Realpolitik in Syria

Realpolitik in Syria

Realpolitik has won, humanity has lost. When the two-and-a-half-year Syrian civil war entered a new phase with the use of chemical agents on Aug. 21, killing 1,400 people, initial reactions from the U.S. and its allies raised expectations for international intervention. While Obama was not willing to commit U.S. forces to one more Middle Eastern quagmire, the fact that the U.S., as the only remaining superpower, bears the responsibility to uphold the rules of the international system made it more difficult to sit on the sidelines. Thus, the U.K., France and the U.S. immediately denounced the use of chemical weapons, deplored the loss of life and called for punishment strikes against the al-Assad regime. Even then, the lack of a decision from the U.N., the lack of firm evidence as to the culprit, the lack of regional support - excluding Turkey - as well as distaste about parts of the opposition groups, made Obama indecisive. British Prime Minister Cameron extended a helping hand, taking the issue to his country’s parliament. What followed was a classic lecture on realpolitik. The U.K. Parliament rejected an intervention, which made the French think twice, and gave the opportunity for Obama to take the issue to the U.S. Congress and allow U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to work out a framework for the elimination of Syrian chemical weapons. Syria agreed immediately; the U.S. decided to give a chance to diplomacy; the U.K. and France made approving grunts; the Russians are happy, the Turks are not, the rest don’t really care that much.

According to the agreement, Syria will submit a full list of its chemical weapons and facilities within a week and allow inspectors to access them by November. After they are checked and accounted for, they will be destroyed or removed from Syria by the first half of 2014. This is at best a very optimistic scenario. Its success depends on the honest cooperation of Syria, which is not a forgone conclusion. It is reasonable to expect delays. As the process has opened the way for negotiations, the regime will use the opportunity to prolong its stay in power, attempting also to eliminate the opposition with non-chemical weapons. The U.S. will not be satisfied eventually, will come under international and domestic pressure as the death toll rises, will try to balance the sides by aiding some of the opposition groups, and finally when everything fails, with more deaths, will inevitably intervene. By that time, there will be more legitimacy and international support. This would be around spring 2015, getting Obama closer to end of his second term and allowing a strong foreign policy line for the upcoming Democratic candidate for the 2016 presidential elections.

Russia, on the other hand, will continue to gloat about the “success” of its diplomacy in preventing U.S. unilateral action and the sliding of its last ally in the Middle East toward the West. It will try to take the issue back to the agenda of the U.N. Security Council, where it could block any Western-initiated operation/sanctions. The system will look as if it is working, while the Syrians continue to kill each other and the Middle East remains unstable.

Diplomacy intrinsically trumps over war. Any war would inevitably cost more in human suffering.

Whether open-ended diplomatic gamble succeeds in Syria, it is still the better option to control chemical weapons rather than trying to destroy them with limited airstrikes. Yet, we have to learn how to play the game properly. While deplorable, the rules of international politics still replicate the rules of jungle. The bigger players still primarily look after their own national interests, while maintaining a semblance of a high moral ground. The thin line between realpolitik and hypocrisy is getting thinner by the day and becoming more difficult to maintain. We have to try harder.