Feb 6th 2014

The Geneva II Tragic Charade

by Alon Ben-Meir

A noted journalist and author, Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is professor of international relations and Middle East studies at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University. Ben-Meir holds a masters degree in philosophy and a doctorate in international relations from Oxford University. His exceptional knowledge and insight, the result of more than 20 years of direct involvement in foreign affairs, with a focus on the Middle East, has allowed Dr. Ben-Meir to offer a uniquely invaluable perspective on the nature of world terrorism, conflict resolution and international negotiations. Fluent in Arabic and Hebrew, Ben-Meir's frequent travels to the Middle East and meetings with highly placed officials and academics in many Middle Eastern countries including Egypt, Israel, Jordan, the Palestinian territories, Syria and Turkey provide him with an exceptionally nuanced level of awareness and insight into the developments surrounding breaking news. Ben-Meir often articulates

It is hard to imagine that representatives of the 30 countries that assembled in Geneva actually believed that they could find a political solution to the Syrian civil war. Given the differing strategic interests in Syria of the powers within and outside the region, reaching a consensus to end the crisis at this juncture is beyond the realm of possibility. The conditions on the ground in Syria and the balance of power between the rebels and the Assad regime must first be altered on behalf of the rebels in order to force Assad to change his calculation before any political solution can be formulated.

President Obama may strongly embrace the agreement to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons or seek a political solution by holding the Geneva II conference. Unfortunately and predictably, the chemical deal worked only to strengthen Assad as it prevented an American attack and gave him more time to consolidate his gains.

Obama, who is determined not to engage America in another conflict in the Middle East, has left Syria to the whims of Russia’s President Putin, who was more than eager to fill in the gap and usurp the political agenda to ensure Russia’s long-term interests in Syria.

There are many factors that complicate the prospect of any political solution, which seem to have escaped the Obama administration or were treated with ambivalence.

First, in addition to Russia and Iran, many of the players, including the Gulf States led by Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and scores of jihadist groups in and outside the region, have different political agendas and will do everything in their power to thwart any solution that does not serve their interests.

Second, the civil war has now also evolved into a proxy war between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran. Iraq and now Syria are seen as the battlegrounds of a long-simmering conflict between them and it is unlikely to end in the foreseeable future.

Third, the convenient “political cooperation” between the US and Russia does not obscure the fact that they have fundamental disagreements not only about Assad’s fate but also the kind of political order that will follow.

Fourth, the war has provided a historic opportunity for scores of Muslim extremists, including the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra and other al-Qaeda-affiliated jihadist groups. They are determined to exploit the chaos in Syria regardless of the price they pay and how high the Syrian death toll rises.

Finally, as the war grinds on and the death toll, destruction, and human suffering reach a calamitous magnitude, both Assad and the rebels have become deeply entrenched and view the war in terms of life or death. As such, it is inconceivable that the two sides can in fact reconcile politically and join hands in a transitional government.

Speculations abound as to how to end this tragedy when no power wants to end it only for the sake of the Syrian people. Geneva II could not even deliver an enforceable agreement to provide food and medicine to children, many who are sick and starving to death. Instead, the leaders in attendance found comfort in the fact that the rebels and Assad’s representatives sat face-to-face and talked.

Given this gloomy reality, one wonders from where a political solution can come to end Syria’s unfolding human tragedy.

First, the idea was floated that the US and Russia could agree on a formula that will force Assad to step down, followed by establishing a transitional government. Russia in turn would have to persuade Iran, who is supplying Assad with weapons and material aid, to support the effort.

This would essentially mean that Russia and Iran would maintain their traditional influence in Syria and that any transitional government would have to bow to Iranian and Russian dictates, to which Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states sternly object.

The second scenario by which to end the civil war is if, as a result of indiscriminate bombing by Assad’s forces, many thousands of Syrians are killed at once. The assumption here is that the US will then be forced to strike some of Assad’s military installations and compel him to change his calculus.

This, too, is unlikely to take place as Assad knows that if he commits such an atrocity it could potentially precipitate American reaction, especially now since Obama is under increasing pressure to revisit his policy of no military interference. Because of that, Assad will instead continue to use systematic bombings that result in the death of dozens at a time to avoid international outrage.

Under such circumstances, Assad will gradually regain lost territories, as he has in recent months, while continuing to butcher his own people in the hopes that he will eventually prevail.

The third scenario is to maintain the current conditions whereby Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Gulf states continue to provide the rebels with weapons and other material aid, though not the kind of weapons and the quantity that the US can provide to change the balance of power on the ground.

