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The Road To -- And From -- Damascus

The old anecdote about the directions given to a lost traveller in Ireland often applies to international affairs, but with added force to Syria. "If I was you, I wouldn't be startin' from here!" There is almost no conceivable happy outcome to the inferno in Syria, and although there must be some happier conclusions than others, no one will ever be sure that the roads not taken might have been better.

In part, ordinary Syrians are paying the price for the maladroit handling of the earlier intervention in Libya -- and indeed in Iraq. Blair and Bush's great adventure in Iraq understandably soured the enthusiasm of much of the world for intervention in general. One does not have to subscribe to the crazed leftist defence of bourgeois sovereignty that would have led some people to picket the Normandy landings, nor even listen to the supporters and deniers of genocide in the Balkans, to see that the Iraq invasion was unjustified and its outcome was disastrous.

Russian evocation of Libya to justify inaction in Syria is expediently amoral. Russia agreed to NATO involvement in Libya, and Sergei Lavrov, the Russian FM, with his long experience as Moscow's man at the UN, must have been well aware of how far NATO would take it. The Russians abstained partly because the Arab League was behind the UN resolution, and also because the much unloved Gaddafi had threatened to wipe out the rebels in Benghazi. Those who point out that there was some ambiguity in the actual wording of the threat, should bear in mind that there had been plentiful evidence over the years of his willingness to eliminate enemies as his prison massacre of 1998.

While the UN Resolution on Libya did not specifically endorse regime change, in the real world, faced with a deranged and murderous dictator, what other logical result was there? However, the West clearly should have done much more to involve and thus implicate Russia, and the failure to do so added heft and sharpness to the chip on Moscow's shoulders that weighs so heavily on its foreign policy. After all, if the UK and France have still not got over their long-lost Superpower status, Russia certainly has a much more recent excuse for post-power peevishness.

Which brings us back to the Superpower itself. In Washington, the Republican opposition could have been making hay with the administration's failure to develop a coherent policy towards Syria. Instead, however, they are beating a dead horse that has no interest from the electorate and little connection with the real world. In their incestuous universe, the big issue is not Damascus, but Benghazi and the killing of the U.S. diplomat there last year. It gives them an obsessive stick with which to beat Hillary Clinton.

To be fair, there is little that the Obama administration could do directly in Syria with the historical baggage the U.S. has accumulated over the years. The interventions in the Muslim world, even when not malicious, have tended to be maladroit and all too often counterproductive by any standards. But if not the U.S., who?

Enter the UN -- once again as diplomatic cover. Lakhdar Brahimi, the veteran Algerian diplomat who succeeded Kofi Annan as the UN representative has been considering quitting. His reasons are obvious and honorable: firstly, the UN is not a negotiator, rather, as Ban Ki Moon says, it is a facilitator. It can provide the ladder for the various parties to climb down from their trees. But as Annan once said, diplomacy is very effective, when backed by the threat of sufficient force.

Currently neither the U.S., nor the Europeans can muster enough persuasion to get the Russians to lean on their ally Al-Assad. The Russians are providing enough diplomatic and military coverage to keep him fighting even if doing so empowers the Islamists in the opposition and increasingly imperils the position of the Alawites and other minorities. The U.S. is unable to stop its Israeli tail wagging, and the UN, Bank Ki Moon and Lakhdar Brahimi, without a unified global community behind them, are reduced to calling for a ceasefire but have no means to enforce one.

It comes down to the U.S. With all its faults, financially enfeebled, morally tainted and militarily entangled as it is, only the White House has the power to browbeat and cajole an international consensus that could stop the fighting, even if that implies having the strength to say pretty please to Moscow, to guarantee security to the various factions.

It needs a UN resolution, it needs a no fly zone and eventually, probably boots on the ground -- from almost anywhere except Europe and the U.S. One almost has pipe dreams of a joint Russian-Turkish peacekeeping operation, but more likely the conflict will just drag on until it spills over into the rest of the region.

Tribune 17 May 2013

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