Syria: Talks or a fight to the end?

Both the United States and Russia have laid out their political stakes when it comes to negotiating with Assad.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sp
Former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton labelled the actions of China and Russia in the UNSC as "despicable" [AFP]

This month marks two years since the onset of large scale anti-government protests in Syria, yet international approaches to the ensuing crisis, which has so far claimed 70,000 lives, are as conflicted as ever.

On one hand, the US appeared, over the last few weeks, to take its foot off the pedal of support for Bashar al-Assad’s opponents, prompting a slew of complaints from Syrian rebel groups. At the same time, a delegation from Jordan, a staunch US ally, to Damascus offered President Assad the gift of an “Arabism” abaya – the same delegation to which Assad allegedly confided that he was “not a monster” [AR]. Despite its Sunni Islamist orientation, the Egyptian government reiterated its opposition to a military solution to the conflict and its support for dialogue.

In other signs that Russia’s proposal for negotiations was gaining traction, Moscow played host to King Abdullah of Jordan, President Masoud Barzani of the Kurdistan Regional Government, and Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Mouallem in quick succession, with rumours that Moaz al-Khatib, head of the opposition umbrella group, the Syrian National Coalition, would follow suit. For his part, Mouallem announced that the Syrian regime was ready for talks with the armed opposition. Reports also emerged last week that al-Khatib, who recently conceded that dialogue with the government was a possibility, met with a businessman close to the Assad regime, Mohammed Hamsho.

On the other hand, upon the confirmation of Senator John Kerry as US Secretary of State, this week brought the announcement that the US, along with European partners like Britain and France, plans to step up its support to Syrian opposition fighters. While continuing to shun the (probably illegal) option of directly providing weapons and munitions to the rebels, Kerry committed to supplying direct medical and food rations to rebel fighters, and to doubling US governance aid to the political opposition. As yet, reports that the US will also help to train rebel fighters, have not been confirmed.

UK Foreign Secretary William Hague heralded this ramping up of support to the opposition as a “new phase” in the Western and Arab response to the crisis. Indeed, alongside this more cautious uptick in western support, the Saudis are reported to have financed a large consignment of infantry weapons to the rebels, from Croatia via Jordan, which includes anti-tank rockets and recoilless guns. The political opposition will also soon announce the establishment of a transitional government in “liberated lands” in the North of the country.

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Thus, two incompatible models for ending the crisis are being touted by the US and Russia, with the former seemingly committed to a wholesale rebel victory, and the latter urging compromise, political dialogue and gradual transition. We’ve been here before. For two years, the conflicting US and Russian narratives and political approaches added an unhelpful layer of global rivalry on top of local, regional and sectarian power struggles.

Since 2011, both the US and Russia have given their full verbal backing to a slew of diplomatic initiatives for ending the violence, including the Arab League proposal, Kofi Annan’s six-point plan, and the Geneva agreement, while also underlining their commitment to a peaceful resolution of the crisis. Yet, in reality, these global powers found themselves fiercely divided at the Security Council and ostensibly allied with different “sides” on the ground.

In demanding for Assad to “step aside” in August 2011, President Barack Obama announced a formal US policy of regime change in Syria. The US has since led Western efforts to pressure Assad from power. For Russia, Assad’s resignation could not be a precondition for resolving the crisis. Along with Beijing, Moscow was more sanguine about the possibilities for Assad to implement reforms and/or negotiate a way out of the crisis with the opposition, and called instead for a ceasefire and negotiations, followed by a comprehensive national dialogue. But how have the US and Russia justified these different prescriptions for ending the violence in Syria?


To begin with, Washington and Moscow began their problem-framing from contrasting premises: the violence was largely one-sided, for the US, whereas the violence was taking place on both sides, for Russia.

From the outset, the Obama administration was unequivocal that blame for the violence in Syria lay with the government. Even as the opposition took up arms in June and July of 2012, launching organised assaults against government positions and declaring its intention to bring down the regime militarily, the Americans remained wedded to the position that Assad and in his inner circle bore primary responsibility for the violence. 

When, by the end of 2011, the US acknowledged that Syrian security forces had taken casualties, it insisted that the overwhelming majority of the violence stemmed from the regime. Both Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and UN Ambassador Susan Rice were adamant that there could be no moral equivalence between the actions of the opposition and those of the regime. As such, they demanded that the Syrian regime cease violence first.

The Russians, on the other hand, had warned of “destructive opposition forces in Syria” as early as June 2011. As observed by Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s ambassador to the UN, Moscow had its own interpretation of events in Syria: Yes, there were large peaceful protests in some parts of the country, but there was also violence used against government institutions, and that tendency was increasing as events started unfolding.

