By Mark N. Katz, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Mark N. Katz is professor of Government and Politics at George Mason University, and the author of ‘Leaving without Losing: The War on Terror after Iraq and Afghanistan.’ The views expressed are his own.
The ongoing civil war that is devastating Syria is increasingly threatening to spill over and engulf neighboring countries. Indeed, all the ingredients are there for what would be a disastrous region-wide Sunni-Shiite conflict.
Just look at what has been going on. Turkey is hard pressed to deal with the growing number of Syrian refugees flooding into its territory, while tiny Jordan may soon be overwhelmed by them. In addition, the conflict between Syria’s Alawite minority regime and its Sunni majority opposition is spilling over and re-invigorating Sunni-Shiite conflict both in Iraq to the east and Lebanon to the west. Meanwhile, Shiite-dominated governments in Iran and Iraq, as well as the radical Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah movement, are all actively assisting Syria’s Alawite regime, while Sunni-dominated governments in Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Jordan are helping the Sunni opposition.
And what has been the Obama administration’s response to all this? Surprising – and troubling – restraint.
By Peter Fragiskatos, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Peter Fragiskatos teaches at Western University in London, Canada. You can follow him @pfragiskatos. The views expressed are his own.
Amidst the horror that continues to plague Syria, a glimmer of hope emerged last week as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced they will try to bring together the Syrian state and its opponents by convening an international peace conference.
In principle, negotiations are the right way to go. Had talks taken place earlier, the bloodshed, which has now claimed the lives of more than 70,000 people and displaced hundreds of thousands more, could have been vastly reduced. The only way it can be stopped is if there are some compromises, and this will only happen when the warring sides start talking in earnest. Yet reports that Russia is sending advanced anti-ship cruise missiles to Syria are a reminder that Moscow's commitment to the process remains an unpredictable wild card.
In preparing for the discussions, a division of labor appears to have been set – the Americans are trying to persuade the rebels to take part, while Russia is pressing the al-Assad regime. And there are some promising signs on both fronts. According to Kerry, Salim Idriss – chief of staff for the main opposition Free Syrian Army – has expressed strong interest in negotiations, while reports suggest Lavrov has received a list of negotiators from the Syrian government.
By Fareed Zakaria
Obama may have spoken too loosely about a “red line” in Syria. But the most damaging thing he could do now would be to take action simply to follow through. One does not correct for careless language through careless military action.
Syria is a humanitarian nightmare, which the United States should do more to address. Washington should help create and sustain more havens — in Jordan and elsewhere — for refugees and should coordinate with other countries to get aid in faster and more effectively to those in need. It is trying to bring the various rebel groups into a more coherent opposition movement, though that is a daunting challenge.
But we must understand that the Syrian conflict is fundamentally a civil war between a minority elite and the long-oppressed majority — similar to those in Lebanon and Iraq. People fight to the end because they know that losers in such wars get killed or “ethnically cleansed.” The only path to peace in such circumstances is through a political accord among the parties.
The assumption that American intervention could mitigate Syria's carnage is flawed
By Fareed Zakaria
Those urging the U.S. to intervene in Syria are certain of one thing: If we had intervened sooner, things would be better in that war-torn country. Had the Obama Administration gotten involved earlier, there would be less instability and fewer killings. We would not be seeing, in John McCain's words of April 28, "atrocities that are on a scale that we have not seen in a long, long time."
In fact, we have seen atrocities much worse than those in Syria very recently, in Iraq under U.S. occupation only few years ago. From 2003 to 2012, despite there being as many as 180,000 American and allied troops in Iraq, somewhere between 150,000 and 300,000 Iraqi civilians died and about 1.5 million fled the country. Jihadi groups flourished in Iraq, and al-Qaeda had a huge presence there. The U.S. was about as actively engaged in Iraq as is possible, and yet more terrible things happened there than in Syria. Why?
By Charles P. Blair, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Charles P. Blair is a senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists and columnist with the Bulletin of Atomic Scientist. The views expressed are his own.
Syria’s civil war is the first to engulf a country armed with weapons of mass destruction. Understandably, the unfolding cataclysm precipitated by that country’s collapse has prompted new levels of uncertainty and risk. But where exactly does the Obama administration stand on managing the various threats posed by Syria’s chemical weapons?
An April 25 letter from the White House to members of Congress included the Obama administration’s seventh notice threatening unspecified but “significant” action if the al-Assad regime crossed the “red line” on chemical weapons activity. But by remaining mute on what specifically constitutes a chemical weapon in the context of its “red line,” and by characterizing the mounting evidence of chemical weapons use by Syrian military forces as requiring “credible and corroborating facts” validated by the United Nations, the administration clearly wants to avoid (or at least delay as long as possible) substantive action against the regime.
Yet there are obvious risks to this “wait and see” approach.
By Danielle Pletka, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Danielle Pletka is the vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. The views expressed are her own.
The White House admitted Thursday what has been known for some time: The Syrian regime used chemical weapons to attack its own people. But “admitted” isn’t exactly the right word; more like equivocated that the al-Assad government could have, might have, somehow let loose some sarin nerve gas, which could have, but may not have, “exposed” some Syrians, possibly, to chemical agents. Maybe.
The history on this question is a little convoluted: The opposition first accused the al-Assad regime of using chemical agents some time ago, but those accusations were, for the most part, dismissed by the White House. Only yesterday, Defense secretary Chuck Hagel downplayed the charges, saying that, “Suspicions are one thing; evidence is another.” But one nation after another, most recently Israel, made clear that they had little doubt that al-Assad’s regime did in fact employ lethal chemical weapons in an attack on its own people. So, by early on April 25, the White House too allowed that it appear sarin was indeed used.
