Doing Due Diligence on Diplomacy With Damascus | Commentary

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.

At least 6.8 million are currently in need of humanitarian assistance. Proposals from Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and others to administer aid through the Syrian Opposition Coalition would be disastrous, however, as it politicizes the aid and further endangers civilians. It is essential that humanitarian aid be politically neutral, and it must be delivered to impartial humanitarian organizations.

This is where Washington should spend its energy and effort. And yet, the drumbeat for war proceeds apace, not unlike it did with Libya, with some in Congress calling for the same military aid and the same no-fly zone. Military intervention — whether through a U.S.-enforced no-fly zone over Syria, U.S. troops on the ground or arming of the opposition — would undoubtedly escalate the bloodshed. Further militarizing the conflict would destabilize an already volatile region, and it would undermine the potential for successful diplomacy.

As former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has pointed out, imposing a no-fly zone is technically and effectively an act of war. Establishing a no-fly zone would begin with the U.S. bombing Syria’s anti-aircraft system. Given the widespread presence of Syria’s anti-aircraft systems, this would severely endanger millions of already vulnerable civilians.

The only way forward at this point is through engagement of all of Syria’s neighbors including Iran, continuing high-level U.N. diplomacy post-Brahimi and assisting civilians with humanitarian aid, but only through trusted impartial international aid organizations.

These are the next — and only — steps. Any other option comes with too much risk and too much additional bloodshed — and would not leave behind a stable, strong or safe Syria.

Michael Shank, Ph.D., is the director of foreign policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation. Kathy Zager is a policy assistant for foreign policy at the FCNL.