September 16th, 2013
10:41 AM ET

Give credit for seizing on Syria lucky break

By Fareed Zakaria

For at least a year, President Barack Obama's foreign policy towards Syria had been confused, poorly conceived, and badly executed. But despite all that, the administration deserves credit for changing course, acting fast, and seizing on a lucky break. The agreement forged by John Kerry and Sergei Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister, is just the first step, of course. The Syrian government has to cooperate, but it will face pressure from Moscow to do so.

On hearing of the agreement, some have reacted with dismay. This agreement does not remove Bashar al-Assad from power, it does nothing to stop his regime in its brutal repression, it does nothing to end the humanitarian tragedy in that country.

It’s true that the agreement is not designed to stop the warfare and suffering in Syria. But what exactly would do that? Do we know that a U.S. strategy, a military intervention to topple the dictator and change the regime, would actually end the human suffering in that country?

Let’s recall a recent example, when America ousted a dictator and changed the regime, and believed that peace and liberty and prosperity would flourish. It was in Iraq, of course, and what happened was very different.

More from GPS: America can't shape Syria

The deposed regime and its supporters fought back fiercely, the sectarian lines of the Iraqi society turned into battle lines, Islamic militants – including al Qaeda poured into the country, often funded by neighboring countries. The result was a ten year civil war with at minimum 130,000 (and potentially more than 250,000), and over 1.5 million refugees – most of whom have not come back – and a deeply divided and unstable country. From a humanitarian point of view, American intervention and regime change substantially worsened the humanitarian nightmare of Iraq.

I don’t believe that the example of Iraq should color all American foreign policy. But surely when people suggest that Washington should militarily intervene and perhaps depose a dictator in the country literally next door to Iraq, who as in Iraq also runs a minority regime, with an opposition that also has within in it several Islamic militant groups, it is fair to look at the Iraqi example. Do we have any clear reason to believe that the struggle for power in Syria will be any different than that in Iraq? That American military intervention at this stage would this time just stop all the fighting and produce peace?  Don’t we have to think through the likely consequences of American intervention before we self-confidently propose action?

President Obama has mobilized world attention about chemical weapons. There is now a chance, albeit small, that a process begins that monitors and even destroys all of Syria’s chemical arsenal. Almost certainly, such weapons won’t be used again by the al-Assad regime. That’s more than we could have achieved through airstrikes – which are unlikely to have destroyed such weapons. (Bombing chemical weapons facilities could easily release toxins into the atmosphere, which is why they are not targeted.)

This agreement does not end the human suffering and it doesn’t rid the world of an evil dictator. But it is a step forward in a terrible crisis.

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Topics: Syria

soundoff (162 Responses)
  1. Publius Novus

    "Fortune favors the prepared mind."

    September 19, 2013 at 4:03 pm | Reply
    • Hardliner

      Mr. Bush spent $2 trillion, which is equivalent to the GDP of "RUSSIA" went to Iraq with the sole purpose of removing both chemical and biological weapons. His approach cost thousands of lives and treasor. On the other hand, Obama managed to convince Syria to give up its weapons without firing a shot.

      September 20, 2013 at 2:35 pm | Reply
      • ROCKY

        Yeah, it's with your logic that our county is in shambles. Keep smoking that Obamapole, buddy.

        September 20, 2013 at 10:09 pm |
      • ROCKY

        Oh and it was Obama that caught Bin Laden, right? All hail, King Obama! WOOO!

        September 20, 2013 at 10:10 pm |
      • Fred

        Our country was attacked!.....enough said.

        September 21, 2013 at 9:27 am |
      • i12bphil

        The invasion of Iraq was to force Saddam to comply to required UN weapons inspections and allow inspectors to do their work unabated after 10 years of refusals. Saddam was supposed to comply to those demands after he surrendered the 1st Gulf war. Selective memory and and regurgitated lies have been the modus operadi of the left for waaaay too long. The WMD lie has become both a left wing religious relic and alter. It has been used ad nausium to usurp the real truth.

