab Spring and the crisis in Syria. For more information, you can contact him at jjwcpm@yahoo.com or 515-255-2465

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