By Michael Shank and Emily Wirzba, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Michael Shank is director of foreign policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation. Emily Wirzba is program assistant for Sustainable Energy and the Environment at FCNL. The views expressed are their own.
The agreement forged by Russia and the United States over the weekend on Syria’s chemical weapons is good news for diplomacy, and bodes well for any restart of the Geneva II peace process aimed at ending the country’s civil war. But the short-term focus on chemical weapons use risks undermining some much-needed long-term thinking on the issue.
Of course, both sides in the Syrian conflict need to be held accountable for their alleged use of (or, in the case of some rebels, their alleged attempts to acquire) chemical weapons. But even after any stockpiles have been accounted for and dealt with, there will still be the outstanding question of how to resolve the ongoing civil war.
And the Obama administration should belatedly be willing to address a surprising source of the current tensions – water shortages. Indeed, the sad fact is that the United States could have helped prevent tensions in Syria from escalating into civil breakdown if it had worked with the international community to tackle a growing problem with this most basic of resources.
By Nawaf Obaid and Jamal Khashoggi, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Nawaf Obaid is a fellow at the Belfer Center at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. Jamal Khashoggi is the editor in chief of the Al Arab Satellite News Channel. The views expressed are their own.
While the U.S. media spends countless hours discussing the vagaries of American non-involvement in Syria, little is being said about the conflict's ramifications for the stability, borders and realpolitik of the Middle East – or the changing role of outside nations in the region's affairs. Yet there are massive, historic and intensely important implications that we need to understand. Indeed, the Syrian civil war is but a catalyst for numerous shifts taking place in the regional and global power structure.
First and foremost, the Syrian tragedy is a turning point in the long established tradition of Western intervention in the Middle East and the wider Muslim world. The quagmire has brought to the fore the new reality that the United States and its European allies no longer have the political and economic stomach to openly engage their militaries in another regional conflict. While the so-called Arab Spring brought with it huge expectations to the Arab world of freedom and democracy, the dawning era of Western military disengagement from the region is going to have even more widespread implications as shifting borders and military alliances usher in a transition phase.
Absent outside intervention, the Syrian conflict has the potential to continue for many years. Given the support that the al-Assad regime is receiving from Russia and Iran, and arms being delivered to the rebels from the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, the United States and France, one is reminded that the Lebanese civil war lasted for 15 years.
By Melissa Labonte, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Melissa Labonte is associate professor of Political Science at Fordham University in New York and author of Human Rights and Humanitarian Norms, Strategic Framing, and Intervention: Lessons for the Responsibility to Protect. The views expressed are her own.
Although the Russian proposal on Syria’s chemical weapons gives Congress breathing room, lawmakers are still on the hook for making a decision in this case. After all, there's still the matter of holding the al-Assad regime to account for its alleged indiscriminate use of chemical weapons against civilians.
But on what basis will the deciders decide? Will domestic interests trump foreign policy interests? The facts of the Syrian crisis notwithstanding, can the method of presenting an argument about intervention actually affect the outcome?
The policymaking process is deeply complex even to those who study it up close. Take, for example, congressional debate over the U.S. response to the humanitarian crisis in Somalia in 1992. What had been a fairly consistent policy within the George H.W. Bush administration premised on diplomacy and humanitarian relief rapidly gave way to overwhelming support in favor of robust military intervention. Why and how did this dramatic shift occur? Conversely, when the U.S. Congress debated how to respond to the unfolding genocide in Rwanda in 1994, its members overwhelming opposed intervention of any kind, despite clear evidence that hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians were being slaughtered mercilessly by their own government.
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?
By Fareed Zakaria
A new internet game – “Where is Damascus?” – asks you to pinpoint Syria’s capital on a map. Even if you are off by 100 miles, you will probably have done better than 80 percent of the people who played the game. According to its creators, a number of the people inside the U.S. Department of Defense tried it out as well…and only 57 percent managed to locate Damascus. Some of the guesses were as far off as India and South Africa! Let’s hope those folks weren’t tasked with targeting the air strikes.
So, as a public service, here are three facts about Syria:
First, it became a nation recently and with much turmoil. Until World War I, the Ottoman Empire controlled most of the Middle East, plus parts of Europe and North Africa. It had ruled much of this land for six centuries. But when the Empire collapsed after World War I, it led to a complete fragmentation of the region. France and Britain carved up parts of the empire. Syria broke free of French influence after World War II. Then followed a series of failed governments, then briefly it actually joined up with Egypt to create a new country, the United Arab Republic, and then seceded from that republic three years later. In 1963, the Baath Party organized a coup – and that is the beginning of the Syria we now know.
"Fareed Zakaria GPS," Sundays at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. ET on CNN
CNN speaks with Fareed about Vladimir Putin’s opinion piece in the New York Times, Syria’s announcement on accepting the U.N. chemical weapons ban, and how President Obama has salvaged the situation.
Vladimir Putin’s op-ed on Syria – it's pretty extraordinary when you think about it that Putin is directly anxious to speak to the American people. What's your take on what's going on?
We've always known that Putin has wanted to set himself up in some way in opposition to the idea of a kind of benign American leadership of the world. He's always viewed that as being part of his role – to revive and restore Russia to its position of power, but also as a kind of another pole. It’s not the opposite pole, because Russia isn’t powerful enough to be the other super power, but he wants it to be another voice and another center of power in the world. And this is very much in keeping with that. You see, it's very smart. It's well-argued. But it is relentless in its opposition to the United States. The dig about American exceptionalism, was just one part of it.
