While they agreed that the international community must do all it can to stop the bloodshed in Syria, neither former US Secretary of State General Colin Powell nor former EU High Commissioner Javier Solana hold out much hope for a rapid solution.
Speaking at the second Rafik Hariri Debate on the Arab Transition, titled “Are the United States and Europe Meeting the Challenge of the Arab Awakening?” the two elder statesmen noted that this is a much more difficult situation than faced in Libya eighteen months ago. Indeed, Solana observed, the Libya intervention itself makes action here more difficult, as China and Russia are now much less likely to step aside and allow the UN Security Council to authorize action.
Solana also contends that solidarity among the P5–the five permanent members of the Security Council–on preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear weapons possessor is directly tied to the Syria struggle. He argues that pushing Russia and China too hard here—much less declaring the right to go around the Security Council through the Responsibility to Protect doctrine—would jeopardize their cooperation on the more pressing Iran issue.
Powell believes, quite correctly in my view, that the international community has no appetite for military intervention even in the absence of a Russian and Chinese veto threat. He sees no takers among the major European powers nor does he see the Obama administration taking on yet another war with an election looming.
Absent large-scale intervention, Powell sees few prospects for quick resolution.
Powell was blunt on his assessment of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whom he has met many times over the years: “I do not like him.” Alas, unlike Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi, Powell believes al-Assad’s military “has ability and competency” and will not be defeated easily. Moreover, there’s much more at stake than the fate of a president or political party; the entire future of “Allawite power is a risk.” The combination of a powerful military, willingness to ruthlessly employ it against the rebels, and severe consequences of failure will not be defeated quickly.
Thus, Powell concludes, we’re likely in for a long, drawn out fight in which neither side is close to fatigue and thus amenable to political settlement.
Supplying more weapons to the opposition is, in Powell’s judgment, “risky,” as likely to extend the civil war and increase bloodshed as lead to rapid resolution. And a no-fly zone is not only “unlikely to work” but very well might force “escalation to a ground operation” once undertaken.
That leaves the international community with a meager role: Doing “all we can” on the refugee problem, minimizing human suffering and fall-out around the region.
None of this, of course, is pleasant news in the light of 25,000-plus dead with no end in sight. But it’s hard to find fault with the analysis.
James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.