There has been a great deal said, and written, about Syria in the last month. A general consensus recognizes that there are no good options but that something must be done. But the problem goes even deeper than this. In many cases, the feasibility of a solution is inversely related to its legitimacy. That is to say, for many options, the more likely the potential solution is to be implemented, the less legitimate it is, in global terms.
Take, for instance, the example of US military strikes. This is certainly feasible. But were Obama to launch missiles into Syria, he would face widespread condemnation from the world community; such an action, it has been argued, would be a violation of international law and would undermine the credibility of the United Nations system. In short, it lacks legitimacy. By contrast, consider a military strike by an alliance such as NATO. This would have more legitimacy, but it is not feasible given the opposition to military strikes among key NATO members.
There are options that would have more legitimacy: such as the creation of a safe zone for humanitarian aid delivery, peacekeeping forces on the ground, a political or diplomatic resolution to the crisis, and a disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration campaign to transition the country back into stability. These would necessarily have to be a project initiated and implemented by the United Nations, so right away it’s clear these are not very feasible.
The challenge, therefore, is to find an option that does not compromise legitimacy for feasibility. Perhaps by clever diplomacy or perhaps by a ‘rhetorical’ stumble, one such option may have presented itself last week, when the Russian Foreign Minister, Lavrov, capitalized on what appeared to be a flippant remark made by John Kerry only hours earlier. Kerry, with a tone of sarcasm, said that the Assad regime could avoid military strikes if they surrendered their stockpile of chemical weapons.
The US State Department quickly tried to back off this position and explained it as a ‘rhetorical argument’; however, the wheels of diplomacy were already in motion. Russia quickly presented this to the Syrian government, who have since accepted the deal in principle. With US-Russia agreement on the basic terms of the deal, the world now waits to see if Assad will cooperate and abide by the requirements they have set out.
Questions linger as to how this deal will be brokered into implementation—principally, questions over the use of force if Assad does not comply, and what role the UN Security Council will play in the end. As of now, this approach enjoys the legitimacy of the international community, strengthens international law, and at least for time being might even be feasible.
Beyond this, the civil war will continue to rage and the options here look even more dire. The truism that there is only a solution through politics remains. Perhaps with the doors open to Moscow and Tehran, there is scope for more political manoeuvring, manoeuvring that might lead to a transformation of the Syrian regime and the ultimate removal of Assad. But this would still leave a war torn country bitterly divided with factions and jihadists still at war with each other, and armed greater than ever before. Introducing democracy in such a context, while desirable in principle, is improbable and can even be dangerous; without the grassroots development of a culture of citizenship, democracy can simply magnify identity politics.
If a deal on Syria was to occur, and peace achieved, the conditions might be created for freedom to begin to flourish. Infrastructures of freedom, embedding freedom of the press, association and expression, could begin to be built. Civil society associations might be entrenched and activists encouraged to create links across sectarian divides on the many common issues all such people share: the need for security, subsistence, schooling, jobs and so on. With such institutions in place a culture of politics might begin to flourish which separates ethnic and religious identities from constitutional structures and autonomous political processes. The separation of both rulers and ruled from the state – a critical condition of modern political structures which imposes the rule of law on all – could begin to be set in place. But we are a long way from here.
If the latest Russian-American deal on Assad’s chemical weapons sticks, diplomatic circles across the world may well celebrate this as a great victory. Putin’s Russia will be emboldened in the international system and politicians will deliver polite speeches trying to take credit for the success. Meanwhile, the killing fields remain undisturbed and in desperate search of an alternative politics – one that is both feasible and legitimate.