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Strike on Syria: Could it undermine efforts to end the civil war?

The Obama administration is indicating it hopes to keep diplomacy alive even in the aftermath of anticipated airstrikes against the military and other government targets in Syria.

By Staff writer / August 27, 2013

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon speaks during an early-morning conference call with senior UN officials regarding the UN chemical weapons investigation in Syria, Aug. 25 in Seoul, Korea.

Evan Schneider/UN/AP

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United Nations, N.Y.

The United States is still emphasizing that a negotiated political settlement is the only solution to the Syrian crisis – even as it assembles a coalition of supportive international partners for anticipated punitive military action against President Bashar al-Assad.

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International diplomatic initiatives aimed at resolving Syria’s civil war appeared to be going nowhere even before last week’s chemical weapons attacks outside Damascus. But military action, which risks angering some populations in the region and inciting some countries to react with steps of their own, has little chance of making the diplomatic track any easier, many officials and regional analysts say.

“The Syrian regime, the Iranians, Hezbollah [the militant Shiite group supporting Mr. Assad] aren’t just going to take these strikes [lying] down and not respond in any way,” says Peter Krause, a Boston College political science professor, in an e-mail. “So if the U.S. wants to both launch these strikes, send a message, but at the same time not go too far and get into mission creep, they need to be thinking exactly what the next steps are going to be.”

At the United Nations, where Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has called last week’s attacks “outrageous” and insisted they not go unpunished, concerns are clearly growing that military strikes could set back prospects for diplomacy on Syria.

“The secretary-general’s focus continues to be away from a military solution and towards a diplomatic solution,” says Farhan Haq, spokesman for Mr. Ban.

“All the parties need to come together to move the diplomatic piece forward so we can reach a political settlement,” he adds, “so the secretary-general is focused on those efforts and not on anything that would make a solution more difficult.”

The Obama administration is indicating it hopes to keep the diplomatic track alive even in the aftermath of anticipated airstrikes against the Syrian military and other government targets. In particular, administration officials indicate, special effort will be made to keep working channels open with Russia, the Syrian regime’s most important international backer and also the Obama administration’s chief interlocutor in diplomatic efforts on Syria.

The US, citing “ongoing consultations” on the “appropriate response” to last week’s chemical weapons attack, canceled a meeting with Russia set for Wednesday that was to focus on advancing plans for a joint US-Russia-sponsored peace conference on Syria.

In announcing the canceled meeting with Russia, a senior State Department official made a point of emphasizing not just that a negotiated settlement remains the only solution to Syria’s crisis, but also that Russia will remain a key player in reaching a settlement.

Saying the US would work to reschedule the US-Russia meeting – presumably after expected airstrikes take place – the official added, “As we’ve long made clear – and as the ... Aug. 21 [chemical attacks] reinforce – it is imperative that we reach a comprehensive and durable political solution to the crisis in Syria. The United States remains fully invested in that process.”

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, added, “We will continue working with Russia and other international partners to move towards a [Syria] transition based on the framework laid out” at an international meeting on Syria in Geneva last year.

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