Offering a curtain-raiser to planned talks on Syria, US Secretary of State John Kerry has offered an analysis that is sure to doom the enterprise from the start.
“The outcome of this [the Syrian civil war] will not be determined on the battlefield, but at the negotiating table,” he said.
While such a platitude might be useful for table talk, adopting it as the basis for policy-making is scandalous. Had Kerry been familiar with history, he would have known that the outcomes of all wars are determined on the battlefield. Wars happen when a status quo that assures a balance of contradictory powers within a polity ceases to function. When that happens, the status quo becomes intolerable for one or more of the elements coexisting within it. Then one or more of those elements try to break the status quo by force, triggering conflict with other elements that continue to see their interests reflected in the existing order.
Politics in general, and diplomacy in particular, could be effective in preventing the breakdown of the status quo. Once the breakdown has happened, politics and diplomacy become weapons of war. Put another way, war could be described as the continuation of politics by other means. Politics and diplomacy are also useful tools in organizing the aftermath of a war by helping the loser accept defeat and encouraging the winner to temper his triumph.
However, while a war is going on the only thing that matters is seeking victory on the battleground. The party that entertains the illusion of winning through negotiations is certain to emerge as loser.
As far as the protagonists are concerned, politics and diplomacy could be used to mobilize domestic support, find external allies and split the adversary’s camp. Outside powers interested in the outcome of a war could also use politics and diplomacy to garner support for the side they favor. The most important political decision to make is to choose the side one wishes to support. The power that chooses not to take sides becomes an objective ally of the party that happens to be on the ascendancy on the battlefield at any given time.
At the start of the Syrian conflict, President Barack Obama seemed to have understood these facts.
When he stated unequivocally that President Bashar Al-Assad “must go,” he appeared to have chosen a side.
Three years later, Kerry, reflecting the changed position of his boss, has cancelled that choice. He now pretends that the US is pinning its hopes on a “political solution”.
One need not go back to the earliest records of human warfare at the dawn of history to realize that no war ever ended without victory for one side and, more importantly, admission of defeat by another.
Even wars that could last centuries, such as the duel between the Roman and Persian Empires or the Hundred Years’ War between England and France did not end until one side admitted defeat.
In the First World War, attempts at fixing the outcome through diplomacy started soon after the first shots were fired. However, the outcome was only determined when Germany admitted defeat. Even in the Second World War, diplomatic efforts were not late in coming. The Nazis dispatched Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s second in command, on a secret mission to England to negotiate a deal. It didn’t work. From 1942 until 1944, the Allies, Britain, Russia and the United States, conducted secret talks in Stockholm with Hitler’s emissaries in pursuit of a “diplomatic solution.” The outcome, however, was decided on the fuming ruins of the battlefield in Berlin.
What applies to wars between nations is also true in the case of civil wars.
The earliest examples, such as the Roman civil wars that pitted Marius against Sulla or Caesar against Pompeii, and the Iranian civil war between Khosrau II and Bahrām Chobin, reconfirm the pattern.
There is no standard duration for civil wars; they could last a few weeks or decades. The English Civil War lasted almost a decade. The American Civil War lasted four years, while the one in Mexico took almost 10 years. The Russian civil war after the Bolshevik seizure of power took three years, as did the Spanish one which ended with Falangist victory. The Malayan civil war of the 1950s took 11 years, while the Nigerian civil war of the 1960s ended after just four years. The Lebanese civil war took more than 15 years. The Congolese civil war lasted 20 years and, in a sense, still continues until this day.
In civil wars, external powers end up taking one side or another. Powers that do not take a side end up on the loser’s side.
What position the US adopts is of special importance for two reasons.
The first is that, like it or not, the US is the only outside power that could help shorten a civil war by taking sides. The second reason is that unless the US takes the lead, other countries capable of making a difference by supporting the anti-Assad rebellion will do nothing beyond diplomatic gesticulation.
By refusing to take sides, the Obama Administration gives the powers that support Assad, notably Russia and the Islamic Republic in Tehran, an advantage by reducing the costs of their policy of repression in Syria.
The Obama–Kerry decision to accept defeat without even attempting to make a stand could enter political history as a model of what one might term: preemptive surrender.
The good news is that the Syrian people are made of stronger stuff than Obama and Kerry.