Holding such a conference is easier said than done. Merely finalizing the guest list would be a major diplomatic feat. Surely, Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Iraq must be invited. Russia, the US, and perhaps France and Britain should be present as well. However, to omit a neighbor like Israel, a Syrian client like Lebanon, or a patron like Iran would be peculiar — and inviting all of them would be a formula for chaos.
The uprising in Syria, the most violent of the Arab Spring rebellions, is playing out slowly and lethally. The estimated 10,000 deaths over the last 18 months equal the number killed in just a few days in 1982 in the city of Hama by al-Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad, whose scorched-earth policy strengthened his hold on power and incurred only rhetorical condemnation from the international community.
The repercussions are likely to be all the more disruptive when, sooner or later, the regime falls. The al-Assads, like other authoritarian Arab leaders, kept a lid on internal violence and their own citizens’ aspirations. However, the sheer complexity of conditions in Syria means that the regime’s endgame could trigger a transition unlike any other in the Arab Spring, different in both its domestic course and in its effects on the region.
Diplomats make careers of finding procedural solutions to insoluble dilemmas; surely, they hope, there is a conference table with a shape that matches a given strategic configuration. So far, the US has handled the various forms of political transition in the Arab Spring without severely damaging missteps. Syria poses the toughest challenge yet.
Harold Brown was US secretary of defense under former US president Jimmy Carter and is a member of the Defense Policy Board, which advises US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta. He is an emeritus trustee of the Rand Corp.
Copyright: Project Syndicate