How has the U.S. approached the Syrian crisis? What is the United States’ political stance at the [second series of] Vienna peace talks? Will the attacks in Paris become a catalyst for finding a political settlement in Syria?
Perhaps many analysts in the U.S. and elsewhere view the United States’ policy in Syria as a series of procedural changes due to recent extremist developments. Or maybe [its policy] is a result of the actions of the most prominent players in the country’s affairs.
An American researcher conducted a study that followed the White House’s various agendas on Syria since March 2011. Several American newspapers looked at this researcher’s study and came to similar conclusions. A valid question to be asked here is thus: Is American policy toward Syria based on “sectional diplomacy”? There are two primary dimensions that constitute dilemmas in this argument. The first is technical, and the second is political in nature. For the technical dimension, or the general desired outcome for Syria, researchers and analysts say that diplomacy here is possibly divided. It is important, therefore, to emphasize the previous point that there have been a series of procedural changes due to recent extremist developments in the country.
Of course, this is an ambiguous concept in and of itself, and it is being imposed late in political studies of the crisis. Even today there is no universally accepted definition for it, or even an accurate description. However, it does generally indicate that there are a series of related issues or events. The absences of this may be intentional, or even perhaps spontaneous.
In a political context, it seems more problematic. Therefore, there is a political vision based on sectional diplomacy, and a jostling within the contextual framework. It may be that diplomacy is possibly imposing itself in the absence of a clear vision.
It is true that the answer to this question is not simple. In any case, it is mixed with the standard trend, undergoing a political-ideological realignment. Let’s consider this for starters: When President Barack Obama announced his campaign to reach the White House for the first time, he was an outspoken critic of the war in Iraq and a supporter of strengthening American power in Afghanistan. After his succession to the presidency, Obama enforced his vision for Iraq by completely withdrawing from the country in late 2011. In Afghanistan, he increased America’s presence — reminiscent of the surge strategy implemented in Iraq in 2007-2008. This surge was designed to pave the way for an exit strategy that has yet to be undertaken. After the withdrawal from Iraq, Obama announced his vision for a "pivot" toward Asia. His aim was to make economic and security policy a priority in the United States’ global strategy. The White House began to make the Middle East a second priority, something that had not fallen on the region since before the start of the second Gulf War — this, despite all the statements issued that seemed aimed at reassuring the United States’ allies in the region.
This is not isolationism, but a redirection of priorities, and it represents a historical turning point for the country. In particular, it frames the United States’ policy in regard to the crisis in Syria. It is possible we are in the process of split diplomacy based on a political vision. This vision implies that engaging dangerously in the Middle East has been dropped as a central priority of the United States.
Now, what is the nature of this split diplomacy that is based on a particular viewpoint?
In keeping with its policy of split diplomacy, America’s diplomacy toward the Syria crisis — which is a significant experience for [the U.S.] — tests all options, including a military one. In particular, the military option has been deliberating whether or not to escalate the conflict for the past four years. Originally, the experience in Syria represented the essence of American diplomacy. In Congress, diplomacy ended today with a confirmation of its political priorities. Essentially, Congress is saying that there is no limit to the extent of U.S. involvement in Syria. It is thus an opportunity to succeed, regardless of the scope of the United States’ involvement. This conviction is new, and was not prevalent in Washington during the first several years of the conflict.
Of course, there is nothing in the United States’ policy that is parlous or spontaneous. Rather, it came with certainty as the result of complex evaluations, or as part of a shift to react to both the conflict's fixed and changing variables, in the context of a broader geopolitical strategy. The statements by John Kerry, the U.S. secretary of state, during his speech at the Vienna conference on Nov. 14, indicate an unequivocally frank change in the United States’ position to a political solution — without its previous conditions — for the conflict [in Syria]. Parallel to this outcome that the Americans have revealed are key issues about the scope of the United States’ engagement in the Syrian crisis. The first issue is related to the air campaign in Iraq and Syria that is led by Washington. The second revolves around the lack of a mutual American-Russian understanding of Russia’s sudden military intervention in Syria.
It is clear that Washington considers its air campaign to be the most important dimension of its military engagement in Syria and Iraq. This sentiment was possibly strengthened after the Iraqi Kurds recaptured the town of Sinjar, on Nov. 13, with the tactical support of U.S. warplanes. The Kurdish success coincided with — as if it was coincidence — the United States’ announcement that it targeted a car believed to have belonged to Jihadi John in the town of Raqqa in Syria.
Despite this success, it is not possible to view the aerial strikes as a solution in themselves. On an analytical level, it is also not a logical solution to the crisis in Syria. The Americans possibly view it as part of a future solution. However, opponents in the U.S and elsewhere do not view it as a driving force toward ending the conflict.
In reality, the United States’ military engagement seems caught between two opposing pressures. The first is to reduce its military involvement, while the second calls for an increase. Even now, it is not clear if some of these pressures will be reflected in Washington’s policy options for Syria. President Obama may still stand by his word that he does not want to be dragged into a war and commit American forces to a combat role.
As it turns out, the White House has rejected the idea of creating a permanent and continuous no-fly zone over any part of Syria. It is also clear that the military planners in the Pentagon realize exactly that pursuing this option would mean war. From the U.S. military’s perspective, a no-fly zone is dangerous because it requires a wide system of war operations. Included in any no-fly zone would be aerial clashes, the bombarding of ground forces, the disabling of command and control centers, the crippling of communication networks and the employment of electronic countermeasures.
Is that not war?
Moreover, it is no secret to anyone that a no-fly zone over any country without its permission is a blatant violation of sovereignty. Scholars of international law have even gone so far as to say that it is a type of occupation. President Obama’s rejection of this option confirms his early statements against a long-term military commitment. This position is useful to preserve what little is left of security in the region.
It is clear that the American-Russian engagement with regards to Russia’s role is politically sensitive and technically complex. Russian and American planes are converging in the skies over Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor, but their targets are different. Russian planes are carrying out strikes in order to pave the way for the Syrian army’s advance. This was demonstrated recently by Russian strikes on the outskirts of Allepo, Hama and Lattakia. The Russian strikes are in contrast to American strikes that target specific armed groups regardless of what happens on the ground after that. Instead, the American campaign has since avoided commenting on how this doesn’t benefit the Syrian army, who are indirectly benefiting from them.
Today, it can be said that the negotiation process in Vienna possibly represents an opportunity for the United States to establish a minimum level of understanding with Russia. This understanding can be achieved, in any case, in the medium term. If the Russian-American understanding matures, it will represent the most significant development in the international arena toward finding a solution to the Syrian crisis. Cooperation is similarly in the United States’ interest, because it relates directly to America’s national security.
What happened at the Vienna talks constitutes a starting point that everything can be built upon. There isn’t time to spare. The Syrian crisis must be halted via a political settlement that is realistic and coherent. There is no way to maintain regional and international security without this option coming to fruition.
The suicide attacks in Paris made it clear that the effects of the Syrian crisis transcend the Middle East region, and can reverberate around the world. From these attacks, the world must make a political settlement for the crisis the goal that everyone works toward. What happened in Paris may be the catalyst to achieving this goal. This is exactly what German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier stated at the conclusion of the Vienna conference. In the same meeting, John Kerry echoed Steinmeier’s sentiment by stating: “The impact of the war bleeds into all of our nations. It is time for the bleeding in Syria to stop.”
The world will become safer and more stable the day that peace prevails in Syria. Current international efforts will end the instant patriotic Syrians search for a realistic future for their country without outside interference. But international support of this doctrine is required, and it is history that will inform us how this experience will be viewed in the future.