The Washington Post, in an unsigned editorial that reflects the official position of that hawkish newspaper, is calling for war in Syria—this, despite the fact that peace talks that represent the only way out of Syria’s civil war have just gotten underway.
Calling the Obama administration’s policy toward Syria “feckless,” the Post recalls fondly that moment in late August and early September 2013 when President Obama threatened to rain cruise missiles on Damascus. Citing atrocities committed by the Syrian government—but utterly ignoring parallel atrocities committed by the opposition, including its Al Qaeda-linked parts—the Post says:
The diplomatic initiative that Mr. Kerry launched offers no means to hold the regime of Bashar al-Assad accountable for these atrocities, or even to stop them.
It then demands that Obama return to the war track:
President Obama demonstrated last year that the credible threat of force could change the regime’s behavior. His promise of airstrikes caused Mr. Assad to surrender an arsenal of chemical weapons. Yet the president seems not to have learned the lesson of that episode. Now he makes the defeatist argument that, as he put it to David Remnick of the New Yorker, “It is very difficult to imagine a scenario in which our involvement in Syria would have led to a better outcome, short of us being willing to undertake an effort in size and scope similar to what we did in Iraq.”
In fact, Mr. Obama probably could force the measures [Lakhdar] Brahimi [the United Nations mediator] is seeking by presenting Mr. Assad with the choice of accepting them or enduring U.S. airstrikes. That he refuses to consider options between Mr. Kerry’s feckless diplomacy and an Iraq-style invasion only ensures that the Geneva 2 conference will fail and that the atrocities will continue.
Leave aside the fact that Brahimi, who’s working hard for a settlement in Syria, doesn’t favor the idea of bombing Damascus to force Assad’s hand. Presenting Syria with an ultimatum is guaranteed to destroy the peace talks once and for all, and it might do severe damage to the so-far-successful talks between Iran, Syria’s chief ally, and the P5+1 world powers over Iran’s nuclear program.
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The talks in Geneva, now just beginning, have not started well. Both sides have threatened to walk out, and they’ve been more involved in name-calling than diplomacy, at least at this stage. But at least both Syria and the rebels agree on the principles that brought the parties together, and it’s not inconceivable that the two sides might ultimately agree on a step-by-step formula toward some sort of transitional authority, a ceasefire and aid for refugees.
As rumors swirled during the first real day of talks between Syria and the rebels, the State Department felt compelled to issue the following statement, apparently to quash reports that the talks had fallen apart:
Contrary to reports, the Geneva talks have not been cancelled. Brahimi has delayed the trilateral meeting to allow for more preparation. He met with the regime this morning. Brahimi will meet with opposition later this afternoon. Brahimi still plans to meet with the regime and the opposition together. We defer to Brahimi on timing of the meeting. As we've said, this is the beginning of a negotiation process, and as today has shown, expect a lot of ups and downs as it proceeds. What is important is that the process in Geneva continues.
Brahimi is meeting separately with each party because the two sides won’t yet meet face to face.
But except for The Washington Post, no one is calling for military strikes or ultimatums, except perhaps Al Qaeda itself. In a statement issued to the rebels, Al Qaeda’s leader Ayman al-Zawahiri urged the various Islamist components of the anti-Assad struggle to work together in the jihad, as the Post itself reported:
Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri has charged warring Islamist factions in the Syrian opposition with “hostile sedition” and has appealed to them to submit their differences to an arbitration council under Islamic law.
In an audio message released to jihadist forums Thursday by al-Qaeda’s media arm, Zawahiri called on the factions “to stop the fighting between the brothers of jihad and Islam immediately,” to form a commission to resolve their differences and to establish “a mechanism to compel everyone to abide” by the panel’s rulings.