When to Talk to Monsters

The United States and Russia will soon hold a peace conference aimed at ending the Syrian civil war, which has killed more than 70,000 people, displaced millions of others and threatened the stability of the entire region.

The Obama administration’s decision to engage Russia in diplomatic talks is a good but belated one. Russia, a key backer of the Syrian government, cannot by itself end the war, any more than the United States can. But together with countries like Britain, there is a chance, however slim, of a diplomatic breakthrough. The real shortcoming of the administration’s policy on Syria has not been an unwillingness to engage militarily — as critics of President Obama have suggested — but the ill-advised decision, in August 2011, to preclude the possibility of a diplomatic resolution involving all sides.

Back then, when the United States cut off ties with Mr. Assad’s government and declared as a policy that he had to go, dictators in Tunisia and Egypt had just been toppled and Libya’s leader, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, was on the ropes, thanks largely to a NATO no-fly zone that protected rebels. But Syria was always a more complex situation.

By repudiating Mr. Assad without any nuance, the administration complicated its ability to negotiate with minority Kurds, Christians and Druse, who are suspicious of Mr. Assad but even more fearful about the uncertainty that would accompany a takeover by Sunni-led rebels — many of whom espouse a strict interpretation of Islam, and some of whom have openly affiliated with Al Qaeda. Their participation is essential to any future Syria.

Our black-and-white stance on Mr. Assad was not carefully arrived at. It has boxed us in and left us with the unenviable task of refereeing among opposition groups whose capacity for disagreement seems unlimited.

None of this in any way exonerates Mr. Assad, who should face prosecution for war crimes. But the armchair hawks who are boldly calling for bombing the parts of Syria controlled by Mr. Assad, or directly arming the rebels, ought to pause and reflect on who would rule Syria if he were toppled tomorrow.

Syrians fighting on both sides of the divide are certainly thinking about it. They desperately need clarity about how their country might be organized in a post-Assad era.

Will it be a federal state with regional autonomy and enclaves for Christian, Kurdish and Druse minorities? Will it be a unitary state controlled, as it has been for decades, by a heavy hand in Damascus, with Mr. Assad’s authoritarian Alawite regime replaced by a sectarian Sunni central government that tries to impose Islamic law? Or a failed state, carved up into sectarian and ethnic zones, and a haven for terrorists?

Syria is not only divided between a dictatorship and an opposition; there are many other fault lines. Its patchwork quilt of ethnicity and sectarian identity, so similar to that of its troubled neighbor Iraq, suggests that governing Syria would not be easy for any leader.

Suppose a democratic Syria could be created today. Would Parliament be elected on a one-person, one-vote basis, or would minorities (including Mr. Assad’s Alawites, assuming for a hypothetical moment that they could agree to this) need special legal protections — as in neighboring Lebanon — so as not to be overwhelmed by the Sunni majority? After 42 years of authoritarianism, would Syrians even want a strong central government? What would be the role of a reconstituted military, if any, in protecting the nascent democracy?

The war in Bosnia, from 1992 to 1995, ended after the combatants, exhausted by three years of bloodshed, agreed to a peace deal hammered out by the United States, Russia, Britain, France, Germany and Italy. American military force helped bring the Serbs to the negotiating table, but did not by itself bring about the peace agreement. And contrary to some impressions, the 1995 peace talks in Dayton, Ohio, which I attended as the deputy to the diplomat Richard C. Holbrooke, were only the last stage in a painstaking process. Most of the details had been proposed and agreed to months earlier, behind closed doors, via shuttle diplomacy and bilateral meetings. Indeed, rarely did the participants meet face to face at Dayton. The one time we brought delegations from the warring parties — as they hated being called — together, on the second day of the Dayton talks, it almost destroyed the conference. Just bringing people together isn’t enough.

I’ve learned from painful experience that there are no guarantees in the peace-building business. Negotiations over Kosovo, at which I represented the United States as a special envoy, brought the European Union and the United States together, but did not end the war (though it is hard to imagine that the Europeans would have agreed to the NATO action, which did end the war, in 1999, had we not first tried serious diplomacy). The multiple rounds of six-party talks over North Korea, from 2003 to 2009, brought China, the United States and South Korea (where I was the American ambassador for part of the time) closer, but did not end North Korea’s nuclear aspirations.

Unspeakable atrocities are occurring in Syria as both sides — the rebels, backed by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, and the Assad regime, supported by Iran and Russia — continue to fight a war with no end in sight. If both sides come to believe that neither is likely to achieve total victory, and that the only realistic outcome is a negotiated settlement, there is a chance they will settle. No one ever wants to be the last to die in a civil war.

Christopher R. Hill, dean of the Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver, has been the United States ambassador to Macedonia, Poland, South Korea and Iraq, an assistant secretary of state and an envoy to negotiations over Kosovo and North Korea.

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