Skip to main content

Meeting on Syria a coalition of the timid

By Aaron David Miller, Special to CNN
June 29, 2012 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in St. Petersburg on the eve of talks on Syria.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in St. Petersburg on the eve of talks on Syria.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Aaron Miller: World leaders will meet in Geneva to discuss what to do about Syria conflict
  • He says plan is to agree on plan for unity government, ending violence. Expect little else
  • He says involved powers want al-Assad out, but have different, often conflicting agendas
  • Miller: Al-Assad will inevitably go, powers must prepare to step in with costly help

Editor's note: Aaron David Miller is a distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and served as a Middle East negotiator in Democratic and Republican administrations. He is the author of the forthcoming book "Can America Have Another Great President?" Follow him on Twitter.

(CNN) -- On Saturday, the "let's make ourselves feel better" club will convene in Geneva to try to figure out what to do about Syria.

The motives of those gathering in Geneva at the invitation of U.N. Special Envoy Kofi Annan -- the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council (United States, France, China, Britain and Russia), plus Turkey and a number of Arab league members including Iraq and Qatar -- are well-intentioned. Their concern over the continued killing, more than 12,000 dead with thousands more wounded and imprisoned, is understandable.

But sadly, the results of the Geneva meeting, even with some added wind at its back (the Turks are madder than ever at Syria for downing a Turkish reconnaissance plane earlier this week), are not likely to produce much new.

The purpose of the meeting is to gain agreement on a new Annan plan for a national unity government and a political transition to stop the conflict. But this is unlikely to work any more effectively than Annan's earlier six point cease-fire approach. Chances are the conflict in Syria is going to get worse before it gets worse.

Aaron David Miller
Aaron David Miller

The core problem is that the options on Syria are all bad, and nobody wants to assume responsibility for a conflict that pits a regime that still has tremendous firepower against an opposition that is growing stronger but still isn't in a position to bring that regime down. There has been too much blood for diplomatic compromise, and military solutions are risky and too uncertain.

The other challenge is that the international community is fundamentally divided. Instead of a coalition of the willing and the determined, the group that will gather Saturday resembles a group of the unwilling, the uncooperative and the disabled.

Turkey says Syria fired at second plane
Turkey seeks alternative trade routes
Syrian opposition armed and organized

Their motives and agendas diverge even while on the surface they all know that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad must go and that the current situation could harm all their interests. Still, the risks of changing the status quo through using force against the regime is still greater than maintaining it.

At the meeting, all will express that concern and try to come up with new ways to support and organize the Syrian opposition and pressure the regime. There may even be a notional agreement on the new Annan plan. But here's what the three main players -- the United States, Russia and Turkey -- are really thinking.

United States: The United States is appalled by the violence and would like to do more. But President Obama is really much more focused on domestic issues; he knows there is no will or stomach for new foreign commitments or for risky military adventures in the wake of Afghanistan and Iraq. The United States fears an open-ended military commitment and won't act alone. Nor does it want to see an outcome that leaves elements of the old regime in place. At the same time it has been wary of half-measures: safe zones and arming the Syrian opposition. Washington is too conflicted to lead.

The Russians: The fact is Russia's Vladimir Putin knows al-Assad is done, but he isn't going to let the Americans dictate the outcome as they did in Libya. The Russians have seen all their clients -- Saddam Hussein, Moammar Gadhafi and now al-Assad under pressure -- one way or another removed by the Americans.

As a great power, Russia is determined to preserve its influence in Syria; it sells arms and uses the Syrian port of Tartus as a key naval facility (Russia's only base outside the former Soviet Union). Putin also doesn't want to see a Saudi-backed Sunni regime in Damascus. He resents the Saudis for supporting Muslims in Chechnya and in the North Caucasus. So he'll push for a solution that preserves some of the old regime and the Alawi minority, and of course a major Russian role in the outcome Russia is too suspicious to help broker.

Turkey: The Turks are angry and embarrassed at the Syrian downing of one of their planes, which made them look weak. But if Ankara really wanted to play a leadership role, it could have used this incident as an excuse to push for military action. There's no real stomach among the Turkish public for a war with Syria, however. Turkey also is worried about Syrian support for the Kurdish PKK and its own Alevis minority. The fact is unless the refugee flows from Syria to Turkey get a whole lot worse or the killing reaches new levels, Turkey will be very careful about taking too high a profile on Syria. The Turks are too tentative to lead.

