Next Steps in Syria

Here’s how to move the political process when it comes to Syria.

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Al-Qaida-linked gunmen in northern Syria captured a town near the Turkish border on Thursday, Sept. 19, 2013, following heavy clashes with Western-backed rebels in the area.

As inspectors begin destroying Syria's chemical weapons stockpile, the days and weeks ahead are absolutely critical. While we laud the progress initially instigated by talks between the U.S. and Russia, we feel strongly that our diplomatic efforts going forward, as part of any reinvigorated Geneva II peace process, shouldn't rest on a bilateral two-man process alone and should be bolstered by a more multi-track approach.

Syria, to its credit, is finally joining 189 other nations on the Chemical Weapons Treaty and working with the international community to account for and destroy its chemical weapons, a decision on which the United Nations Security Council reached consensus last month.  This is a good thing, and we heartily encourage all nations to ratify the treaty, and, more importantly, to dismantle their stockpiles of chemical weapons.

President Obama, to his credit, is pausing in his quest for military action and asking for a vote delay in Congress so that this diplomatic window can be pursued.  This is also a good thing, and we encourage all Members of Congress to support, rather than undermine, this diplomatic process and potential.  As pundits in Washington have already stated, better that we stumble on the path towards peace than stumble on the path towards war.

Given that the president and many members of Congress are limited in their ability to advocate new, outside-the-box proposals at this critical juncture, we recommend that a Special Envoy and a Syria Study Group be created to help represent the U.S. in any United Nations work on Syria's chemical weapons as well as diplomatic deliberations within the international community, whether at the U.N., the International Criminal Court, or with the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. 

[See a collection of political cartoons on Syria.]

The responsibilities of the Special Envoy and the Syria Study Group would be a relevant mix of diplomatic engagement, weapons monitoring, intelligence gathering and legal counsel. At present, there is some public and policymaker doubt in the administration's ability to provide quality control on all of these fronts. There is a need, therefore, for third party verification that complements the international community's efforts and serves as a bridge-builder where trust has eroded.

This proposal recognizes the new limitations faced by Secretary of State John Kerry, National Security Adviser Susan Rice, and U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power, all of whom have advocated for policies outside the jurisprudence and jurisdiction of the aforementioned avenues. This proposal also recognizes the need for an apolitical body of security, religious, cultural and diplomatic experts who can serve as trusted interlocutors, within the American public and policymaking community, and reliable liaisons within the international community.

Bipartisanship going forward is a must, especially if we want a diplomatic process to work in Syria. Republican Rep. Frank Wolf of Virginia, author of the 2006 bill that helped create the much-heralded Iraq Study Group, has already called for a Syria Advisory Group to "make policy proposals and diplomatic overtures to various leaders in and around Syria." Additionally, Democratic Rep. Barbara Lee of California was nominated last month to serve as the Congressional Representative to the U.N.  Both members, then, could serve as advisors to a Special Envoy and Syria Study Group.

[See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

There are way too many vested interests in the next steps on Syria not to engage all of America's assets in discerning and deciphering the best preventive and precautionary policy measures.  In terms of who would serve as the Special Envoy and on the Syria Study Group, we recommend diplomats, scientists, retired military and intelligence officers, Middle East regional experts and cultural analysts, religious representatives and more. Ideally, the potential list would include those who have not yet weighed in on military action, and be free of the confusion that the political and media machinery have created in this crisis. The more open the mind the better.

Every successful diplomatic effort that the U.S. ever engaged in – whether it was President Richard Nixon with China or President John F. Kennedy with Nikita Khrushchev – required a willingness to either negotiate face-to-face or negotiate flexibly and responsively.  Along these lines, the Special Envoy especially, and to a lesser extent the Syria Study Group, would need to be able and willing to do the same with state and non-state actors, and thus move America's diplomatic agenda forward in a way that Secretary of State Kerry may be disallowed or unable to do.

Before we risk opening up a wider and much more violent conflagration in the Middle East, we should do due diligence on the diplomatic path and leave no policy stone unturned.  This is how we save lives, save money, act morally and preserve the international system of standards and protocol. We should seek every promising path towards a political solution to the civil war in Syria. A Special Envoy and a Syria Study Group does that. In the weeks ahead, while we must delay votes, we must not delay effective diplomacy. 

Michael Shank, Ph.D., is Director of Foreign Policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation.  Col. Lawrence Wilkerson is the Distinguished Visiting Professor of Government and Public Policy at the College of William and Mary and former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell.

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