        September 21, 2013 at 2:17 pm |
      • thebyu2011

        Very late in the game..Obama should have taken the focus away in late 2011/2012 from who runs Syria to there are chemical weapons sitting in the middle of a civil war in danger of regime use, rebel use, foreign fighter use, or untrained rebels seizing a facility and while trying to transport them to a safe-haven having a tragic accident hitting a pothole or mine with the same loss of civilian lives. I blame every member of the security council for this preventable tragedy...early on it would have been easier to push hard a ceasefire for removal because there was not as much rouge regime elements, Hezbollah, and Al-Qaeda involved...

        September 22, 2013 at 1:55 am |
      • Eric

        IF (huge caveat there) Syria gives up chemical weapons, give credit to Vladimir Putin. Russia actually has leverage on Syria, being their largest weapons supplier.

        If anything happens, it is because Russia felt that it would improve their long-term weapon sales.

        September 22, 2013 at 8:52 am |
      • Dave in SC

        True. Meanwhile conservatives keep screaming about Benghazi but Bush gets a free pass over his BOGUS war in Iraq.

        September 22, 2013 at 9:58 am |
      • FHTEX

        Chemical weapons are of little use on the modern battlefield, which is why Syria will join almost every other nation on Earth outside of Israel and North Korea in giving them up. Assad is mopping up and the civil war is almost over in his favor, so he basically gave up a two of clubs to deflate the American-British.French-Saudi-Turkish-Qatari effort to remove him and thereby protected his winning aces!.

        September 22, 2013 at 2:52 pm |
      • Bread and Circus

        Please don't forget that Obama was the BIGGEST advocat of an immediate strike on Syria. We was ready to go in there guns blazing, so quit acting like there is a dove in the whitehouse.

        September 23, 2013 at 5:18 am |
      • trayexc

        attention ROCKY

        another feral swine who has no idea how government works. no credit for bin laden, but blame for bengazi?
        where are the people who landed on the moon? everywhere i look these days, i see stupid.

        September 23, 2013 at 7:25 am |
      • Keith B Rosenberg

        There is a little deficiency in your argument. Syria has not yet given up its chemical weapons. It has turned over some of the information on them. And there is still the little matter of a 3 cornered war in the country. And if Russia is right that the rebels used the chemical weapons, then it does nothing about that.

        September 24, 2013 at 10:29 am |
    • KG

      I think the American People should get the credit for bailing out our President. Mr. Obama proposed an ineffective solution to chemical weapons use in Syria. He also sat by and watched this war evolve for nearly two years before deciding to actually do something to preserve his own pride, not our nation's. The American People rallied against it, forcing him to pause, go to our representatives for approval (they way it should work but hasn't lately), which he was unlikely to receive. The Russian government, seeing an opportunity to show world leadership, stepped in and offered to intervene with the Syrian government. Giving any credit to President Obama or Secretary Kerry is a disservice to the American public, who were so vocal in opposing their original plans and forcing this turn of events.

      September 21, 2013 at 8:10 am | Reply
      • ACSJ

        KG, you quick post was more fact based and better written then Zakaria's puff piece

        September 21, 2013 at 5:15 pm |
  2. Fi

    Please....this by definition is an 'Epic Failure."

    September 19, 2013 at 5:01 pm | Reply
    • Torgo23

      Really? How did you define success at the beginning of all of this?

      September 20, 2013 at 12:48 am | Reply
      • trayexc

        wasting time talking to back woods home schooled texan who cannot find north america on a world map, giving his opinion on foreign affairs.

        September 23, 2013 at 7:31 am |
    • PGM

      Fi no way is this a failure. At the beginning of this situation the President, as many people believed, stayed out of Syria and chose not to send arms to a rebel group that was very divided and had a high concentration of terrorists among them. The major change was that Assad decided to use Chemical weapons either out of frustration or because he thought he might be losing. That is where he crossed a red line that was put in place after the horrors of WW I by the entire civilized world. If Obama did nothing about it then it could provoke Iran and NK to cross their red lines. So if we get Assad to put the bulk or all of his chemical weapons on the table and to stop using them, I say it is a success. We were never trying to topple him – what for so we could clean up the mess like Iraq?