And so it goes. The contact group in Geneva may show new resolve, issue tough statements and make contingency plans. It could even endorse Annan's plan for a national unity government. But even if some new measure is announced, the meeting will be marked far more by what's not said than by what is.

The Syrian situation is a tragedy, but it's a tragedy nobody is yet prepared to take responsibility for. The costs of bringing down the Assads would be considerable, but the price of rebuilding the new Syria will be greater.

The Geneva group should start planning. Sooner or later the al-Assad regime will break. And when it does, the international community must be willing to step in with thousands of peacekeepers on the ground and billions in cash to reconstruct and keep the country running. If it doesn't, an even greater Syrian tragedy will begin to unfold with a heightened level of violence, sectarian killing and perhaps even the fragmentation of the country.

The international community may be too divided to bring down the Assads, but it must gear itself up to be united to avert an even greater catastrophe when they fall.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Aaron David Miller.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
April 24, 2014 -- Updated 1918 GMT (0318 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says as violence claims three U.S. doctors, the temptation is to despair, but aid to Afghanistan has made it a much better place
April 24, 2014 -- Updated 1833 GMT (0233 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says in California, Asian-Americans are against the use of racial criteria in public colleges.
April 24, 2014 -- Updated 1844 GMT (0244 HKT)
Heidi Schlumpf says if the Pope did tell an Argentinian woman married to a divorced man that she could take Communion, it may signify a softening of church rules on the divorced and sacraments
April 24, 2014 -- Updated 1629 GMT (0029 HKT)
Norcross, Georgia, Chief of Police Warren Summers says the new law that allows guns in bars, churches and schools will have unintended dangerous consequences.
April 24, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Mel Robbins says social media is often ruled by haters, and people can be brutally honest.
April 24, 2014 -- Updated 1644 GMT (0044 HKT)
Mike Downey says the golf purists can take a hike; the game needs radical changes to win back fans and players.
April 23, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Robert Hickey says most new housing development is high-end, catering to high-earners.
April 23, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Alexander Motyl says as Russian President Putin snarled at Ukraine, his foreign minister was signing a conciliatory accord with the West. Whatever the game, the accord is a major stand down by Russia
April 23, 2014 -- Updated 1229 GMT (2029 HKT)
Les Abend says at every turn, the stowaway teen defied the odds of discovery and survival. What pilot would have thought to look for a person in the wheel well?
April 24, 2014 -- Updated 1104 GMT (1904 HKT)
Q & A with artist Rachel Sussman on her new book of photographs, "The Oldest Living Things in the World."
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1958 GMT (0358 HKT)
Martin Blaser says the overuse of antibiotics threatens to deplete our bodies of "good" microbes, leaving us vulnerable to an unstoppable plague--an "antibiotic winter"
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1737 GMT (0137 HKT)
John Sutter asks: Is it possible to eat meat in modern-day America and consider yourself an environmentalist without being a hypocrite?
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Sally Kohn notes that Meb Keflezighi rightly was called an American after he won the Boston Marathon, but his status in the U.S. once was questioned
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1256 GMT (2056 HKT)
Denis Hayes and Scott Denman say on this Earth Day, the dawn of the Solar Age is already upon us and the Atomic Age of nuclear power is in decline
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 2036 GMT (0436 HKT)
Retired Coast Guard officer James Loy says a ship captain bears huge responsibility.
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1708 GMT (0108 HKT)
Peter Bergen says the latest strikes are part of an aggressive U.S. effort to target militants, including a bomb maker
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Cynthia Lummis and Peter Welch say 16 agencies carry out national intelligence, and their budgets are top secret. We need to know how they are spending our money.
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1235 GMT (2035 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says President Obama knows more than anyone that he has much at stake in the midterm elections.
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Eric Sanderson says if you really want to strike a blow for the environment--and your health--this Earth Day, work to get cars out of cities and create transportation alternatives
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Bruce Barcott looks at the dramatic differences in marijuana laws in Colorado and Louisiana
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 2047 GMT (0447 HKT)
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery supports the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1817 GMT (0217 HKT)
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1752 GMT (0152 HKT)
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1825 GMT (0225 HKT)
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1026 GMT (1826 HKT)
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1250 GMT (2050 HKT)
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
April 17, 2014 -- Updated 1845 GMT (0245 HKT)
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
ADVERTISEMENT