Open Letter in the FT on Syria

12 March 2012



Today’s Financial Times published a letter signed by an impressive list of luminaries chastising the international community for not doing more about the violence in Syria and urging the UN Security Council to “revoke Assad’s license to kill.” This sounds like a strongly worded statement, but it is not quite what first appears to be.

The forty-three signatories of the letter include, but are not limited to:

Lord Ashdown, former High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina
Mr Lloyd Axworthy, Canadian former foreign minister
Mr Fernando Henrique Cardoso, former Brazilian president
Jan Egeland, former UN diplomat
F.W. de Klerk, former South African president
Richard von Weizsacker, former German president
K.C. Singh, former secretary in India’s foreign ministry
Marwan Muasher, former Jordanian foreign minister
Clovis Maksoud, former ambassador of the League of Arab States
Shirin Ebadi of Iran, Nobel peace laureate
Leymah Gbowee of Liberia, Nobel peace laureate
Kwame Anthony Appiah
Hans van den Broek, former Netherlands Minister of Foreign Affairs
Umberto Eco
Jürgen Habermas
Peter Singer
David Miliband, former UK Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

The signatories of the letter in the FT are some of the most renown statesmen and intellectuals of our time. These are obviously very intelligent people, and — I hesitate even to say it, but I must — well meaning, but it is difficult for me to believe that a group of people as familiar with diplomacy and hard-ball politics as this bunch could sign this letter with its numerous ellipses and systematic ambiguities.

The letter states that, “…crimes against humanity have been committed and that those responsible must be brought to account.” But the letter does not state who has committed crimes against humanity, leaving it open that both regime and rebel figures may be equally open to prosecution at the ICC.

The letter states that, “…we must see Russia working alongside other international partners.” But the letter does not state what concessions must be made to Russia in order to obtain Russian cooperation. Without stipulating the appropriate Russian role, other than Russian involvement, this requirement could just as well be interpreted that other nation-states should adopt the Russian position as that Russia should adopt the position of any other nation-state.

The letter calls upon the UN Security Council to pass a resolution, “Calling on the Syrian authorities to cease all unlawful attacks against its population immediately, remove abusive military and security forces from cities and inhabited areas, guarantee peaceful protests do not come under attack and release all political prisoners and those held under arbitrary arrest from the beginning of the uprising to the present day.” But it also asserts, “All other actors should also immediately cease all use of violence.” This stakes out a carefully neutral position between regime and rebel forces in Syria.

The letter most notably does not call for Syrian President Assad to step aside, or step down, or relinquish power, or in any way to cede control of the government. The letter does not even ask Assad to hold elections, free and fair or otherwise. There is only a single mention of “Assad” in the letter, and this is a reference to, “the Assad government.” Thus the signatories of the letter are acquiescing to the continuation of the Assad regime in Syria.

The letter speaks of the “paralyzing divide” in Syria, but this piece of non-state public diplomacy in fact perpetuates the paralyzing divide. The price of getting so many diverse eminent signatories was to water down the advocated measures to the point that the really crucial measures are simply missing, passed over in silence. Thus the signatories have no call whatsoever to criticize the UN Security Council, because this is precisely the same problem that faces the UN Security Council, constitutes precisely the same principles by which the UN Security Council has operated, and is precisely why the UN Security Council is ineffective.

Any settlement that leaves Assad in power, and with the regime’s security apparatus in place, would mean that every death so far as has been in vain. Nothing will have changed. The rebels know this, and, since they can smell victory, however distant, they are not going to accept anything less than the ouster of Assad, which is as symbolically important as the ouster of Mubarak in Egypt and the death of Gaddafi in Libya. If the rebels acquiesce to a “peace process” with the Assad regime still in place, not only do they lose, they also lose all credibility.

The Assad regime knows that if it accepts any settlement that deprives it of the means of regime survival that any such settlement is simply a delay in the inevitable ouster of Assad — and regime survival is as symbolically important to Syrian authorities as Assad’s ouster is symbolically important to the Rebels. Moreover, given the Assad family’s close relationship with the Alawite officer corps of the army, regime survival is predicated upon this particular force structure, just as this particular force structure is predicated upon regime survival. This means that the dissolution of the Syrian regime must also mean the dissolution of the army in it present form. In other words, the force structure of the security services that guarantee regime survival is inseparable from that regime.

In this context, “peace” without a decision between the regime and the rebels is only a delay in an existential contest that must be settled by a decision. Either side will accept “peace” on its own terms; neither side will accept “peace” on the other side’s terms. These two definitions of peace are mutually exclusive, and therefore to act on either one or the other definition of “peace” — that of the regime or that of the rebels — is to insist upon the continuation of the crisis, not its resolution. There is nothing new in this; it has been the formula of war since the beginning of human history.

We cannot wish away these political realities, and all the diplomats and negotiators who signed this letter ought to be well aware of this — much more aware than the average person. Therefore they have less excuse than the average person to advocate measures that they know are likely to come to nothing because they are not willing to make the hard calls that would result in the the pacification of Syria.

The signatories of the letter have shown themselves to be no more willing to make hard choices than the members of the UN Security Council, so that their letter is little more than the pot calling the kettle black.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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