Syria: The Hope and Challenges of Mediation

Insight Turkey Volume 16 No 2, 2014

The persistence of the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria has thus far been reinforced by a multitude of factors, including disorganized opposition factions, the diplomatic, military, and logistical support of Iran and Russia, as well as the cohesive nature of its state, which has survived three years of civil war. Many argue that alternatives to Assad’s rule are complicated and ominous. The breakup of the country, for example, would hold grave implications for the region as a whole. The status of the Free Syrian Army as the main opposition force has been eclipsed by the rise of more militant Islamist groups. International attempts to push for peaceful regime change have proven disappointing. The model of NATO’s humanitarian intervention in Libya illustrates a poor strategy for security and ineffective mechanisms for democratization. The new Libyan government has failed to bring the militias that arose during the revolt against the previous regime under control. This failure has led to fatal turf battles between rival tribes and commanders, creating ungoverned spaces in which radical Islamists flourish. These radical groups have effectively forged a bloc with the Libya’s interim parliament (General National Congress—GNC), which approved a new government, led by Prime Minister Ahmed Mitig, in a controversial vote on May 25, 2014. This development is certain to further deepen the country’s political and security crisis. International involvement in Syria does not promise to generate better results than it did in Libya. 

The so-called “responsibility to protect” (R2P) has been abused in the case of Libya and discredited in Syria. The UN Security Council has been indifferent to political unrest and human rights abuses in Bahrain and Yemen. This questionable level of commitment has strengthened the suspicion of many in the region that R2P is nothing but the latest cover for Western neo-imperialism and liberal interventionist policies. The lack of an active and more determined intervention — either for humanitarian or geostrategic reasons — can be explained in several ways. The United States spent a trillion dollars on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and has no appetite for further military intervention in the region. The ambitious, risky, and catastrophic foreign policy goals pursued by the George W. Bush administration, largely within the framework of military intervention, democracy promotion, and regime change, resulted in political backlash. President Obama decided to pull back from Iraq and other global hot spots and abstain from major military action. It was a decision that the American public has continued to strongly support. 

The dominant view among President Obama’s advisers today is that the administration should recalibrate US foreign policy to be more realistic and pragmatic. Practical necessities and pragmatic multilateralism have taken precedence over the ideological factors that motivated the foreign policy of the Bush administration. President Obama supported intervention in Libya and has stood in favor of internally generated regime change and democratization in Egypt and Syria, despite the massive costs to those nations, but he has reversed his predecessor’s tendency to commit US troops to intervene in favor of these policies. The public also seems content to let Iraqis and Syrians fight it out among themselves. 

Russia and the United States are making significant efforts at mediation, especially since an agreement was reached to dispose of Syrian chemical weapons. However, it appears that the efforts of global powers to mediate are limited by regional and local realities, which must be sorted out by players who doubt US and Russian sincerity, or question the ability of those two powers to agree on workable terms. Given these realities and the fact that the international community is unlikely to intervene in Syria as it did in Libya, attention has increasingly been drawn to regional initiatives and mediation. 

This article seeks to put into perspective the critical role that regional mediation can play in nudging along global action. Without regional commitment and coordination among key Middle Eastern powers, such as Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, international peace efforts to restore order and stability in Syria will be less likely to succeed. It is generally argued that the three most important principles and strategies of international mediation in settings involving atrocity and civil war are impartiality, inclusiveness and non-coerciveness. Given that it is difficult to closely adhere to these principles at all times and within all contexts, their application continues to be situation specific.

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