Despite attempts by Hilary Clinton to woo her Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov into accepting Kofi Annan’s last ditch peace plan, calling for a transitional government that excludes members of the Assad regime, Lavrov stood firm. As a result, to save diplomatic face, Russia and the United States agreed to a vague statement on Saturday calling for a transitional unity government and a cessation of fighting on both sides with no mention of the steps the international community would take to achieve this goal.
Quite frankly, even if Lavrov had agreed to a statement calling for a transitional government without the Assad regime, Moscow is unlikely to have taken any substantive steps to achieve this or to allow the international community to unseat Assad, Moscow’s most dependent friend in the Arab world.
Going forward then, it’s time to consider five new initiatives that can make the international community’s response more effective:
1. Iranian Strategic Dialogue
Tehran is one of the most important regional allies of Syria, and consistently, Washington has refused to negotiate with Tehran over Syria. By only engaging Iran on its nuclear program, the international community is missing an opportunity to build common ground and trust on other issues that potentially the US and its partners and Iran could cooperate on. It’s unlikely that Tehran would support entirely the “Friends of Syria” position, but opening a dialogue with Iran linking a number of issues including: Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and its nuclear program, may allow Washington to gain concessions on Syria in exchange for concessions made by the US and its partners on issues of regional concern that are important to Iran.
2. Neighborhood Action
Syria’s neighbors, Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon, and Turkey (and even, potentially, Israel) should form a contact group to discuss how the crisis in Syria is impacting their own states and economies. Already, refugees are flowing into these countries, adding strain to Syria’s neighbors. As the crisis deepens, more refugees are likely to come. These neighbors should work with the UN and the Red Crescent to develop a strategy to deal with these large numbers of displaced persons and their future repatriation and re-settlement. The Arab League and the GCC should consider as well providing financial support to these states that absorb the refugees.
Its neighbors also importantly need to start implementing economic sanctions to further cut off the Assad regime’s financial lifeline. At the moment, these states are discouraged from doing so because trade with Syria is part of the lifeblood of these economies. In order to incentive these states, the Arab League and the GCC, instead of purely supplying arms and financing to the rebels in Syria which arguably simply worsens the conflict, should provide economic incentives for these states to cut off their trade relations with Syria.
3. A Humanitarian Initiative led by Russia
Moscow is clearly desperately trying to save one of their few footholds in the Arab world, and importantly, their military base at Tartus. Even if Moscow still wants to place their bets on the Assad regime as the state slides deeper into civil war, Moscow should consider allowing their military base to be used as a point to distribute humanitarian aide. A Russian led humanitarian initiative in the long term would serve Moscow’s interests, but also, give Moscow a deeper stake in solving the humanitarian crisis enveloping the state.
4. Washington provides Carrots and Sticks for Russia to change Position
The Obama administration’s reset with Moscow has produced quite limited results, and arguably, this reset has failed not so much because of US efforts, but Moscow and Washington having divergent interests and the lack of gains Russia could gain from making concessions to the US. However, Washington could start providing incentives to change Moscow’s behavior by linking the Syria issue with Moscow’s interests in Eastern Europe and wider issues of concerns (such as economic interests and missile defense). By tying Russia’s behavior towards Syria with incentives for making concessions and disincentives for not making concessions, Washington could potentially move Russia to be more accommodating to the US’s position. The Arab League and the GCC could support this by tying Russian commercial and defense interests in the region with their position on Syria.
5. Exit options for the Assad regime
The US and the “Friends of Syria” should consider providing more incentives for associates of the Assad regime- whether in the military, the business community, or the Alawite and Christian communities- to abandon the regime. Such incentives that should be considered could range from amnesty to financial concessions, or assurances that the new government in Damascus would be inclusive of all communities. The international community could also press the opposition groups to pledge to take an approach different from in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein where de-Baathification only led to further divisions and civil war. Without directly incentivizing those associated with the regime, the US and the “Friends of Syria” will continue to be viewed with suspicion and opposition.
Kofi Annan could facilitate some of these above options, but at the present moment, such thinking seems to be beyond the former Secretary General. It may be time for a change of leadership to bring new ideas into solving the Syria crisis.