Possible Syrian Futures: I. The Vienna Failure

After four years of unrelenting savagery in Syria partly provoked by, steadily fueled by, and frequently serving the interests of a wide range of globally significant states, those states finally decided that they should take the extraordinary step of actually sitting down together to discuss the mess that they—and Syria—are in. The result in Vienna was a brilliant, lowest-common-denominator agreement that the mess should be cleaned up, and then they all poured more gasoline on the fire. So, where does this leave Syria?

It seems logical to consider the propensity to use force on the part of the Vienna participants to be a key causal factor of the Syrian crisis. To implement this factor in an analytical framework for evaluating the possible futures of Syria, a continuum going from “offering rewards” at one extreme to “punishment” at the other is defined. [The slightly distinct choices of “violent” vs “peaceful” approaches is less satisfactory because violence is actually just an extreme version of punishment. This may appear a tedious distinction but has major impacts in actual world affairs: the misuse of negotiations as a weapon (“we only talk to people whom we like” or “surrender and then we will negotiate”) rather than as an opportunity to find common ground has plagued international diplomacy in recent years. Peaceful methods of punishing and thus unnecessarily alienating opponents who might otherwise have proven open to compromise are well known to those whose goals are zero-sum.]

But focusing on the choice of punishment or reward is to focus on method. A different perspective might focus on goals. A general way to start thinking about goals, rather than delving immediately into enumerating them, is to consider the willingness of the players to compromise, viewing the achievement of a positive-sum outcome vs. a zero-sum outcome to be the most fundamental set of alternative goals (assuming that a negative-sum outcome, albeit highly likely in reality, would never be anyone’s goal).

With the propensity to use force and the degree of support for a positive-sum outcome as the two causal factors, perhaps it will be possible to think more usefully about the future of Syria than the participants in the Vienna meeting did, judging from the meeting’s public report, which called for such achievements as the maintenance of a currently non-existent state and its currently non-functioning institutions.

The two factors generate four scenarios, a mechanical step designed to create an analytical framework for asking the interesting question, “How?” The answer should be phrased in terms of dynamics but importantly of multiple, alternative (or more realistically, interacting) dynamics. One quarter of the analytical framework depicts the portion of the landscape of potential futures in which the actors prefer offering rewards to achieve a positive-sum outcome. How this abstraction, for Syria, actually take place will surely have considerable impact on the outcome, so the model should reflect the likely existence of multiple processes, perhaps simultaneous and interacting, perhaps mutually exclusive alternatives. In other words, the complexity of reality is such that it is simply delusional to think of a set of four alternatives per se–“success,” “failure,” and a couple of muddled-up ones—as having much analytical value. To derive useful scenarios, each quadrant of the landscape needs a description laying out the major alternative sets of dynamics that are considered likely candidates as the real-world future unfolds.

It is not at all clear what states might prefer a positive-sum outcome, but assuming for the moment that such were the case for Syrian conflict, would rewarding the state or rewarding all political actors or rewarding citizens individually (e.g., by protecting refugees and providing them with jobs) be more effective? Do rewards even work in the absence of punishments? In practice, punishments are so greatly favored by external forces and domestic ruling elites once a crisis breaks out that it is not clear that any convincing evidence even exists to demonstrate how effective a policy strongly emphasizing rewards might be. Truth and reconciliation committees as well as pardoning in advance state leaders accused of criminal behavior rather than holding them accountable in court have both been tried by various states for domestic purposes with mixed results. Across state borders, war crimes trials of key leaders plus forgiveness for those “just following orders” has had some success, from Nuremburg to Serbia, but only for defeated states. The leaders of victorious states remain outside the law, too big to jail. The world may know the impact of a three-trillion-dollar war, but what might be the impact of a three-trillion-dollar aid program? In contrast to the Vienna meeting’s emphasis on preserving the Syrian state, an effective reward strategy might well consist of ignoring the state as a permanent Syrian structure (replacing it with temporary U.N. mandate status or a confessional structure on the Lebanese model) combined with rewards to all cooperative political groups (e.g., formal recognition of their legitimacy) and individuals (e.g., economic and physical security, civil services, jobs, civil liberties). The problem here is not the cost, for the funds saved by avoiding war would surely go a very long way, but the political punch of war profiteer armaments firms plus the much longer time frame of building a society in comparison to destroying one. And yet, with the Syrian conflict now in its fifth year and the Iraqi conflict in its second decade since the U.S. invasion, wars as well as “democracy building” risk outlasting the patience of the populations paying for them.  Identifying the most important alternative processes that might govern the outcome, given consensus on emphasizing rewards in a search for a positive-sum outcome, will clearly not be a trivial step in the analysis. The gap between analytical frameworks and reality, to conclude this warning message, is not trivial.

But any formal beginning point offers at least the hope of improving on the current real world mess. With “conflict resolution strategy” and “goal” of the decision-making states as the two key axes along which the possible futures of Syria might be plotted, four ideal quadrants within the landscape of future possibilities are generated. (The ability of Syrians to control their own future is obviously being ignored in this analysis, just as the Vienna participants chose not to invite any Syrians to attend.) The red quadrant represents the determination of each of the international actors to punish adversaries in order to achieve victory at the expense of the rest. The red color could thus be said to represent the anger that most participants would feel as they returned home, defeated and humiliated. Punishing adversaries to achieve unilateral victory is a short-term strategy, one example of Syrian Futureshow unequal the four neat-looking quadrants actually are.The green quadrant represents a totally different concept of political process in which the goal is to devise a creative solution that will offer something to everyone. The degree to which this entails sacrifice is a function of the creativity of the participants. Peace, the growth of trade, and the development of a healthy civil society are beneficial to most, albeit not to aspiring dictators, war profiteers, or criminal gangs. In the Syrian case, both Saudi Arabia and Iran could end up with hydrocarbon pipelines crossing Syria; Russia could retain its naval base while the U.S. retained ties to the Kurds. Many apparent contradictions only appear so because of the limited imagination of the sides in an argument. But it is crucial to understand that pursuing any potential solution in the green quadrant will require careful thinking, gradual implementation, and long-term attention to detail. It is Syria’s tragedy that the U.S. is entering into an election season.

