Diplomacy is the Only Game Left

The news that the two major powers are preparing to convene an international conference on Syria is encouraging. The agreement between the U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov on making efforts to organize a peace conference to end the carnage in Syria has been floated in the recent days. Despite their fundamental differences on approach to deal with Syrian crisis, U.S-Russian endeavors to seek diplomatic solution need countenance.

The two-year long crisis in Syria has been disastrous in many ways. Then in early 2011 at the start of Arab Spring the turmoil in Syria was considered to be an outpour of Syrians clamor for greater freedom. They had demanded reforms as their brethren in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and other Arab countries. But the regime in Damascus turned a blind eye to their legitimate aspirations and hence crisis has been compounded as ever.

As quoted in Gareth Evans’ article “A Talking Cure for Syria” (Project-Syndicate) the death toll in Syria is almost 80,000. As per UN estimate 6.8 million people, which is one third of the country’s population, need urgent humanitarian assistance. The UN confirms that 4.25 million Syrians have been already displaced internally. Above 1.5 million of them have fled their homes and sought refuge in the neighboring countries. Syria’s neighbors like Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey have been bearing the heavier burden of refugees’ influx.

The former Australian foreign minister Gareth Evans emphasizes that proposed UN conference for peace in Syria in Geneva should not be treated with skepticism. To him all other policy options besides diplomacy are non-viable and impractical. Although an adherent of the doctrine of “R2P” (Responsibility to Protect), Gareth Evans also holds the view that under the present circumstances, launch of diplomatic intervention to end violence in Syria may not be worthwhile. R2P authorizes the use of coercive force by the international community against a country, whose government fails to protect its own people, who are at the risk of genocide and similar other serious crimes.

He has, however, noted in his above article on Syria that there is a long history of military interventions in the recent past and the world has benefited from such options. In 2008 there was such intervention in Kenya and since 2011 more such adventures have been undertaken in Libya, Cote d voire, and Mali. The logic behind such interventions has been that the international community is obligated to protect the lives of fellow human citizens, should they become victims of genocide, crimes against humanity, crime of aggression and war crimes.

Contrary to those who oppose military intervention in Syria, Anne-Marie Slaughter, a professor of international affairs at Princeton University, has pleaded for a stronger policy option to end the violence. Arguing for decisive action against Bashar al-Assad, the beleaguered Syrian president, whom she calls a dictator clinging to power, the professor offers a few lessons from the Syrian conflict.

Her article in Project-Syndicate “The Syria Lessons” analyses the larger implications of the Syrian mayhem for dictators and democracies around the world. She quotes former U.S. president Theodor Roosevelt, who said “speak softly and carry a big stick” in defense of her coercive policy to resolve the Syrian conflict. Anne-Marie slaughter has apprehension that ongoing supply of sophisticated weapons from Russia to Syria would embolden Bashar and crush the opposition. In her view when no side in war has a reason to stop fighting, a peace conference cannot succeed.

Commenting on implications of the supply of Russian weapons including, S-300 air missile system, Anne Bernard and Neil Mac Farquhar have shown Israeli concerns. Their recent report in the New York Times titled “Assad warns Israel, claiming a stockpile of Russian missiles” has highlighted the anxieties of Israel that its ability to strike Syria from the air might be compromised because S-300 missiles can hit deep inside Israeli territory.

It is against this background that the Syrian president has reiterated his government’s intention to attend the Geneva peace conference but has added a condition that any agreements that might result from such a conference would have to be approved by Syrians in a referendum.

Nevertheless, the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has expressed optimism about international peace conference on Syria. According to UN sources, sending a message to May 28-29 Tehran Consultative Meeting on Syria, Ban has appreciated the efforts by the American and Russian foreign ministers to bring the Syrian parties to a negotiating table to jointly determine how they would fully implement a political transition and establish a transitional governing body vested with full executive powers, as provided for in the Geneva Communiqué of 30 June 2012.

The details of proposed Geneva conference as to who will represent the opposition groups and whether the countries like Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, which are at the forefront of assisting the rebels, will be participating are still sketchy at the moment. However, with two major players of Middle East politics, the U.S. and Russia committed to work cooperatively in persuading all stakeholders to a negotiating table, it is hoped that the parties to conflict will attend the conference.

Christopher R. Hills, a former senior U.S. State Department official, has suggested that it would not be in the interest of America to try to limit the participation of Iran at the conference. It is a fact that Iran has been a major ally of the Syrian regime. Moreover, Hizbollah, a radical Muslim group hostile to the western interests, has been openly supporting the Bashar regime taking part in the battle against the rebels. In view of Hizbollah’s allegiance to Iran, the U.S. administration harbors great suspicion about Iran’s sincerity in resolving the conflict in Syria.

In his provocative article “Managing Syria’s Meltdown” carried by Project-Syndicate, Hills has argued that an Iranian role in resolving the Syrian conflict could bring a measure of cooperation that ultimately leads to progress in the deadlocked talks on Iran’s nuclear program. He sees an opportunity in the crisis in Syria.

Enough blood has spilled in the current conflict and recent initiative to bring Syria back from the brink must not be discarded. Peace conference on Syria is a diplomatic tool to diminish the suffering of the Syrian people.

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