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How to win the vote -- and the war -- on Syria

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks about Syria next to Vice President Joe Biden (L) at the Rose Garden of the White House August 31, 2013, i
U.S. President Barack Obama speaks about Syria next to Vice President Joe Biden (L) at the Rose Garden of the White House August 31, 2013, i

By Nader Mousavizadeh

President Barack Obama's surprise decision to seek congressional authorization for punitive cruise missile strikes against Syrian government targets presents the West with a perhaps final opportunity to align rhetoric with reality, and policy with purpose, in its response to the Syrian civil war.

The bad news is that the White House, by gambling on its ability to convince a recalcitrant Congress to go against an isolationist public mood, has opened itself up to the very real possibility of defeat as its opponents will seek to embarrass what they consider a reluctant, irresolute Commander-in-Chief. The good news is that that path to winning the vote in Washington is paved with setting out a new and credible course for a diplomatic solution to the crisis that can justify an act of war.

This is not the contradiction in terms that the debates in Western capitals to date might suggest. If anything, the complete absence of a definition of strategic success is the single most important source of the disarray that defines the status quo. The schizophrenia at the heart of Western policy to date was on full display throughout the shambolic events in Westminster and Washington over the past week. The failure of David Cameron's government to win a parliamentary mandate for action, and of the Obama White House to carry through promptly on its red line rhetoric was, in truth, far less about the poisonous legacy of the Iraq war than about the lack of answers to the most basic questions regarding the use of force in Syria.

What are the "strictly limited" cruise missile strikes intended to achieve, besides a vague and inherently intangible attempt to "uphold international norms" — even as they would constitute a clear violation of the U.N. Charter? What do we expect the strikes to have done to the balance of power in the civil war once the dust settles? Is there any evidence to suggest that such pin-prick attacks will change the strategic calculus among Assad's top generals — the only real threat to his rule? The uncomfortable reality is that no one seems to know, or even care very much — as long the West is seen to have "done something."

Two years after the beginning of the conflict — and countless lost opportunities to create the genuine global coalition for a political transition in Syria later — the unspoken prevailing sentiment among Western security and intelligence officials is that the only outcome worse than Assad prevailing in the civil war is a victory by a rebel coalition increasingly judged to be dominated by extremists and jihadists whose model for a future Syria looks a lot more like Taliban-era Afghanistan than a pluralist democracy. But to assume that a bloody, deteriorating stalemate between two scorpions in a bottle is the best of a series of bad options mocks our ostensible concern for the people of Syria, ignores the risks of further regional instability and, most importantly, misses the opportunity — even at this late hour — to forge a global alliance for change in Damascus, and an end to the war.

Before this can be done, however, two things are necessary. First, there must be an end to the amateurish U.S. insults directed at those members of the Security Council whose support and engagement is required to achieve a united front against the Assad regime. Until now, this behavior has had the predictable consequence of hardening their opposition to Western policy — even after the regime's criminal use of chemical weapons — and has left Assad with little to worry about regarding genuine pressure on the pillars of his regime. Second, U.S. and UK officials should go back to the drawing board of strategic interests in the Syria conflict — their own, and those of the key members of the Security Council — where they will discover that there is a great deal more that unites the key powers than divides them.

Neither Russia nor China — the key obstacles to effective Security Council pressure on Assad — wish to see Syria descend into a jihadist haven; they both want a stable government that is considered legitimate and accountable to all parts of the fracturing Syrian polity; they want to avoid another break with the West over the use of military force in the Middle East in violation of the U.N. Charter; they both want to have a say in the future design of a region that is critical to global security.

All of this was clear more than a year ago, when the then-U.N. and Arab League envoy Kofi Annan succeeded in persuading all members of the U.N. Security Council to back his Geneva communiqué calling for a negotiated political transition to a new, broad-based and representative government in Syria. At the time, these efforts were derided by Western hawks and liberals alike as offering succor to the Assad regime whose days were allegedly numbered.

Well, tens of thousands of civilian casualties later, with the destruction of Syria as a viable state nearly complete, and a vital taboo against the use of chemical weapons grossly violated, the Obama administration may recognize that the only thing worse than having to engage in the difficult, often unpalatable give-and-take of great power diplomacy is to have to go it alone, with little prospect of success in achieving anything but the most symbolic and fleeting result.

In the kind of grim irony that only history provides, this week's G20 summit in St. Petersburg - hosted by none other than Vladimir Putin — offers the world what may the last chance to bring Syria back from brink of a cataclysm. Not only will the permanent members of the Security Council will be present, so will a number of other key regional and global actors. If John Kerry can take a respite from his recent outing as Obama's Secretary of War, then the able, shrewd and experienced U.S. Secretary of State should focus all his efforts on crafting a diplomatic strategy to unite the international community.

All of this will be deeply unpalatable to a proud and often self-congratulatory Obama administration: compromising, as in any genuine negotiation, on some of its key priorities; permitting Russia and China to have a serious stake in the region's future; agreeing to a transition that allows members of the current regime to have a role, without which they will have no incentive to abandon Assad; broadening the negotiating table to ensure that all relevant outside actors, including Saudi Arabia and Iran, have a stake in a new governance structure for Syria. But if the foreign policy legacy of the Obama administration is to be about more than "bearing witness" and "sending messages" amidst the Middle East's historical upheavals, the hard work of diplomacy must now be done in order to win the vote — and the war.

(Nader Mousavizadeh is co-founder of Macro Advisory Partners, and the author, with Kofi Annan, of "Interventions: A Life in War and Peace." Any opinions expressed here are the author's own.)

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