Michael C Williams

The Search for a Diplomatic Solution to the Syrian Conflict

More than four years after the outbreak of the revolt against the government of President Bashar al Assad a negotiated settlement remains as elusive as ever. There can be little doubt that the inability of the international community to make any meaningful progress is the greatest failure of diplomacy in our age. History is likely to judge the Security Council’s inability to advance the cause of peace harshly.


The reasons for this failure are several. Firstly, the seeming intractability of the conflict was difficult enough when there were two actors, the regime and the supporters of the Syrian National Coalition. The early entry into the battle of the Lebanese Hezbollah as an active participant on the side of the Damascus government was a portent of the growing complexity. By 2014 there was a third actor ISIS or the Islamic State. Secondly, after the defeat in the British parliament of a motion in 2013 to support US air attacks on the regime over its use of chemical weapons, it has become clear that the Obama Administration and the West generally are not willing to contemplate serious military intervention or indeed exert pressure other than sanctions on the regime. After the disastrous Iraq war of 2003 President Obama has been determined to avoid further US military intervention on the ground in the Middle East. To a considerable extent the removal of the very threat of intervention has seriously undermined his diplomatic hand. Now with less than eighteen months in office his political strength is set to diminish further.

A third reason mitigating against a diplomatic solution has been the breakdown of relations between the West and Russia. As a permanent member of the UN Security Council Russia has used its diplomatic strength to advance its own interests, but been a willing partner in many international agreements. In the 1990’s it supported international agreements to end the wars in Cambodia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo.  Under President Putin a harder line has been apparent first in Georgia in 2008 and more strikingly over Ukraine in 2014. It is difficult to imagine circumstances of a settlement of the conflict without Russia, barring an unexpected implosion of the Assad regime.


Against this dark landscape a glimmer of hope has been offered by the negotiations between the P5 and Germany on the one hand and Iran on the other over the latter’s growing nuclear capability. The deal reached on July 14 will lead to a gradual removal of sanctions and an inflow of western investment. Iran is likely to be more accommodating in its diplomatic realtions.Hopes of a more moderate disposition by Teheran have however to be moderated by its close alliance with Hezbullah.  Syria, and the Assad regime, have always been the conduit through which arms and supplies have been transferred by Iran to its Mediterranean ally. A rupture in those arrangements would not be allowed by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Command. (IRGC) Moreover, most Arab countries will be fearful of an Iran freed of international sanctions.


Looking ahead the arrival of a new US President in January 2017 and a reset of the relationship with Russia at the time of writing seem the one hope, albeit too distant for the Syrian people.

See also by Lord Williams:


Syria's Regime Reaches Out Amidst Regional Realignment - See more at: http://www.chathamhouse.org//node/18360#sthash.sJmML4CI.5boR0VCZ.dpuf




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