      September 20, 2013 at 9:47 pm | Reply
      • ROCKY

        I think you should thank Putin and the Kremlin for this, not King Nobama. After all, Obama wanted to defy the American people AND Congress.

        September 20, 2013 at 10:13 pm |
  3. myblinduncle

    has it been anymore chemicals used ,just asking

    September 19, 2013 at 5:59 pm | Reply
  4. Tigrr

    NOT Americas problem.
    If anything, take Kerry, McCain, Bushs, Cheney, all of war-voting Congress and all their kids, and bomb Syria with them.
    Problem sorted.

    September 19, 2013 at 7:07 pm | Reply
  5. EdL

    Putin sold Kerry a time bomb. Kerry, bless him, says now that after a year and Assad has not done his part he (Kerry) might 'threaten' Assad with military attack. (Feeble , of course.) Where is our Commander in Chief, has he (and Hagel) turned over command of our military forces over to the Secretary of State?

    September 19, 2013 at 10:39 pm | Reply
  6. Abe

    It's in the United states interest to confiscate Assad's chemical weapons, but what's the consequences Obama mentioned, that Assad will face if he uses chemical weapons, and is the surrendering of a murderer weapons considered a punishment? I bet we have thousands of criminals who will take this deal every day in the week and twice on Sunday, if that's their punishment.
    The only consequences Assad is facing now, is that he doesn't get to kill his people as fast as he likes, or how he likes. He has to kill them using other methods. ones that can be approved by Mr Barak Obama.
    When a major US news media goes to meat with a tyrant like Assad, few days after watching those images of dead and dying children gassed by him and his army. And shows little or next to nothing of that horrendous crime to the American people, or does nothing to expose what kind of criminal he is, IT just makes sick
    Clearly the Syrian people are not just facing Assad in this conflict, but they're facing a greater evil, or may be all evils of human kind on this earth, including those in Fox news.

    September 20, 2013 at 2:09 am | Reply
  7. media.fail2012

    I couldn't help but be struck by the utter delusional re-writing of history regarding Obama, Kerry, and Russia. Mr Zakaria makes it sound like what is currently happening was planned. It was a rhetorical comment from Kerry that got seized upon by Russia and pushed through the UN..and Obama had nothing to do with it. The official line from the administration that Kerry had just made a rhetorical statement and it wasn't a policy.

    Days later, Obama acts like he intended to do that. Like that guy/gal who acts like they were totally involved with anything good that happens even if they had no part (God, those people annoy me). Well I can actually remember more than a few days in the past, Mr. Zakaria. There was no grand Obama plan. Kerry made an off-the-cuff remark and it became US policy and thankfully stopped Obama from military strikes. We got lucky as a country. Thank you, secretary Kerry for stumbling into a good idea.

    September 20, 2013 at 5:49 am | Reply
    • ACSJ

      Giving credit to POTUS and Kerry is stilly and a complete fabrication of what happened

      September 21, 2013 at 5:17 pm | Reply
  8. Sounding Off

    Lucky break or not, if war can be avoided, it's a good thing. Swaggering and boasting, proclamations of "you're for us or against us" cost us more than can be measured. Thank God for a President who won't act in haste or be moved by the raucous voices of those too eager to make war...and more than anything else, think before he acts.

    September 20, 2013 at 9:44 am | Reply
    • Jude

      " Thank God for a President who won't act in haste"............. are you delusional? Obama had the tomahawks all fired up and ready to go, thinking the UK was with the USA. When he finds out that the UK voted NO, he had NO OTHER ALLIED or UN support for his brash, rogue strike plan. When everyone began shouting about Congressional approval, Obama backtracks to get Congressional approval, which was REQUIRED in the first place, considering that Syria had not attacked the USA. That was nothing but a "face-saving" delay tactic. It took the likes of REAL, EXPERIENCED politicians from Russia and Iran to come up with a reasonable plan to exercise diplomacy through communication.

      Whether or not this works remains to be seen. On the other hand, Obama gave the world the opportunity to really see him as the clueless phoney that he is.