Iran and Russia will continue to supply Assad with weapons and financial aid, and as such they would prolong the conflict, giving Assad more time to build on his gains and abandon the idea of a transitional government altogether.

This scenario is also unlikely to happen given the deep animosity between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran, who are fighting their proxy war in Syria. For these two countries, this is a defining war and both are prepared to spend as much as it takes to continue it, regardless of how many more Syrians die in the process.

The fourth scenario suggests that the effort to establish a transitional government should not come first but instead should follow a comprehensive ceasefire where all combatants (both rebels and government forces) freeze in place.

This would be followed by humanitarian aid to rebel-held areas, which would help build confidence and pave the way for the creation of a transitional government. This, however, presupposes that there would be an agreement on Assad’s fate, over which the US and Russia principally disagree.

The fifth scenario, which is more likely to unfold, is that the Syrian civil war will come to an end when both sides reach a point of exhaustion and see no reason in continuing the fight because they would have given up hope of winning or even improving their position.

The fact that scores of jihadists have converged on the country and are committed to fight against any agreement and each other to promote their political agenda further prolongs the war as the fighting no longer has a single purpose.

This is what often happens in a civil war when the combatants are engaged in a protracted fight and neither side can win without gaining a decisive advantage. This situation is further complicated when outside powers continue to support different sides, but not enough to tilt the balance decisively one way or the other.

Under these circumstances, the civil war in Syria could last 10 to 15 years or more. The civil war in Lebanon that lasted from 1975 to 1990 is a case in point; other examples of long and debilitating civil wars include Afghanistan and Sudan.

If this scenario unfolds, Syria will disintegrate, hundreds of thousands more Syrians will die, starvation and diseases will run rampant, and much of the country will lay in ruin. No one can tell how this catastrophe will impact other states in the region, but one thing is certain: not a single country will be spared and the potential for regional conflagration will be omnipresent.

This leaves us with the only viable option that can bring an end to this horrific war. Assad must be made to conclude that he stands to lose even with the continuing support of Russia and Iran.

For that to happen, the US must change Assad’s calculations by changing the power equation on the ground and give vetted rebels the weapons they need to stop Assad in his tracks and force him out; the US is the only country that can do so. Only then can the international community focus on establishing a representative transitional government to begin the herculean task of rebuilding the country.

Time is running out and every day we continue to embrace the illusion of a political solution. Without first changing the balance of forces on the ground, scores of Syrian men, women and children will die and millions of Syrian refugees will have no home to return to.

The sooner the Obama administration acts with the support of Western and Arab allies, the sooner the unconscionable humanitarian disaster in Syria can come to an end.

