Published: September 18, 2013
There's no easy way to explain the complexities of the Middle Eastern mess in Syria, even for Christopher Hill, who spent most of his life untangling some of the world's most tangled diplomatic knots.
The dean of the University of Denver's Korbel School of International Studies, Hill spoke at a small gathering in Colorado Springs on Thursday, addressing a kaleidoscope of diplomatic issues faced by the United States. Hill is best known for his roles as U.S. ambassador to Baghdad and the State Department's top negotiator in the six-party talks that sought to separate North Korea from its nuclear ambitions.
In Iraq and the Balkans, Hill said, he watched sectarian strife that mirrors what's taking place today in Syria.
"I think what's going on in the Middle East is an outbreak of sectarianism," he said.
Hill said groups are locked in a power struggle that blurs political and religious lines. Part of that, he said, may be due to the shift in Iraq, which placed Shiite adherents in charge of a nation once dominated by Sunnis.
"Syria is more complex and the battle lines are more clearly drawn than in some other countries," he said.
The big concern, he said, is that passions boiling over in Syria could spread to neighboring nations including Lebanon and Jordan unless a diplomatic solution can put the lid back on.
That means having the United States engage in the region with words rather than military forces, and dispelling the belief that by ending 12 years of war, America is pulling back from the Arab world.
"There's a perception that the U.S. has not just pulled its troops out of Iraq, but has also pulled out its interests," Hill said.
He's watched vast changes in the Middle East over a diplomatic career that began in 1977.
A common theme in Syria and other nations in the Arab world has been the use of extreme violence to control the populous.
"To understand Syria and to understand some of these conflicts is to understand some of the worst brutality the world has seen," Hill said.
So what does the man who helped broker peace in Kosovo think will work in Syria?
Hill thinks the solution will involve diplomatic overtures that put Russia, China, America and players in the Arab world on the same page.
"All wars end, and the Balkans are proof of that," he said.
Getting peace in Syria also means cutting a diplomatic deal that gives a way forward for the sectarian groups, easing their fears and enticing them to put down their weapons.
Hill shunned the idea that arming groups in Syria would lead to a solution.
That means America will need to use a different set of tools in the Middle East, where the military has arguably led the way in U.S. foreign policy for more than 20 years.
"The U.S. needs to be far more diplomatically engaged than we have been," he said.