Russian officials referred to “the so-called Free Syrian Army”, accentuating its attacks on government targets and the operations of armed gangs. At the UN, they opposed draft Security Resolutions and successful General Assembly resolutions for not calling on the opposition to renounce violence, and for being “written as if no armed opposition existed at all”.

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According to the Russians, the opposition’s militancy contained two exacerbating features: first, it included terrorist acts and atrocities; second, it was being financed from abroad. Al-Qaeda was repeatedly said to be active in Syria. Car bombs, executions and “terrorist raids” were highlighted in press releases. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov began speaking of the Syrian opposition with a major caveat: “if terrorists can be called opposition”. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs slammed US State Department announcements as direct endorsements of terrorism, and suggested that it may refer Saudi Arabia to the UN’s counter-terrorism body for its part in arming the Syrian rebels. “Why not unlock Guantanamo, arm its inmates and bring them to Syria to fight,” Russian President Vladimir Putin asked. “It’s practically the same kind of people.”

As such, in contrast to Clinton’s argument that the onus was on the (much more powerful) government to first lay down its arms, Lavrov argued that the process of renouncing violence should be mutual. In tension with the Obama administration’s rejection of moral equivalence between the two sides, Lavrov demanded that both combatant sides be treated equally.

Upholding international law

Both the US and Russia argued that their positions on the Syrian crisis were consistent with international law.

The US maintained, first, that its position was multilateral, supported by much of the international community, the Security Council, the UN General Assembly, the UN Secretary General, the Arab League, the GCC, regional leaders from Turkey to Saudi Arabia, and religious leaders including the head of Al-Azhar.

Second, the international community was said to be rising to its responsibilities. Not only was the regime crackdown characterised as an “ongoing threat to international peace and stability“, which entailed action under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, but as with the conflict in Libya, the emerging norm of “responsibility to protect” was alluded to repeatedly. Deploying notable R2P language, Clinton referred to “the horrific campaign of violence that has shocked the conscience of the world“. The implications of these crimes were that the Assad regime had forfeited its right to lead the Syrian people and that a strong international response was not only a right, but also a duty.

Third, the Obama administration argued that its position enabled, rather than interfered with, the self-determination of the Syrian people. Assad was said to be standing in the way of Syrians, and the only way to bring about the change that they deserved was for Assad to leave power. Differing with the assessment of Assad’s allies (for example a Hezbollah spokesman I interviewed in Beirut in March 2012 argued that “the majority in Syria still supports Bashar”), the Americans asserted that the Assad regime and its friends were at odds with the aspirations of the vast majority of the Syrian people. The regime represented only a family, the Baath Party, a small group of insiders.

By contrast, the Russians argued that they were acting to protect the right of nations to self-determination, an important principle of jus cogens international law. According to Putin, no nation had the right to decide for another “who should be brought to power and who should be ousted”. In addition, Russia was said to be protecting the rights of (“a large proportion of”) Syrians who were not supportive of the armed opposition and were instead disposed towards gradual political change.

In invoking the principles of respect for sovereignty and non-intervention in the domestic affairs of states, the Russians pointed out that they had never waged colonial wars in the Arab world, and shunned the (Western) export of “rocket and bomb democracy“. Not only was this policy morally wrong, it wasn’t effective either.

The Russians also asserted that they sought to protect both the spirit and the stipulations of the UN Charter. In Lavrov’s formulation, at stake was “whether the world will be based on the UN Charter, or a place where might makes right“. They bemoaned the unilateralism of their colleagues on the Security Council and, despite having opposed and vetoed UN resolutions which were supported by a vast majority of the states eligible to vote, they declared themselves in favour of a truly collective resolution to the conflict in Syria.

Similarly, Russia repeatedly pointed out that the violent regime change sought by member states in Iraq (2003) and Libya (2011) openly violated the UN Security Council’s resolutions – as Churkin admitted of the latter case in particular, “we did not take that well“. Indeed, the Russians focused heavily on the legally and politically unacceptable precedent of the NATO intervention in Libya, declaring that they had been effectively deceived before voting was conducted for resolution 1973 which authorised “all necessary measures” to protect Libyan civilians. They had been assured the no-fly zone was designed to safeguard civilian life, and yet it was used as a trigger for regime change instead. The situation in Syria would not be considered, by the Russians (and the Chinese), in isolation from the Libyan experience.

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Ultimately, similar normative principles, and indeed the same international peace proposals, were invoked in furtherance of distinct interpretations of the values underpinning world order. Sovereignty as responsibility competed with sovereignty as ultimate authority. The self-determination of peoples vied with the self-determination of sovereign nations. Unsurprisingly, these differing conceptions aligned neatly with the national interests of their proponents.


