Geneva II was an attempt to fill that which nature abhors: a vacuum. Yet the vast emptiness of US policy toward Syria swallowed the effort itself, making it seem tiny, silly, and futile. President Bashar al-Assad’s regime calculated that it could treat the initiative with contempt. Although the opposition delegation in Geneva acted with competence and dignity, it could not alter or avoid facts on the ground; it could not dispel the belief on the part of the regime, Tehran, and Moscow that there is indeed a military solution for the Syrian crisis, a solution that is very much a work in progress.
The supposed absence of a military remedy to Syria’s travails has been the central talking point of a strategy-free approach to the crisis by the West, led—if that is the proper word—by the United States. The regime, Russia, and Iran may well be wrong that the uprising against crime family rule can be beaten by force of arms. Yet the West’s incantation to the contrary is by no means the product of rigorous, dispassionate analysis. Rather the United States and its allies simply have no appetite for trying seriously to affect the military situation inside Syria. The West has offered no meaningful counter to those who supply strategic arms, inject foreign fighters, and facilitate war crimes and crimes against humanity, all in an attempt to win a war outright. Ergo there is no military solution. It is as if the fact that one chooses not to play somehow means that the game itself does not exist.
That one side thinks it can win a battlefield decision gives it a perfectly logical sense of what a diplomatic outcome should entail: the other (losing) side suing for peace. The West, going into Geneva II, aimed to break new ground in the theory and practice of diplomacy: the party prevailing on the battlefield should do the decent thing and yield power. The self-serving doctrine of no military solution for Syria was even projected onto Russia in the hope that Moscow would prevail on its murderous client to stop shooting and graciously step aside. US leaders now voice disappointment in Russia’s Geneva II performance, suggesting a degree of surprise. One might just as usefully express shock over the dietary habits of the hyena.
Rather than speciously proclaiming the impossibility of a military decision in Syria, the administration might instead argue that US interests are not engaged by what happens in Syria; at least not to the extent that a serious effort to affect the military situation would be merited. One could argue that although regime atrocities against civilians easily represent the premier human rights abomination of the twenty-first century, there are similar (albeit smaller scale) abuses around the globe, so on what basis would one intervene in one place and not others? One could maintain that the only sort of military gesture that would really matter in Syria would be the Iraq-like invasion and occupation of the country. One could warn that even a military mission aimed precisely at killing the delivery systems that drop barrel bombs and other explosives on the defenseless would put the United States on a slippery slope to yet another Middle Eastern war.
Indeed, all of these arguments—or excuses for inaction—have already been made, some quite explicitly by President Barack Obama. One of his top aides reportedly even advanced the argument that Syria would be a wonderful place for Iran to have a bloody, drawn-out, Vietnam-like experience: a morality-free proposition offering Syrians a twist on the Will Rogers observation that, “Anything’s funny as long as it’s happening to someone else.” Perversely, however, the hand-wringing and excuse-making—the transformation of “never again” to “well, maybe just this once”—has made a bad situation incalculably worse and is now forcing the administration to reconsider the “no military solution” cop-out and its corollaries.
That which is forcing reconsideration is that which brought the United States to the brink of military action in Syria in August 2013: the palpable contempt of the Assad regime for the President of the United States. Starting in 2012 the regime deliberately crossed President Obama’s chemical weapons red line more than a dozen times. On August 21, 2013 the red line crossing was simply too obvious and too public to ignore. The administration’s subsequent (and proper) proclamation that the regime’s action would not stand could have been made any number of times previously, when the regime’s use of chemicals against civilians was just as improper, just as illegal, and just as immoral. That which was different in August was a challenge to US credibility worldwide, one so blatant that it could not be swept under the carpet.
Much the same thing has happened in the context of Geneva II. The Assad regime began, in the lead-up to the conference, to slow-roll its compliance with the very chemical weapons agreement that had erased the credible threat of US military force in September 2013. Then, as the conference began and went through two inconclusive rounds, the regime actually picked up the pace of its war on civilians, producing record levels of non-combatant deaths, injuries, and refugee flight. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Bashar al-Assad, a person often ridiculed as weak and clueless during his more than thirteen year tenure as Syria’s president, has taken the measure of the man in the White House—the one who called on him to step aside and who warned him about red lines—and has decided that, with the help of Iran and Russia, victory is possible and impunity automatic.
When it comes to the reputation of the United States, what happens in Syria does not stay in Syria. If Bashar al-Assad can pretend to be the peer competitor of the US president, what conclusions will be drawn by Iran as the P5 + 1 get down to business trying to negotiate a nuclear accord? How is the Benito Mussolini of the twenty-first century—Vladimir Putin—processing the spectacle of Geneva II? Are there dangerous, destabilizing (mis)calculations being arrived at in various parts of the globe as a result of the Geneva II debacle and what it says about the seriousness of the Unite States?
There are no magic solutions—military or diplomatic—for the catastrophe that is Syria. Starting in late 2012 and extending throughout 2013 and into 2014, the Rafik Hariri Center of the Atlantic Council has offered specific ideas on Syria-related objectives, strategy, and the kind of process required to produce actions transcending the kind of sloganeering that now passes for strategic communication. It is understandable that the administration has wanted to keep Syria at arm’s length—who wouldn’t, if only it were possible? Yet that which was understandable is no longer defensible. There is no arm’s-length solution for Syria. If the administration wants a new mantra—one with the merit of accuracy—that would be it.
Frederic C. Hof is a resident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.