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.
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.