The international negotiations to end the brutal civil war in Syria were never going to be easy. Getting all sides to the table was itself a huge challenge. On the eve of the talks it looked, for a moment, like at least that first step might be possible.


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To prevent the collapse of any possible hope for an end to the horrifying bloodshed now convulsing Syria, President Barack Obama should use his State of the Union address to reverse course, reclaiming the small possibility of a victory for diplomacy over war. Here’s what he should say:

My fellow Americans, the state of our union is strong enough that we can — and must — admit when we have made a mistake. There is a crucial lesson we should have learned, but we forgot. And we are only applying it now, hoping it is not too late. The lesson comes from former Senator George Mitchell, who helped craft the still-successful Good Friday Accord in Northern Ireland.

Senator Mitchell told us the most important lesson he learned during that process: If you’re serious about diplomacy, everyone must be at the table. You can’t exclude any party because you don’t like them, or even because you think they might be terrorists. You don’t have to trust them — you have to make sure they’re at the negotiating table precisely when you don’t. Because if they’re not there, they have no ownership of the process, and you have no means of holding them accountable. If they’re not there, you guarantee failure.

We cannot afford failure in Syria. We pressured the UN Secretary General to disinvite Iran — because we didn’t like their interpretation of the original call for these talks. Whether the conference continues or not, without Iran it isn’t going to work — because Iran is a major player in Syria, just like Saudi Arabia and Russia and Qatar and us. And if we’re not all at the table, there’s no way to bring about a ceasefire.

We were wrong. So I want to say today, to Ban Ki-moon and to the leaders gathered for the Syria talks, we need Iran to be at the table. Because we are serious about diplomacy. I’ve said before, there is no military solution in Syria. That means there is only diplomacy. There is too much killing going on, certainly by the Syrian government but also far too much by those on the battlefield whom we and our allies support.

In the future, we need a mechanism for real accountability for war crimes committed on all sides. But right now we urgently need a political, not a military solution. I hereby re-extend the invitation to President Hassan Rouhani, and urge him to send his representatives to join us in Switzerland as quickly as possible.

Our Joint Action Plan with Tehran regarding Iran’s nuclear program is well underway, and already the UN nuclear watchdog has certified that Iran is complying with its requirements. If those in our Senate who choose war over diplomacy, and their allies, the hardliners in Iran challenging President Rouhani, don’t succeed in jointly scuttling the agreement, we look forward to difficult but crucial diplomacy over the next six months aiming at much longer-term goals between the U.S. and Iran. That progress should help provide the basis for expanding our urgent efforts right now toward ending the devastating violence that has already left more than 130,000 Syrians dead, and over ten million — millions of them children — forced from their homes. We cannot afford to do less than everything to staunch that bloodshed.

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Phyllis Bennis

Phyllis Bennis directs the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies. Her books include “Before & After: US Foreign Policy and the War on Terrorism.”
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