The gray quadrant could be labeled the “zone of hypocrisy,” a murky region in which diplomats pretend to be nice in order perhaps to avoid the dangers of losing legitimacy at home or sliding into an unwanted great power military conflict but all the while remain intent on defeating their adversaries. This is the zone where negotiations are offered as rewards for submission in the hopes that weaker adversaries will then reject negotiations, allowing the aggressor the opportunity to attack with the justification that “they only understand the language of force.”

The blue quadrant represents the curious situation in which the adversaries prefer a positive-sum outcome but decide that punishing others rather than cooperating is the only way to achieve the win-win goal. The apparent contradiction lies in the details: if all prefer positive-sum outcomes, then presumably they will work to minimize the duration of punishment and the number of adversaries on which it is inflicted while they hasten to define clear conditions for escaping from that punishment. This last point is important: international negotiation success frequently hinges on the precision of the escape clause. Just to note the most famous current example, the details of exactly what Iran has to do to achieve an end to the economic war launched against it by the U.S. and exactly what the U.S. will do to reward Iran are now the crux of U.S.-Iranian relations. For Syria, if the world wants the positive-sum solution of a Syrian democracy to be created by the Syrian people, as all Syrians come together to sing Kumbaya, exactly what will Assad be doing and exactly who will be in control of the Syrian armed forces?

Clearly, a political landscape depicted as four equal quadrants is grossly simplistic, but it sets the stage for a few observations. The red and green quadrants are extremes, the red to be avoided at all cost by those desiring a long-term solution built on improving civilization as we know it; the green an extreme to be undermined at all cost by those who wish to overthrow the contemporary system (e.g., the Islamic State) or continue to exploit its well-known deficiencies (e.g., war profiteers). In the Syrian case, many forces may turn out to be much closer to revolutionary forces than they may appear. In particular, Turkey seems to be at a three-sided tipping point, hesitating to choose among democracy, a race war against the Kurds, and a bid to re-establish a caliphate under its control. Iran also stands at a tipping point, vigorously debating the choice between accepting its new invitation to become part of the regional decision-making process or focusing on leading a Shi’i revival. Add to this equation a newly aggressive Saudi Arabia jumping from a quick military victory in Bahrain to an agonizing conflict in Yemen, an Israel quietly eyeing the possibilities of expanding its influence across the region, and a widespread Kurdish sense that their moment is finally coming after decades of repression. It will take a great deal of diplomatic creativity to devise a positive-sum outcome addressing all the contradictions inherent in these various aspirations.

The red and green quadrants are regions of relative simplicity and durability. A common decision to place policy here offers the hope of success. The gray and blue quadrants, in contrast, are areas of instability and rapid evolution. To the degree that regimes follow the internally contradictory strategies of the gray and blue quadrants, anticipate rapid tactical shifts, e.g., a short-term punishment followed by a diplomatic breakthrough and alliance shift.

At the moment, the emphasis is on punishment, with all sides adding military force. Europe is trying to buck this trend by improving its treatment of Syrian refugees, but that is a small step so far in comparison to U.S., Russian, and Iranian military moves plus the steady Turkish rise in hostility toward both its own Kurds and Kurds in Syria. Perhaps even more seriously, everyone appears clearly to see the many uses of the Islamic State, giving the lie to the Vienna meeting’s call for its defeat. Turkey is using the Islamic State as the rock on which to smash Syrian Kurdish aspirations for liberty; Saudi Arabia can never make up its mind whether Sunni extremists are friends or enemies; and Iran may well be contemplating the possibility of letting the Islamic State survive in control of Sunni Iraq and Sunni Syria in return for keeping its allies in control of Alawite Damascus; at least, such would seem to be the logic of tacitly joining the U.S. to defeat the Islamic State in Iraq but insisting on blocking the elimination of Assad’s dictatorship. Russia is blatantly using the Islamic State as cover for returning to the Mideast. As for the U.S., is its priority the defeat of Assad or the defeat of the Islamic State?

Rewards, enticements to persuade others to implement moderate, constructive policies are few and far between. The U.S. is not even protecting its own Syrian Kurdish allies-of-the-moment. Is the U.S. offering Iran anything to persuade it to relinquish Assad? Is the U.S. offering Turkey anything to induce it to step back from war against the Kurds? Are Russia and the U.S. seriously discussing any sort of real, long-term joint influence over Syria? Is anyone discussing the possibility of some sort of shared Iranian and Saudi hydrocarbon zones across Syria? Syria does not need to be a zero-sum bloodbath.

If actions were plotted, they would probably occur almost all in the red quadrant. One immediate question is to track post-Vienna actions, e.g., Obama’s instantaneous announcement of boots on the ground and Turkey’s attacks on Syria Kurds while they were fighting the Islamic State. The trend of actions over the next few weeks will reveal much about whether or not any serious, solution-oriented discussions occurred behind the scenes at Vienna.


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