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FP: The Least Bad Option

March 30, 2012

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There are no good solutions to the mess in Syria, writes James Traub, a fellow of the Center on International Cooperation.

Are you okay with where you're at on Syria? I know that I'm not. A senior State Department official told me that the Obama administration isn't either. Almost everyone I've spoken to about Syria in the last few days has thrown up their hands and said, "There's no good solution." It may be that the only people who are comfortable with their position are the cynics in Russia and China who are prepared to let Syrian President Bashar al-Assad grind the opposition to powder, and Senator John McCain, who wants NATO to take out Damascus.

It's so much easier to say what won't work in Syria than what will. The Libya intervention-style air campaign that McCain advocates is a bad idea for reasons which a great many people, myself included, have enumerated. In any case, it's not going to happen, because no one who could do it -- the United States, Europe, even Turkey or the Gulf states -- has any appetite for a second Libya. If you haven't heard a syllable recently out of Samantha Power, the chief advocate in the White House for humanitarian intervention, it's probably because such an intervention is simply not in the cards.

But what is in the cards? Diplomacy? Many of us who favored intervention in Libya, but not Syria, have hoped that diplomatic pressure might tip the scales inside Syria and force Assad to step down. The Obama administration backed a U.N. Security Council resolution which would have compelled Assad to step down, transferring power to an interim regime and initiating a political dialogue with all elements of Syrian society. Russia and China vetoed the resolution, though Damascus would almost certainly have shrugged off the demand in any case. Now the U.N. has backed a new diplomatic effort by former Secretary General Kofi Annan, and Assad has formally accepted the terms, which require him to impose a cease-fire and embrace an "inclusive, Syrian-led political process" to address the demands of the opposition. But Syrian security forces have continued firing on civilians in direct contradiction of the Annan plan's terms; it's clear by now that Assad will leave office only if he feels sure that the alternative is a bullet in his head. The real danger is that he will comply with the peace plan just enough to further divide the international community.

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