Despite strong US support for Security Council action on Syria, the Obama administration consistently couched its position in the language of seeking peace. The UN resolutions it tabled were described as a last chance to end Assad’s brutality through peaceful means. It was assumed that the violence in Syria would stop when Assad left power.

Still, the Obama administration stopped short of advancing that goal through direct military means. It extended at least $100 million worth of “non-lethal” aid to the Syrian opposition, and US military personnel were dispatched to the border with Jordan. It is also likely that CIA agents were helping to coordinate and direct backchannel arms deliveries from some Gulf States, from Turkish territory bordering Syria, where NATO also defensively stationed six batteries of Patriot Missiles in early 2013.

The US maintained that supporting the opposition in toppling Assad would bring peace to Syria. Removing Assad would also ward off a civil war. However, US support for the Syrian opposition was depicted by its critics as partisan in a dangerous and destabilising way.

The Russians argued that overtly “taking sides” only hastened, rather than averted, civil war. Draft Security Council resolutions were vetoed because they were one-sided. The aim, Moscow insisted, should be to settle the conflict without taking sides. Russia treated all parties with equal respect, and maintained contacts with both sides. Opposing the British and French-sponsored draft Security Council resolution in June 2011, Churkin argued that UN interference would escalate, rather than dampen, local tensions. Demands by Western politicians that Assad step aside could provoke a full-scale conflict in Syria and risked plunging Syria into a bloody civil conflict.

Russia’s course was presented as the “the most balanced approach to the Syrian crisis”. Indeed, officials insisted that Russia was not a defender of Damascus nor were its spokesmen advocates for the Assad regime. This assertion was supported by occasional statements indicating support for the non-violent opposition, combined with frank criticism of the regime’s excesses.

Opposing hypocrisy

Thwarted“, to use the White House’s term, by Russia and China at the Security Council, the US sought to explain its opponents’ behaviour and motivations in terms of narrow self-interest. Clinton stated that Russia, China and Iran were determined to keep Assad in power because he does their bidding, he buys their arms, and sells them oil.

Notably emotive language was used to express this frustration. “It’s distressing,” Clinton explained in February 2012, “to see two permanent members of the Security Council using their veto when people are being murdered.” Instigating some controversy, she then labelled their actions “despicable“. In using their veto power, Russia and China were also deemed to be denying Kofi Annan the key tools to advance his efforts. That is, rather than blocking foreign military intervention in Syria, Russia and China were actively obstructing international diplomatic efforts to end the crisis. Furthermore, Russia, it was suggested, was continuing “to deliver weapons to Assad“.

But for Moscow, the West’s approach to the crisis was steeped in double-standards, chief among which was the insistence that the regime lays down its arms, without demanding the same from the opposition. Putin noted that NATO’s use of force “happens against the background of all the fuss about human rights and humanism… Don’t you see a significant contradiction here between theory, the words and deeds, and the practice of international affairs?”

The implicit charge of hypocrisy was also extended to the West’s allies in the Gulf. According to Lavrov, prior to the unrest, Syria enjoyed a level of civil freedoms higher than some of the countries that were now preaching democracy to Damascus. Alexei Pushkov, head of the Duma International Affairs Committee, observed that the US was closely working on the Syria file with Qatar and Saudi Arabia, where there was not even the remotest notion of what democracy is.

The real intention of the Gulf states, the argument went, was to install Sunni rule in a country governed by a Shia minority. The motivations of the US and NATO countries were also geopolitical. Their support for the Syrian opposition was aimed at a larger geopolitical game targeting Iran.

Unanswered questions

But if the US and its allies were playing politics over Syria, then the Russian position also left a number of unanswered questions.

First, it was not clear how, in the face of brutal repression, the opposition inside Syria could respond to the authorities’ invitation for dialogue. Given the ferocity of the government’s attacks, and its widely documented torture and execution of opposition members, in such a scenario, the regime would hold most, if not all, of the cards. For the opposition, agreeing to a ceasefire and negotiations with a regime which had previously exercised bad faith appeared too risky, if not suicidal, an option, particularly before it had taken large territories in the North. Moscow failed to address that reality and, even as the Syrian government employed shocking levels of violence in civilian areas, it clung instead to a vague proposal for “dialogue”.