Here’s the problem for President Barack Obama: In 2012, he said the use of chemical weapons is a “red line” for the United States, a “game changer” that would theoretically move the White House from its position of committed indifference to the ongoing conflict in Syria. Under increasing pressure during the presidential election, Obama sought out a clear position on Syria that would make him appear cautious, yet decisive. Hence, the red line. But with the election won, he stepped back from his earlier decisiveness to a more fuzzy expression of concern, with vague threats that in the event of chemical weapons use, the Syrian government would be “held accountable.”
By Ole Solvang, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Ole Solvang is an emergencies researcher at Human Rights Watch. The views expressed are the writer’s own.
Last week, life changed for 12-year-old “Aziza.” She had just arrived at her grandparents’ apartment in Aleppo with her family when she heard the sound of a jet and then a huge explosion.
“Suddenly, it was all covered in dust,” Aziza said. “I heard my aunt screaming – she was calling for survivors, and then some men took me and my little sister out of the rubble. The wall and stairs were gone. They handed us over one to the other.” Standing in the rubble of the destroyed house, Aziza, still in shock, told me two days after the attack that she and her younger sister survived only because they were playing in one of the interior rooms.
Four government bombs dropped on the Sukkari neighborhood on April 7 killed her mother, twin brother and two other close relatives, and seriously injured her father. Aziza and her family had already moved to a different neighborhood, but had come back briefly to get some of their belongings. Speaking to relatives and neighbors we collected information about 17 civilians who died in this attack, but there could be more since nobody has a complete list of casualties yet.
By Andrew Parasiliti, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Andrew Parasiliti is editor and CEO of Al-Monitor.com. The views expressed are his own.
U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit to Israel secured perhaps a year more for diplomacy with Iran and a chance for a political solution in Syria – if the United States is willing to seize it.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared to offer a hiatus in threats of a military attack on Iran when he said at a joint press conference on March 20 that the United States and Israel “have a common assessment” on Iran’s nuclear program, apparently agreeing with Obama’s timeline indicating that it could take “about a year” for Iran to manufacture a nuclear weapon, if it decided to do so.
On Syria, Obama and Netanyahu also shared a “common assessment” about the danger of Syria’s chemical weapons falling into the hands of terrorists. But there seemed some light between the two on whether Syrian President Bashar al-Assad “must go,” as Obama noted in his remarks, as Netanyahu failed to mention al-Assad at the press conference.
By Donatella Rovera, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Donatella Rovera is Amnesty International’s senior crisis response adviser from Aleppo. The views expressed are her own.
Aleppo’s Kweik river, keeps washing up the bodies of men and boys who have been shot in the head at close range. Some have their hands tied behind their backs, some have marks suggesting torture.
Virtually every day this past week I have been getting early morning phone calls informing me of more bodies in the river – two on Sunday, four on Monday, seven on Tuesday, three on Wednesday…
All eventually float to the same spot in the Bustan al-Qasr district of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, under the control of opposition forces but just a few hundred meters downstream from an area held by government troops.
"Fareed Zakaria GPS," Sundays at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. ET on CNN
On this week's show, Fareed hears from Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati about Syria policy during a panel of Arab leaders at the World Economic Forum’s Davos meeting.
“We are disassociating ourselves from what's going on in Syria by all means. We are disassociating because we have a kind of historical, geographical relations with Syria. And now, today, if we take any position, really, we would be more boosting the division in our Lebanese society and between Lebanese citizens. For this reason, we had the position as the Lebanese government to disassociate ourselves. But this doesn’t mean that we disassociate ourselves from humanitarian issues.
“Today, we are helping and receiving Syrians without any limit. And why fully we are ensuring for them shelter, medical care, schooling, food – everything.”
Watch the full panel here.
By Kenneth Roth, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Kenneth Roth is executive director of Human Rights Watch. You can follow him on @KenRoth. The views expressed are his own.
As rioting resumes in Egypt, militias reign ominously in parts of Libya, and relentless slaughter proceeds in Syria, some are beginning to question whether the Arab Spring was such a good idea after all. But would we really want to condemn entire nations to the likes of Mubarak, Gadhafi and al-Assad? As we know from the fall of military dictatorships in Latin America and the demise of the Soviet Union, building a rights-respecting democracy on a legacy of authoritarian rule is not easy. However, there are steps that both the people of the region and the international community can take to make a positive outcome more likely.
The new governments in the Middle East and North Africa should remember foremost that an electoral majority does not grant them license to do whatever they want. Once they gain power, long-suppressed political movements may not be eager to hear that their latitude for governance is still constrained, but that is what international human rights law requires. Repression of basic rights can emerge as readily from majoritarian hubris as from a classic autocrat.
By Soner Cagaptay, Special to CNN
Soner Cagaptay is a Beyer Family fellow at The Washington Institute and author of 'Turkey Rising: The 21st Century's First Muslim Power.' You can follow him @sonercagaptay. The views expressed are his own.
Today’s attack against the U.S. Embassy in Ankara suggests Turkey’s radical leftist Marxist groups, as small as they might be, could be mobilizing against America.
Turkey’s political landscape continues to bear the vestiges of violent leftist movements from the 1970s, laden with deep-rooted Cold War-style anti-Americanism. These small but active movements have rallied against the deployment of U.S. and NATO Patriot missiles in southern Turkey, and are believed to have been behind a January 21 protest aimed at Patriot teams arriving in the port of Iskenderun.
Although such groups operate at the political margin, they could have an outsized impact. Iranian and Russian media have covered these incidents extensively, no doubt in order to feed into anti-NATO sentiment and to increase the political costs for Ankara supporting the Syrian opposition. Indeed, small Turkish Marxist groups could even emerge as nodes of broader opposition to Ankara’s effective policy of working to help oust the al-Assad regime.