Consensus on Syria: No one wants the rebels to win

At a recent seminar convened by the Burkle Center for International Relations, a panel of experts considered the state of the Syrian civil war. Their general outlook was pessimistic, despite the recent real achievement of the chemical arms agreement concluded with the Syrian government.

UCLA International Institute, Los Angeles, October 14, 2013 — Most world powers no longer wish to see the rebels win the Syrian civil war because their ranks are dominated by extremist Islamist jihadists. At the same time, the international agreement on the destruction of the Syrian government’s chemical weapons has created a window of opportunity for a negotiated resolution of the conflict. 
A number of nations — including the United States, Russia and possibly even Iran and Israel — have a shared interest in bringing the civil war to an end. But the chances for peace remain slim, with a ceasefire that solidifies current positions on the ground more likely. 
This was the consensus of a panel discussion on the crisis in Syria organized by the Burkle Center for International Relations on October 7th at UCLA School of Law. 
Moderated by Burkle Center Director Kal Raustiala, the panel consisted of Dalia Dassa Kaye, director of the Center for Middle East Public Policy at the RAND Corporation; Bennett Ramberg (UCLA J.D.,1984), a Los Angeles-based writer, foreign policy consultant and businessman who leads a monthly Global Security Seminar at the UCLA Faculty Center; and Daniel Treisman, UCLA professor of political science.
Chemical arms agreement: A small but real improvement
“We are at a better place than we were a month ago,” said Kaye, “better than we expected.” Given that U.S. air strikes would not have ended the conflict, she argued that getting a chemical weapons deal that would destroy the largest arsenal in the region was not a bad outcome. 
In addition, she said the agreement had both inserted the U.N. Security Council into the negotiation process and made it easier for the United States to move forward with its own negotiations with Iran. 
Kaye argued that an inclusive political process involving all regional players was needed to resolve the Syrian crisis. She observed that the conflict had never been limited to Syria alone: one in four Syrians is displaced internally or externally, meaning the situation affects every single one of Syria’s neighbors. And with different countries in the Middle East backing different players in the Syrian war, a regional conflict is essentially fueling the civil war. 
“Russia’s position is really quite simple,” said Treisman. “It opposes U.S. interventions in other countries to effect regime change.” He noted that the Russian government’s position on Syria was in tune with Russian public opinion, with recent polls showing an increase in public support for the Assad regime.
While it supports the removal of chemical weapons from Syria, Russia is realistic in thinking that Bashar al-Assad may try to wriggle out of the deal, he said. What they object to, he added, is the narrative in the West about how the recent agreement came to pass; the Russians had broached the possibility of such an agreement with the United States long before the so-called offhand remark of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.
Treisman said Russia’s reading of international law was that a military intervention in Syria without the approval of the U.N. Security Council — regardless of the dimensions of the humanitarian crisis — would be illegal. 
Although Russia prefers stability under a dictator to violent instability in Syria, it is intensely concerned about sectarian divisions in Syria and their possible spread — a concern shared by the United States, he remarked. For Russia, the concern is the impact of these divisions on the Caucasus and Central Asia. 
For the United States, as Kaye later noted, the worry is that terrorist activity will increase in Europe and the United States because many of the foreign jihadists fighting in Syria (estimated at between 2,000 and 3,000 men) have European passports. 

Dalia Dassa Kaye, Kal Raustiala, Daniel Treisman and Bennett Ramberg. (Photo: Peggy McInerny/UCLA.)
Treisman discounted the idea that Russia could induce President Bashar al-Assad of Syria to leave power, noting that its own officials say the same in public. He also observed that the value of Russia’s relationship with Syria has decreased over time. Today, he argued, Syria’s need for helicopter repairs exceeds Russia’s need for Syria as an arms export market (it ranks sixth in monetary terms among purchasers of Russian arms. 
An urgent longer-term challenge
Bennett took a longer-term strategic view of the conflict, arguing that the Syrian crisis raises the urgent challenge of how to handle future civil conflict in countries that possess nuclear assets (i.e., nuclear weapons, nuclear materials and/or nuclear reactors). “The current model is a ‘muddle,’” he commented, “that won’t work in the future.”
Bennett offered four choices for facing such a scenario: force, containment, a hybrid of force and containment, or doing nothing. Force — whether a full-scale invasion, the use of special forces, or air strikes — is the most efficient means of stopping the utilization or migration of weapons of mass destruction, he said. However, this option is costly, dangerous and risks quagmire.
Among possible containment scenarios, Bennett included the establishment of a cordon sanitaire, the provision of intelligence and equipment to a government in distress and appeals to custodians and rebels to avoid moving or using such weapons.
A hybrid response could, he continued, include containment plus intensive drone and air surveillance to identify weapons for possible destruction and/or deter their movement across borders. 
Curiously, Bennett pointed out that the choice of doing nothing has been practiced time and time again in recent decades with no discernible adverse consequences. 
He identified six instances where this was the case: Algeria in 1961 (where a nuclear weapon was about to be tested), the Vietnam War (where the United States eventually removed the small amount of weapons-grade nuclear material it kept in the country), the Cultural Revolution in China, the collapse of the USSR, the Yugoslavian wars of the 1990s (where nuclear reactors were at risk), and Abkhazia in the 1990s (where less than a kilogram of nuclear material disappeared). 
The impact and appeal of all four options, concluded Bennett, depends on where an actor sits vis-á-vis any given conflict.
Near term
Considering the appeal of a continued bloody stalemate in Syria, Kaye rejected the lose-lose argument on both moral and strategic grounds. The refugee crisis, she argued, makes it urgent to find a solution, while the justification for a bloody stalemate is short-sighted strategically, given that conflict has already spread beyond Syria. 
Kaye claimed the most realistic scenario may be a soft power-sharing arrangement with different parties dominant in different regions of Syria. Treisman agreed, noting that this scenario was effectively a ceasefire. “All parties,” he said, “believe that the longer [the conflict] continues, the more destabilizing it becomes, but no one has any kind of road map toward some kind of practical solution.”

Published: Monday, October 14, 2013