      September 21, 2013 at 4:04 am | Reply
  9. andrew

    always find his writting biased towards a certain country. no credit to obama at all. obama is not wise but a trouble maker because he think us is exceptional. the black president legacy is creating war and tension in asia and the world – this is his legacy.

    September 20, 2013 at 11:17 am | Reply
  10. jim

    Lucky breaks aren't leadership.

    September 20, 2013 at 11:32 am | Reply
  11. Tupperhouse

    What about the human suffering, slavery, and evil dictators in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait and Qatar?

    September 20, 2013 at 12:13 pm | Reply
  12. FactChecker

    The best thing is that it finally forced Russia to show some responsibility for the leader that it was protecting. They realized that they could not avoid being dragged into this and could not let Assad run loose. Now, if China would only control North Korea the world would be greatly improved.

    September 21, 2013 at 8:10 am | Reply
  13. Rick

    Fareed Zakaria is an islamist just like the rest of his FSA and Jabhat-Al-Nusra buddies. He will smile with glee when the secular Assad is replaced by a head-chopping Saudi funded islamic salafist government.
    2 million Christians will be forced converted to islam, all the Christian churches burned, and the bibles rounded up and destroyed.
    Obama's legacy could be the destruction of Christianity itself. Christian Americans are ignorant of their own religion, they have been fooled by the Jews into thinking Jerusalem is their homeland, when Damascus, Syria is the real birthplace of Christianity.
    Christian fundies are unknowingly advocating the bombing of Damascus, which will destroy 2000 years of Christian history while the muslims and the jews cheer.

    September 21, 2013 at 8:46 am | Reply
  14. unpolarized

    It seems unlikely that Syria would have agreed to divest itself of chemical weapons if the threat of attack had not been looming over them. Did the president make the threat because he had a single minded intention to go to war, or was it part of a Machiavellian scheme to scare Assad into cooperating? It wouldn't be the first time a nation's leader held a single minded intent to make war, nor would it be the first time one of them devised a clever and economical way to avert disaster and accomplish a goal at the same time.

    Instead of pretending we know all the answers, I wish we would do a better of job of seeking the truth – whether it promises to agree with our preconceptions or not.

    Bottom line – I'm glad the threat was made and equally glad it didn't have to be carried out.

    September 21, 2013 at 1:06 pm | Reply
    • Eric

      Who threatened Syria?

      Do you honestly think President Obama's incoherent speeches were a threat, or do you think the Russians said something in private that really scared Bashar Assad? My bet is on the Russians.

      September 22, 2013 at 8:56 am | Reply
  15. JiminNM

    The really significant question is: How many people want to know the truth?

    September 21, 2013 at 1:28 pm | Reply
  16. rswon

    Is it only me, or did the US and Russia just play a game of "Good cop, Bad cop" with Syria?

    September 21, 2013 at 1:51 pm | Reply
  17. Freedom Storm

    Leadership NEVER relies upon luck.

    September 21, 2013 at 1:57 pm | Reply
    • thebyu2011

      Leadership would have been in late 2011 early 2012 leading the world in focusing on hard pressing or forcing if neccessary a ceasefire to remove the chemical weapons stockpile rather than being childish like the rest of the UN Security Council member states in taking sides and bets on who was going to win the civil war. This whole entire scenario was preventable and if it wasn't the regime using them it would have been untrained rebels seizing a facility and trying to move them to another location and having an accident that killed 1400...just as likely. The chemical weapons should have been removed from the equation then let the Syrians bleed out their civil war like the US had to with its own. It is NOT the UN Security Councils priority role to be involved with who wins a civil war their priority should have been removing the chemical weapons stockpile in 2011-2012 all member states have that blood on their hands not just the US.

      September 22, 2013 at 2:06 am | Reply
  18. bruce

    Many years ago I took on a bully and cornered him and he backed down. As I left he ran up behind me and punched me in the face when i wasn't looking. This is what you will get from Iran and Syria.

