The news that Russia is proceeding apace with arms shipments to the Syrian government, or that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the European Union are keen to arm the Syrian rebels, does not automatically kill the Syrian peace talks in Geneva this month, as some in Washington have suggested.
In fact, this week is a critical week for final negotiations between the U.S., Russia and the United Nations, and while any effort to arm either side in Syria is deleterious to diplomacy, we must be patient because we are finally making headway. These diplomatic gains must not be so quickly discarded.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his government ministers have said they will attend this month’s peace conference in Geneva, which will bring together the Syrian government and opposition leaders to broker a cease-fire and establish a transitional government. And while the opposition needs more coaxing and confidence-building, with this we are finally witnessing the kind of U.S. diplomatic engagement that is desperately needed in the region.
America, for too long, has disengaged from Syria, recalling our ambassadors from Damascus when we needed them most, a strategy that has left the U.S.-Syrian diplomatic relationship woefully weak, manifested little in terms of peaceful progress and ultimately failed at preventing violent conflict. Nevertheless, the solution to this crisis does not lie in a U.S. military intervention, despite what many in Congress are now calling for.
Congress should be backing the best possibility of peace presently on the table: a negotiated settlement among Syrian regime officials, internal factions and other regional actors in the conflict. The goal of this month’s conference in Geneva is a transitional government with members chosen by mutual consent. Secretary of State John Kerry should have the U.S. administration’s green light to offer a comprehensive diplomatic settlement among all parties, while continuing to offer generous humanitarian aid to the millions in need.
It is critical that these diplomatic efforts include sustained communication with all who are party to the conflict. That means we must engage everyone who has a stake in Syria, whether it’s Iran, Israel or Lebanon, not just Russia, Turkey and Iraq. Going forward, there are three particular avenues we must pursue.
The U.S. diplomatic agenda with Iran should be broadened beyond the nuclear issue to address the crisis in Syria. Iran has critical influence on the Syrian regime and could play a strong role in getting Assad and his government to accept a political transition.
We’ve rightly engaged Russia at the highest levels of statecraft. Now we must engage Iran similarly. Until all key actors are included at the negotiating table, the present political tensions will only escalate.
If the U.S. is serious about supporting diplomatic engagement, the U.S. should push for a rapid and seamless replacement of Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N.-Arab League envoy for Syria who is resigning from his position. To leave this post vacant will send the wrong message to Damascus about the U.S. commitment to diplomacy and would weaken the diplomatic effort.
The U.S. should offer generous humanitarian aid to accountable actors. Our priority in Syria should be to ease the suffering of Syrian civilians.