De-escalating the Syria conflict

A rare moment of opportunity has emerged to renew diplomatic efforts to resolve the Syria conflict. The priority now must be de-escalating the level of violence  and the reducing the threat of regional spill-over   


A rare moment of opportunity has emerged to renew diplomatic efforts to resolve the Syria conflict. The priority now must be de-escalating the level of violence  and the reducing the threat of regional spill-over 

The ministerial meeting of the so-called ‘London 11’, the Friends of Syria core group on Wednesday in Amman is another sign that diplomacy could be back in play in an attempt to prevent the further destruction and collapse of Syria. A new ECFR policy brief (“Syria: the imperative of de-escalation”) examines de-escalation and diplomacy in comparison to military alternatives; what a diplomatic push over Syria should look like; and the hard choices it would entail.

From false choices to ugly choices

For too long the Syria debate has been stuck in a make-believe choice between military-lite or diplomacy-lite options (that the military balance can be tipped without a weighty intervention or that diplomacy can advance without having to deal with Assad or Iran). The real choice is between military all-in or diplomacy all-in options. The benefit of one over the other lies not in its place on a moral hierarchy but in its holding a greater potential to involve less devastation, less waste of lives, less danger for regional contagion, and less potential blowback for the West. Progress on a Geneva II peace effort requires at the very least a willingness to accept that Assad’s fate is a question for the transition process and not a pre-condition; and to acknowledge the reality of Iran’s necessary role in any diplomatic process.

Priorities, inclusivity and Iran

If diplomacy is to produce results then Americans and Europeans must start prioritising. Defeating Assad, weakening Iran, containing radicalisation, preventing further humanitarian tragedy, securing chemical weapons, avoiding ungoverned spaces and al-Qaeda strongholds, birthing a democratic Syria, and limiting destabilising regional spill-over might all look good on a wish-list, but they cannot all be pursued with the same strategy or accorded equal weight. Averting the risk of Syria’s full collapse and regional implosion should be prioritised, by creating a space for politics that ratchets down violence.

That means diplomacy must be inclusive: a political deal will only be possible if a critical mass of the involved parties are drawn in. Russia and Iran must have a stake in the process through which they can secure enough of their own interests, and the Gulf States and Turkey will also have to be pressed to dampen their maximalist aims. Iran is of course the trickiest call for Western powers. But the de-escalation imperative requires engaging with Iran beyond the nuclear file. Iran will not be simply swept off its feet by the act of engagement and will surely drive a hard bargain, but not necessarily an absolutist one. Only an on-going and concerted political process will provide an opportunity for a more granular appreciation of which Iranian interests are paramount and which are negotiable.

From Geneva I to Geneva II

The Geneva Communique of June 2012 is a precious commodity – a text that is agreed on by both Kerry and Lavrov and the basis for Geneva II. Scepticism surrounding the peace conference initiative is natural – initially at least this will be, at best, talking while fighting – but it should not overshadow why this effort matters and should be given time. International and regional accord behind Geneva II will relegitimise dialogue and put politics back into the mix, confronting both sides with challenges different to those of the battlefield: The Assad government will have to present negotiating positions and a negotiating team. The fragmented opposition will no longer be arguing among themselves in relation to purely hypothetical morning-after scenarios.

The original Geneva text should be distilled into five Guiding Principles agreed to by all parties: the territorial integrity of Syria; provisions for the political transition; cessation of violence; no further militarisation; and access for humanitarian aid.

Arming for peace

Direct military intervention has wisely been rejected, but arming the opposition as part of a balancing, leveraging and influencing effort in the lead up to Geneva II is under consideration by the trans-Atlantic partners. While this is an understandable option, it is an ill-advised one. Given how cumbersome, regulations-restricted and politically fraught arming by Western powers is, the impact will anyway be limited in scope. There can be no guarantees of successful micro-management of who gets what, especially with such a light footprint, nor of the continued “moderation” of groups once armed.  More arms will further entrench the logic of a political economy of war, which are already breeding warlordism, war-profiteering, criminalisation and intimidation as a way of life.

The problem for the putative Geneva II effort of “arming for peace” is that even limited Western armed support will embolden opposition ambitions of total victory (as continued arming of the government side will do; both need to stop), working against an acceptance among the opposition of the need to pursue compromise and power-sharing, while deferring a moment of mutual exhaustion. Ambitions will be fuelled that once there is Western skin in the game, intervention will inevitably intensify.

To be clear, failed diplomacy could become more dangerous than no diplomacy if it intensifies the push for intervention – so Geneva II cannot be a one-off, it will require patience and perseverance in the face of inevitable demands to declare time on talks.

Click to download the basic PDF of “Syria: the imperative of de-escalation” by Julien Barnes-Dacey and Daniel Levy

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Director, Middle East and North Africa programme
President, US/Middle East Project

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