    September 21, 2013 at 3:48 pm | Reply
  19. thebyu2011

    I will give partial credit because this is very late. This chemical weapons deal could have been reached in the early stages of the Syrian Civil war in late 2011 early 2012 but instead individual members decided to focus on taking sides which is not what the UN Security Council's role have been. It would have been easier to push hard for a ceasefire to implement the removal then let the Syrians determine who runs their country. This tragedy could have been prevented. There are no excuses for any member state on that security council to have focus on who runs Syria rather than a massive chemical weapons stockpile sitting in the middle of a civil war. The civil war could not have been prevented from starting or restarting after the removal but the WMD's would not have been in the equation for use by either side, foreign groups, or a tragic accident( untrained rebels seizing a facility and trying to move the stockpile in pick-up trucks on bad roads...a truck hits something and blows up and 1400 civillians die just as likely a scenario as Assad using them on purpose)

    September 22, 2013 at 1:48 am | Reply
  20. WALID

    Please save Moadamieht Alsham from starvation

    Humanitarian Disaster: Please save Moadamieht Alsham from starvation. The Siege of the city Moadamieht Alsham continues for the tenth month. Electricity and water are cut off on a daily basis. Food supplies, gasoline, diesel and cooking gas are prevented to enter Moadamieht Alsham. The regime left five thousand families, nearly twelve thousand civilians under systematic collective punishment of starvation following an intense daily bombardment with all available weapons including chemical weapons that were used against the city by the Syrian regime which is certainly a war crime against humanity. We therefore call on all international organizations for human rights, the Human Rights Council, the General Assembly of the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross to work on saving the civilians before they die of starvation. Please protect civilians from war crimes, opression and starvation carried out by the Syrian regime.
    هذا نص التقرير يشرح معاناة اهلنا في الداخل

    September 22, 2013 at 6:51 am | Reply
  21. islandivan

    Why give Obama administration credit for this Fareed? It is Iran reaching out and not any particular Obama related activity to cause this opportunity. Your smart but I would also caution that the timing appears interesting considering the "weakness" displayed by Obama over his handling of Syria "the disappearing/reappearing red ink line in the sand". Iran could easliy be playing to the "weakness" displayed by Obama and not be "really ready to sit and have an open forum" with the US.

    September 22, 2013 at 9:46 am | Reply
  22. Mario Cimet

    That is a pathetic understatement of the casualties in Iraq, they were easily over 600,000, in terms of total impact on Iraq, in terms of infrastructure and societal collapse, suicides etc is in the several millions.

    Iraq was one of the greatest war crimes of our time. That is the way you should frame it when you're using it to talk about Syria.

    September 22, 2013 at 2:53 pm | Reply
  23. thebyu2011

    The war in Iraq was legal over Saddam's multiple violations of the ceasefire, however there was no need for the occupation the mission should have been go in get the weapons and Saddam and get out and while there rapidly rebuild infrastructure and have a co-operative authority so it could have been handed over rapidly...that war should have been over in February 2004 if it was conducted properly...the military is NOT to blame for this again like all war screw-ups its the politicians

    September 22, 2013 at 6:08 pm | Reply
  24. Let's make a deal

    Basically, let's praise Obama for making a deal that changes nothing.

    September 22, 2013 at 10:12 pm | Reply
  25. dmf

    President Obama a reluctant warrior , who was elected in 2008 largely for his opposition to unnecessary Iraq War ( 2003 – 2011 ) , conceded and would give time for diplomacy to work on Syrian civil war issues after their use of chemical weapons killing over 1,400 innocent civilians including 400 children . This is the right thing to do ! Re. published economic news data U. S. has over $17 trillion national debt , over $85 trillion in unfunded government liabilities, and continues $1 trillion budget deficits for last few years . More over there has been no popular support here in U. S. for another War in the Middle East countries . Sec. Kerry 's focus and continued pressure for near completion of verifiable accounting of chemical weapons in ware Houses across Syria of brutal Bashaar al – Assad regime , on behalf of Obama administration , has been unprecedented and remarkable . What say you Sen .McCain , Sen. Graham and neo cons on positive developments ?

    September 22, 2013 at 10:20 pm | Reply
  26. lupin

    Thanks for the effort of the international cop, because of u , world is more peaceful.

    September 23, 2013 at 1:38 am | Reply
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