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Sep 24th 2021
EXTRACTS: "We have found that 47 million American adults – nearly 1 in 5 – agree with the statement that “the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump and Joe Biden is an illegitimate president.” Of those, 21 million also agree that “use of force is justified to restore Donald J. Trump to the presidency.” Our survey found that many of these 21 million people with insurrectionist sentiments have the capacity for violent mobilization. At least 7 million of them already own a gun, and at least 3 million have served in the U.S. military and so have lethal skills. Of those 21 million, 6 million said they supported right-wing militias and extremist groups, and 1 million said they are themselves or personally know a member of such a group, including the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys." ----- "..... the Jan. 6 insurrection represents a far more mainstream movement than earlier instances of right-wing extremism across the country. Those events, mostly limited to white supremacist and militia groups, saw more than 100 individuals arrested from 2015 to 2020. But just 14% of those arrested for their actions on Jan. 6 are members of those groups. More than half are business owners or middle-aged white-collar professionals, and only 7% are unemployed."
Sep 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "That long path, though, has from the start had within it one fundamental flaw. If we are to make sense of wider global trends in insecurity, we have to recognise that in all the analysis around the 9/11 anniversary there lies the belief that the main security concern must be with an extreme version of Islam. It may seem a reasonable mistake, given the impact of the wars, but it still misses the point. The war on terror is better seen as one part of a global trend which goes well beyond a single religious tradition – a slow but steady move towards revolts from the margins."
Sep 11th 2021
EXTRACTS: "Is it not extraordinary that in a country that claims to be as enlightened and advanced as ours, the combined wealth of three individuals – Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, Microsoft founder Bill Gates, and investor Warren Buffett – exceeds the total wealth of the bottom half of Americans? One has to return to the days of the pharaohs of Egypt to find a parallel to the extreme wealth inequality that we see in in America today." ...... "The top tax rate remained above 90 percent through the 1950s and did not dip below 70 percent until 1981. At no point during the decades that saw America’s greatest economic growth did the tax on the wealthy drop below 70 percent. Today it is somewhere around 37 percent. President Biden’s American Families Plan would increase the top tax rate to 39.6 percent – a fairly modest alteration, albeit in the right direction. It is true that there was a time when the top marginal tax was even lower than it is today: in the years leading up to the Great Depression it hovered around 25 percent."
Sep 7th 2021
EXTRACT: "But Biden can’t be blamed for the rise of the Taliban, or the fragile state of a country that has seen far too many wars and invasions. The US should not have been there in the first place, but that is a lesson that great powers never seem to learn."
Sep 4th 2021
EXTRACT: "The world is only starting to grapple with how profound the artificial-intelligence revolution will be. AI technologies will create waves of progress in critical infrastructure, commerce, transportation, health, education, financial markets, food production, and environmental sustainability. Successful adoption of AI will drive economies, reshape societies, and determine which countries set the rules for the coming century." ----- "AI will reorganize the world and change the course of human history. The democratic world must lead that process."
Sep 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "Although the Fed is considering tapering its quantitative easing (QE), it will likely remain dovish and behind the curve overall. Like most central banks, it has been lured into a “debt trap” by the surge in private and public liabilities (as a share of GDP) in recent years. Even if inflation stays higher than targeted, exiting QE too soon could cause bond, credit, and stock markets to crash. That would subject the economy to a hard landing, potentially forcing the Fed to reverse itself and resume QE." ---- "After all, that is what happened between the fourth quarter of 2018 and the first quarter of 2019, following the Fed’s previous attempt to raise rates and roll back QE."
Sep 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "Today’s economic challenges are certainly solvable, and there is no reason why inflation should have to spike."
Aug 27th 2021
EXTRACT: "To be sure, they have focused on their agenda, which is totally misguided—not by our own account but by the account of the majority of the American population, who view the Republican party as one that has lost its moral footing to the detriment of America’s future generations, who must now inherit the ugly consequences of a party that ran asunder."
Aug 21st 2021
EXTRACTS: "Now that so many sad truths about Afghanistan are being spoken aloud, even in the major media – let me add one more: The war, from start to finish, was about politics, not in Afghanistan but in the United States. Afghanistan was always a sideshow."--- "....the 2001 invasion was fast and apparently decisive. And so it rescued George W. Bush’s tainted presidency,..." --- "Bush’s approval shot up to 90% and then steadily declined,..."
Aug 17th 2021
EXTRACT: "The Taliban’s virtually uncontested takeover over Afghanistan raises obvious questions about the wisdom of US President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw US and coalition forces from the country. Paradoxically, however, the rapidity and ease of the Taliban’s advance only reaffirms that Biden made the right decision – and that he should not reverse course. ...... The ineffectiveness and collapse of Afghanistan’s military and governing institutions largely substantiates Biden’s skepticism that US-led efforts to prop up the government in Kabul would ever enable it to stand on its own feet. The international community has spent nearly 20 years, many thousands of lives, and trillions of dollars to do good by Afghanistan – taking down al-Qaeda; beating back the Taliban; supporting, advising, training, and equipping the Afghan military; bolstering governing institutions; and investing in the country’s civil society. .... Significant progress was made, but not enough." ....... "That is because the mission was fatally flawed from the outset. It was a fool’s errand to try to turn Afghanistan into a centralized, unitary state. "
