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Breakthrough in Syrian Negotiations

After some false starts last week, the various Syrian opposition factions agreed to form a tentative umbrella organization to present a unified front against Assad. The New York Times reports:

After three days of haggling at a luxury hotel here, opposition negotiators agreed to the new coalition and then elected as its president Sheikh Ahmad Moaz al-Khatib, a former imam of the historic Umayyad mosque in Damascus and a respected national figure within Syria. “Today in Doha is the first time the different factions of the Syrian opposition are united in one body,” said Riyad Farid Hijab, a former Syrian prime minister and the highest-level defector from the Damascus government. “So we ask the international community to recognize the Syrian opposition as the representative of the Syrians.”

Via Meadia doesn’t think things will get better in Syria as the war goes on, so anything that advances the timetable for change and offers the West at least some semblance of a partner on the ground is to be welcomed on both humanitarian and strategic grounds. Once a government is cobbled together—at least on paper—we can start pushing harder diplomatically and militarily. At some point down the road, the opposition coalition can be recognized as the legitimate Syrian government, further transforming the legal environment for aid and support.

But there’s no false optimism in our analysis. The situation in Syria may already be too far gone for paper coalitions to smooth over. As Syria-watcher Joshua Landis wrote last week as the talks were underway:

Wealthier Syrians are confabbing in Doha with the Emirs and Americans in an effort to somehow get regime-change without a loss of control. But the meltdown is well on its way and has a dynamic all its own. There is no stopping it now. Syria is unleashed. Guns rule and the strong will eat the weak.  Brahimi speaks of Syria turning into Somalia and a “big catastrophe.” If that happens, it will become a prime target for American and Israeli drones, which will troll the skies in hunting aL-Qaida and those with a long beards, as is the case in Pakistan and Yemen.

It’s delusional to think there’s an easy or cheap future in Syria: look at what happened in Iraq and Libya for a picture of the most likely outcomes. The U.S. will not be able to ignore this because of regional implications: Syria has borders with two of our key allies (Turkey and Israel), and there have been exchanges of fire across BOTH those borders recently. Additionally, Syrian stability is vital to both Jordan and Iraq.

But unlike Libya, where the U.S. involvement is essentially humanitarian, there are serious U.S. strategic interests in Syria that would justify a larger commitment of resources. In the best case, the fall of Assad would bring new realism to Iran and dramatically reduce the chance of a much bigger and nastier headache for the region.

So we are on the right track in Syria, or at last moving forward after a lot of painful cat herding. That’s no guarantee of a problem-free future—just the opposite in fact—but this is one problem we can’t duck and while we should do our best to involve others and spread the burden around, this is one bullet America in the end may just have to bite.

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