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Talking Policy: James Dobbins on Peace in Syria

From regional powers to divided religious and ethnic groups, the devastating war in Syria has embroiled many in violence and the ensuing refugee crisis. World Policy Journal spoke with former U.S. ambassador James Dobbins about the potential for peace in Syria. Ambassador Dobbins has served as the Department of State’s senior manager for peace operations in Bosnia, Haiti, Kosovo, and Somalia, and has also served at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. He is currently a senior fellow and distinguished chair in diplomacy and security at the RAND Corporation.

WORLD POLICY JOURNAL: Is the recent cessation of hostilities agreed upon this week by American, Saudi, Russian, Iranian, and Turkish diplomats an indication that there is progress toward peace?

JAMES DOBBINS: It is potentially positive. I am skeptical that the provisions of the cease-fire will be carried out because the sides are too untrusting of one another. The sides were simply too far apart to come to any accommodation regarding the future of Syrian governance, and it was better to start with a cease-fire in place and then provide time in less violent circumstances to work on the political issues. I think this is the right sequence, but I don’t yet see provisions that would ensure that the cease-fire is maintained, and in the absence of that I am somewhat skeptical that it can be sustained.

WPJ: But the cease-fire is the right first step? Are you more skeptical of the steps that are going to come afterward?

JD: I think the cease-fire is the right first step, but I’m skeptical that it will be sustained. I think that the parties are so untrusting, and the more radical parties are not going to adhere to the cease-fire and are going to try and disrupt it. Therefore, in the absence of externally imposed enforcement mechanisms, I think the cease-fire will probably break down.

WPJ: There is a quote of yours printed in USA Today that says, “any peace in Syria is better than the current war. Whether Syrian president Bashar Assad stays or goes should be regarded as a matter of pure expediency.” At this point do you think the most likely path to peace in Syria sees Assad remaining in power?

JD: Certainly in the interim. A cease-fire in place means Assad remains in power in areas of Syria he and his regime control, while other areas of Syria remain under the control of elements of the opposition. A longer-term political process trying to determine how Syria will be governed in the future can take place in less violent circumstances. I think that that is the right sequence. I think insisting that Assad go as the first step toward bringing the war to a conclusion simply perpetuates the war.

WPJ: Will the opposition groups and the rebels fighting Assad will be able to agree to a cease-fire—or even further, a peace agreement—if Assad remains in power, either in the interim or long term?

JD: Some of them have already agreed to a cease-fire, while others will not. The Islamic State and Jabhat Al-Nusra are unlikely to agree to any cease-fire, and the conflict with them will continue.

WPJ: With your experience as a senior manager for peace operations in Bosnia, Haiti, Kosovo, and Somalia, what would you recommend as the next step in ending this war in Syria and attaining peace?

JD: I think the countries that have so far been engaged in supporting various elements in Syria—that is to say the United States, Russia, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan—need to step in and oversee, monitor, and actually enforce the cease-fire that has been agreed upon. I think only that kind of external involvement has any hope of perpetuating the cease-fire beyond a few of days.

WPJ: Can you explain the importance, if any, that an agreement on the course of action in Syria by non-Western powers, specifically Russia, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, will have on the success of achieving peace? As compared to Western powers taking action.

JD: I think that the involvement of all external powers perpetuates conflict. They are all providing arms, they are all providing money. They are allowing the conflict to be sustained. In the absence of external involvement, it is possible that one side or the other might have won, and the conflict might have concluded. Now, the wrong side could win. It could be the Islamic State. So perpetuating the conflict may not be the worst of all outcomes, but it's a pretty bad outcome. And if the conflict could be terminated, that is certainly highly desirable.

WPJ: Are you then recommending that these powers step out immediately?

JD: They should step in and work together to end the conflict. 

WPJ: What role should Turkey, specifically, play? Should it play the same role as the others or does it carry more responsibility, being in the region and also resisting the Kurds, who play a part in fighting against the Islamic State?

JD: I think that Turkey could play a role in securing the areas where the moderate Sunni opposition is in control. Turkey could provide security for those areas and ensure that the Sunni opposition it is protecting also adheres to the cease-fire. 

WPJ: In a Council on Foreign Relations discussion you participated in earlier this year discussing the peace talks, you mentioned that China is the only great power not involved in the crisis in Syria. Would Chinese involvement improve the situation or only do further damage?

JD: I think the Chinese are not likely to become involved in an ongoing conflict. They have no real incentive to do so. I think the Chinese might be constructively involved in some kind peace enforcement action if the international community was prepared to coalesce around such an arrangement. 

WPJ: In what way would you seem them aiding in this peace maintenance?

JD: China is the largest contributor to U.N. peacekeeping among the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, so they are already sending troops and police abroad. For instance, the Chinese have sent troops to Haiti to try to maintain security there. So it is possible that if there was a large-scale peace operation in Syria, the Chinese might participate. I don't otherwise see them participating in the ongoing conflict. 

WPJ: Although they are not involved in the conflict in Syria, do you have insight on what the Chinese would like to see come out of the conflict, such as who retains power in the state?

JD: I don't think they much care. I think they would like to see the conflict end and Syria reconstituted within its current borders. I don't think they have a strong stake in the exact nature of the government. 

WPJ: In term of terrorist activity, the Islamic State garners most of the concern, and perhaps justly. However, do Al-Nusra or any other group present in Syria that carry out terrorist attacks pose a serious threat, either in the current environment or in one in which the Islamic State has been defeated?

JD: I think as long as Syria remains in civil war it is going to be a breeding ground for extremist organizations that include terrorism. Therefore, whether or not the Islamic State itself is defeated, if the civil war goes on, it would simply be replaced by something as bad or worse. So ending the civil war, I think, is a prerequisite to dealing with the extremist threat that arises from Syria.

WPJ: You have spoken before about a pathway to legitimizing a government in Syria. How would a government establish legitimacy in Syria?

JD: If we can get a cease-fire that involves negotiation among all the Syrian parties to the conflict in an effort to re-imagine and reconstitute a Syrian state, the government would gain legitimacy from agreement among all of those factions. I suspect it will take several years at least to come to such an agreement. 

WPJ: How can the international community be involved in nation-building in Syria post-conflict? Even after a government has been established, what role should the international community play, if any, in rebuilding this nation?

JD: I think the principal members, those that are already involved in supporting the conflict, have an important role in maintaining a cease-fire and creating a space for political solution. If there is a political resolution, Syria would probably continue to need some kind of international peacekeeping effort because the parties will still be mistrustful of each other. In the context of a broadly recognized government that is generally acceptable to the population, however, international assistance could be structured to run through the government and designed to bolster the government's capacity to provide public services. And that would obviously be the best path to reconstruction in the country. 

WPJ: This mistrust you keep mentioning among all the parties, is that something that is always going to be there? Is that something that is solvable in the long run?

JD: Well, the different sectarian groups in Syria have lived together peacefully over extended periods of time, and they presumably can do so again. But it certainly will take time to heal the wounds of this conflict. 

*****  

*****  

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Visit the Talking Policy archive page for more World Policy Interviews!

[Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]

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