Aug 6th 2021
EXTRACT: "But even in the US, which is more lenient than most countries, the principle cannot be absolute. Inciting imminent violence is not permitted. Donald Trump’s speech on January 6, urging the mob to storm the US Capitol, certainly came close to overstepping this boundary. It was a clear demonstration that language can be dangerous. What the internet media has done is raise the stakes; “fighting words” are spread around much faster and more widely than ever before. This will require a great deal of vigilance, to protect our freedom to express ourselves, while observing the social and legal bounds that stop words from turning into actual fighting. "
Jul 27th 2021
EXTRACT: "When it comes to the Chinese economy, I have been a congenital optimist for over 25 years. But now I have serious doubts. The Chinese government has taken dead aim at its dynamic technology sector, the engine of China’s New Economy. Its recent actions are symptomatic of a deeper problem: the state’s efforts to control the energy of animal spirits." ---- "... the Chinese economy, no less than others, still requires a foundation of trust – trust in the consistency of leadership priorities, in transparent governance, and in wise regulatory oversight – to flourish. --- Modern China lacks this foundation of trust ."
Jul 25th 2021
EXTRACT: "It seems that they are, as the last 18 months have seen a remarkable expansion of the central banks’ fields of activity, largely driven by their own ambitions. So they have moved into the climate change arena, arguing that financial stability may be put at risk by rising temperatures, and that central banks, as bond purchasers and as banking supervisors, can and should be proactive in raising the cost of credit for corporations without a credible transition plan. That is a promising new line of business, which is likely to grow. ---- Central banks are also trying to move into social engineering, specifically the policy response to rising income and wealth inequality, another hot button topic with high political salience."
Jul 25th 2021
EXTRACT: "The EU’s ambitious unilateral climate strategy will transform Europe into a trade fortress, encourage green protectionism worldwide, and give other regions the opportunity to develop using cheaper energy. And without China, India, and the United States on board, other countries will be careful not to follow the EU in its self-appointed role as the world’s green guinea pig. If Europe is not careful, it will risk finding itself in a climate club of one. "
Jul 9th 2021
EXTRACT: ".... ruminants belch and fart methane, an extremely potent greenhouse gas. As a result, rearing beef cattle brings about, on average, six times the contribution to global warming as non-ruminant animals (for example, pigs) producing the same quantity of protein. ..... if projected to 2050 [beef production], would use 87% of the total quantity of emissions that is compatible with the Paris climate agreement’s objective of staying below a 2° Celsius increase in temperature."
Jul 8th 2021
EXTRACT: " .... while China’s leaders never mention it, they are just as embittered over Russia’s theft of Chinese territory in the nineteenth century as they are over the West’s imperial predations. With Western imperialism having been largely rolled back, it is Russia’s continued occupation of historic Chinese territory that stands out the most to ordinary Chinese observers. For example, the city of Vladivostok, with its vast naval base, has been a part of Russia only since 1860, when the tsars built a military harbor there. Before that, the city was known by the Manchu name of Haishenwai." ---- "There is also a demographic argument for Putin to consider: the six million Russians spread along the Siberian border face 90 million Chinese on the other side. And many of these Chinese regularly cross the border into Russia to trade (and a good number to stay)."
Jul 7th 2021
EXTRACTS: "According to a new analysis by researchers at Brown University, America’s two-decade war in Afghanistan cost it nearly $2.3 trillion. Now, Afghanistan’s neighbors – Pakistan, Iran, China, India, and the Central Asian countries – are wondering just how much it will cost them to maintain security after the United States is gone." ----- "After clandestinely supporting the Taliban as a means to undermine the US war effort, Russia now fears broader destabilization in Central Asia and beyond." ---- "Similarly, after having made nice with the Taliban, China also now fears the greater regional instability that the US withdrawal may incite. In addition to disrupting Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Eurasia-spanning Belt and Road Initiative, a revitalized Taliban could re-energize the Islamist extremist threat in China’s western Xinjiang province."
Jul 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "When former Fed Chair Paul Volcker hiked rates to tackle inflation in 1980-82, the result was a severe double-dip recession in the United States and a debt crisis and lost decade for Latin America. But now that global debt ratios are almost three times higher than in the early 1970s, any anti-inflationary policy would lead to a depression, rather than a severe recession. ---- Under these conditions, central banks will be damned if they do and damned if they don’t, and many governments will be semi-insolvent and thus unable to bail out banks, corporations, and households. The doom loop of sovereigns and banks in the eurozone after the global financial crisis will be repeated worldwide, sucking in households, corporations, and shadow banks as well. ---- As matters stand, this slow-motion train wreck looks unavoidable."
Jun 19th 2021
EXTRACT: "Xi Jinping’s call for friendship gives us an opportunity to examine Chinese politics on both the domestic and international stage. On the face of it, it suggests the possibility of rapprochement between the rich liberal democracies represented by the G7 and the authoritarian Chinese state. However, despite appearances of a call for a closer relationship, there is more than one way of being friends – and Xi’s idea might be somewhat different to what many in countries attending the G7 might expect."
Jun 12th 2021
EXTRACT: "China’s recently published census, showing that its population has almost stopped growing, brought warnings of severe problems for the country. “Such numbers make grim reading for the party,” reported The Economist. This “could have a disastrous impact on the country,” wrote Huang Wenzheng, a fellow at the Center for China and Globalization in Beijing, in the Financial Times. But a comment posted on China’s Weibo was more insightful. “The declining fertility rate actually reflects the progress in the thinking of Chinese people – women are no longer a fertility tool.” "