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Syria: A Grand Settlement?

K. P. Fabian retired from the Indian Foreign Service in 2000, when he was ambassador to Italy and PR to UN. His book Commonsense on War on Iraq was published in 2003.
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  • May 26, 2014

    It is painfully clear that no serious attempt is being made to resolve the Syrian crisis. There is a lamentable lack of leadership in addressing the crisis. According to the Norway-based Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, every day 9,500 human beings are being driven away from their homes. Every minute a Syrian family is compelled to flee its home.

    One cannot escape the uneasy conclusion that those who are only concerned about power fail to understand the gravity of the human suffering. There seems to be a certain fatigue in the international community combined with a belief that it is beyond human ingenuity to bring an end to the crisis; the world has to learn to live with it and also shift attention to other matters of equal importance. Tom Malinowski, the new US Assistant Secretary for democracy, human rights and labor, has hinted that the international community might be accused of the same type of heartless indifference that it displayed twenty years ago in the Rwandan genocide.

    It appears that neither President Basher Al Assad nor his disunited adversaries fighting among themselves might be interested in a negotiated settlement. But, it is evident that even if the civil war continues for a “hundred years” as a perspicacious expert in Beirut told me, neither side is going to be in a position to declare victory.

    There is no reliable information on the human toll. The London- based Observatory has given a figure of 150,000 deaths. There is scholarly dispute on whether more combatants have been killed than civilians. It is the number of human beings killed that matters above all; how many from different sides is less important. It is not clear that deaths in economically blockaded areas from lack of food or medical care have been included. A source in Syria has told me that the real toll might be much higher as the Observatory includes in its total only confirmed cases. At times, bodies are buried without counting. It follows that from a humanitarian point of view it is urgent to find a negotiated settlement.

    Diplomacy is the art of the possible applied to find solutions to apparently insoluble issues based on the time tested law of give and take. The Kofi Annan plan and the subsequent commendable efforts of Lakhdar Brahimi who resigned recently did not bear fruit because the external supporters of the government in Damascus and its adversaries did not put enough pressure on those whom they support to come to a settlement. As give and take is the only way out, it might make sense to holistically look at and try to resolve one or two other current issues along with the Syrian crisis as the scope for applying the principle of give and take is improved thereby.

    Let us start with the ongoing negotiations between Iran and the P5+1, led by European Union’s foreign policy chief Ashton. The US delegation wanted a discussion on Syria with its Iranian counterpart. The Iranian delegation reportedly responded that it was not mandated to discuss Syria. There is a good reason why Iran might like to reconsider its stand. Iran spends reportedly about $ 1 billion a month to support the Syrian government despite the severe and increasing pressure on its economy under sanctions. Question: Why should US agree to lift sanctions and make it easier for Iran to spend more money on Syria if there is no agreement on a solution to end the crisis?

    Let us assume that US and Iran start talking on Syria. It is evident that they cannot agree on Syria without bringing in Russia. Likewise, Russia and US have to talk on Ukraine also as they discuss Syria. It is not difficult to figure out a settlement on Ukraine on the basis of give and take:

    President Putin should withdraw troops from the border; the separatists in eastern Ukraine should agree to take part in talks on constitutional reforms aimed at giving the regions a say in major foreign policy decisions; the net result will be the neutralization of Ukraine as Finland was neutralized when Soviet troops were withdrawn from that country after World War 2, based on the pledge of Finland that its territory would not be used by foreign troops to invade its big neighbor.

    It will be in US interest to agree to a resolution of the crisis in Ukraine as unless President Putin actually invades Ukraine, Germany, France, and UK will not agree on painful economic sanctions on Russia for obvious reasons. President Putin has no good reason to send his troops into Ukraine as he knows that the economic consequences will be disastrous for his country. Even without Russian troops inside Ukraine, the separatists can make life difficult for the government in Kiev. The government in Kiev is in no position to deal with the separatists to bring out a peaceful settlement. Nor is it in a position to stamp out separatism with force.

    We need to bring in one more power to conclude the matter. Saudi Arabia and Qatar are heavily engaged in Syria. There is much tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The foreign minister of Iran has already visited the capitals of other GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) countries. Saudi Arabia has realized that it cannot expect to get full support from other GCC countries for a serious confrontation with Iran. For example, it is unlikely that Oman will agree to such confrontation. For this and other reasons it is obvious Saudi Arabia might like to reduce the level of tension with Iran. The Saudi foreign minister has invited his Iranian counterpart to come on a visit. Iran has ‘welcomed’ the invitation without suggesting any dates. Perhaps, Iran is looking for an invitation to its President from the Saudi King. The short point is that it is in the interest of the two countries to seek a reconciliation and that includes a settlement of the Syrian crisis.

    It is not suggested that there will be a repeat of the 1815 Congress of Vienna that concluded a grand settlement of European issues post-Napoleon. It will not be advisable to bring together all concerned to discuss and settle Syria, Ukraine, and the Iranian nuclear issue in a single conference. Discreet, and when necessary secret, diplomacy can accomplish much without the media limelight.

    One of the reasons why diplomacy has not so far succeeded in the case of Ukraine is that every time US Secretary of State Kerry spoke to his Russian counterpart one of them rushed to the media to say that he had issued a severe warning to the other to behave. This is not diplomacy. At times, diplomatic conversations have to remain private, at least till the matter is resolved. We need to reinvent classical diplomacy and adapt it to the needs of our times bringing in transparency appropriately as we pursue a non-zero sum game. As a proverb says: Where there is no vision the people perish.

    The author was in Lebanon on a visit.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.