A potentially more sinister tension in the Russian position arose from its depiction of itself as a neutral broker, condemning hypocritical regional and international actors for sending arms to the Syrian opposition, despite the fact that the Syrian government was the largest Middle Eastern importer of Russian weapons, and Moscow continued to sign arms contracts with Damascus during the crisis. Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov declared that it would be wrong to leave the Syrian government without the means for self-defence. If valid, there is no reason why this argument could not also be used by the Gulf States, Turkey or the US with regard to the opposition.

Finally, even if it is assumed that Russia supplied no offensive arms, it is worth reflecting on whether failing to act in Syria, or failing to allow others to act (through the Security Council) is politically (and morally) neutral in a way that acting is not. Could an act of omission be as partisan as one of commission? Perhaps, by doing nothing, Russia was actively supporting the status quo and thus the regime in its actions.

However, one merit of the Russian position, whatever its incentives, was that it raised important concerns about the aftermath of a disorderly collapse of the Assad regime, which is what the opposition’s regional and international supporters appeared to be aiming for.

Indeed, the US had forged a betwixt and between policy on Syria. The stakes were dramatically raised with Obama’s August 2011 announcement that Assad must “step aside”. At the same time, however, the US was not prepared to act decisively to effect Assad’s removal from power. The demand was issued, but, in the event, with no credible ultimatum.

A policy of sanctions was in place – certainly not a short-term solution, given that Assad’s friends in Tehran would still afford him access to cash, arms and fuel, via Baghdad – but the onslaught intensified. Fielding desperate telephone calls from the Free Syrian Army during our conversation, a Washington-based activist complained in July 2012 that “Obama said that Assad has to step aside, but all he’s done is sanctions, which only hurt the Syrian people… The Americans haven’t done anything, apart from sending 17 smart phones”. The US administration appeared caught in the middle of its mixed support to the opposition, where bullish rhetoric clashed with more bearish action.

Retired US Ambassador Daniel Serwer suggested to me that that “the administration is split on this… Clinton and Rice are trying to embarrass their colleagues into doing more, but it’s not working because Obama does not want to ‘own’ Syria”.

Perhaps underlying Obama’s reluctance to “own” Syria was the worry that, through increased and more direct military involvement, the US would inherit a broken state. This eventuality was suggested by a number of commentators, including Daniel Byman and Marc Lynch.

So far, the US has supported the opposition and its eager regional allies enough to encourage their violent challenge to the Assad regime, but not sufficiently to ensure the regime’s collapse. For their part, the Russians’ insistence on dialogue with the Assad regime, whose large-scale human rights abuses did not indicate any appetite for compromise, seemed to translate into support for the violent status quo.

Confused policies

Alongside this clash between the narratives and policies of the US and Russia, there has been a discernible gulf between each power’s discourse and their actions. The US, the strongest military power in the world, did not use all the levers at its disposal to oust Assad from power, a cause which its own officials had so eloquently championed. At the same time, despite professions of neutrality, Russia’s tireless quest to stymie Security Council action and promote a “Syrian-led dialogue”, translated on the ground to tacit support for the regime, in terms of its continued dominance of the Syrian political sphere as well as its crackdown. While the US and Russia cannot be said to directly determine the dynamics of the Syrian conflict, this reality has added to the dangerous mix of categorical principles and confused policies that has characterised the international response to the Syrian crisis.

Now, after a few cautious weeks in which the US second-guessed the wisdom of backing an outright rebel military victory, and Russia seemed to concede the meaningful political transition, rather than a superficial “dialogue” led by Assad, was the only way out of the crisis, the international community appears to have split once more. This polarisation does not bode well for the aim of ending the violence, nor for the desperate situation of the families of the 70,000 dead, the close to one million refugees and the more than two million internally displaced.

Oddly, it was Hillary Clinton herself who made a clear-eyed case against military support for the opposition, when she argued in February 2012 that nobody wants a bloody, protracted civil war, that even with automatic weapons in the hands of the rebels, the slaughter would go on, and that there was a real danger that such weapons would fall into the hands of US enemies.

Perhaps the US now fears that the radical Islamist flag is rising in Syria, with or without US intervention. Thus, the attempt to shore up more democratically inclined/”US-friendly” fighters is as much aimed at ensuring that US interests are secured in a proxy war, as it is at toppling Assad. This, more than anything, represents a firm acknowledgement that the future of Syria will be settled on the battlefield. Assad’s allies in Iran, unencumbered by legal restrictions and political qualms about arming foreign military groups, are sure to match every first aid kit and tin of food dispatched by the State Department, and then some. With recent developments, then, the tragic fate of the Syrian people as hostages in a proxy war appears unchanged.

Dr Alia Brahimi is a Research Fellow at the London School of Economics. She received her doctorate from the University of Oxford.