Syria says it has now accepted the 1993 U.N. chemical weapons ban. What do you make of this?
I think it's a fairly important shift, because once they do that, it entails a whole set of legal obligations that they are taking on. They do have to destroy. They have to identify what they have; I think it's within a few months. They have 10 years to destroy everything that they have. They are required to let U.N. inspectors in.
So they are buying into a whole set of legal obligations and constraints. And, of course, they can violate them. And, of course, they can cheat. But in that situation, they are then violating international law. They are, you know, running afoul of treaties and things like that.
By Bruce Stokes, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Bruce Stokes is director of global economic attitudes at the Pew Research Center. The views expressed are the writer’s own.
The prospect of a U.S. military strike on Syria has focused new attention on the role and influence of Islamic extremist groups – including Jabhat al-Nusra, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, and jihadists from Chechnya, Pakistan and other countries – opposing the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
In his address to the nation on September 10, President Barack Obama asserted that “al Qaeda will only draw strength in a more chaotic Syria if people there see the world doing nothing to prevent innocent civilians from being gassed to death.”
Syria’s neighbors share some of those concerns. Indeed, a new Pew Research Center survey shows extremism is also a matter of great concern to Muslims in the countries surrounding Syria, with many also worried that the turmoil will spread across their own border.
By Lucian Kim, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Lucian Kim is a journalist who was based in Russia for eight years. He blogs at luciankim.com. The views expressed are his own.
Americans didn’t elect their president to be nice to Russia, just as Russians don’t expect their leader to dwell on foreigners’ sensibilities, Russian President Vladimir Putin said in an interview last week. How surprising, then, that he would publish an op-ed in The New York Times yesterday, appealing to the American people to withhold support for a military intervention in Syria.
Putin makes a number of reasonable, legitimate points, many of which have been voiced by skeptics in the U.S. and Europe. The problem is that the arguments in the article would be credible if they were made by some authority other than Putin – say the king of Sweden or the secretary general of the United Nations.
Putin correctly identifies the risks of a strike, for example that Syria’s civil war is hardly a clear-cut battle for democracy but a messy sectarian conflict. He is right to ask whether past interventions against Iraq and Libya have not encouraged other rogue regimes to seek weapons of mass destruction as a guarantee against attack. And it’s true that U.S. unilateralism over the last decade has bred suspicion and resentment around the world, even among America’s closest allies.
By Fareed Zakaria
The Obama administration is right to carefully and thoroughly pursue the diplomatic path — even though it will be difficult. While Syria and Russia are doing so as a way to avert an attack, Russian President Vladimir Putin might also be happy to see Assad’s weapons locked up or destroyed. In fact, this gambit might be a way for Russia to achieve its real goals in Syria: no regime change and no chemical weapons. Russia has always worried that these weapons could fall into the hands of jihadi groups, which could give them to compatriots in Russia’s south, which is teeming with religious militants. Syria’s other chief sponsor, Iran, historically has been strongly opposed to chemical weapons since Iranians were brutally gassed by Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war.
If the Obama administration believes that the ban on chemical weapons really is an international norm in danger of erosion and that the threat of a military strike is the way to shore it up, it needs to build some support among Congress, the U.N. Security Council, NATO, the European Union, the Arab League or other such groups. Recall that the Bush administration in the run-up to Iraq got congressional authorization; as its basis for action, it could point to 16 U.N. Security Council resolutions that Iraq had broken. After the invasion, 38 countries sent troops. It is ironic that Washington’s sole goal is to uphold an international norm, but it faces opposition from most countries and international public opinion. The negotiations do buy time for Syria, but also for the Obama administration.
CNN speaks with Fareed about President Obama’s speech Tuesday night on Syria, Russia’s proposal on the country’s chemical weapons, and why the international community is skeptical of military action. These remarks have been edited for length.
Do you think the president needed to go ahead and make his speech last night? This was clearly a speech scheduled before, when military action seemed to be imminent.
I think he wanted to make it because clearly he needed to shore up his position – the position that this was serious, this was a threat to international security, this was a threat to American security.
I think at the end of the day, though, it has made his case much more difficult. And even though he made a very eloquent and intelligent speech, as he often does, I think it would be difficult for me to believe that three or four weeks from now if we are haggling with the Russians over the wording of a U.N. resolution, and the Russians say we don't want this phrase because it might imply the threat of force and the United States says, no, no, no, we must have that phrase because that is precisely what gives teeth to this resolution – and those talks collapse – the president can go to the world and the American people and say, let's go and use force.
By Sinan Ülgen, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Sinan Ülgen is a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe. Twitter @sinanulgen1. The views expressed are the writer’s own.
Democracy can get in the way of a good war in the Middle East, a reality underscored by the diminishing U.S. public support for intervention in Syria. But the ongoing discussions in Washington over how to respond to Syria’s alleged use of chemical weapons aren’t just being watched closely in Washington and Damascus. In Turkey – Syria’s neighbor and in the vanguard of the struggle against the al-Assad regime – the outcome of deliberations on an attack are critical. Indeed, while the West looks increasingly wary of military action, there are serious concerns in Ankara that Turkey’s security could be put at risk by a U.S.-led strike that is too limited in scope.
Turkey has diligently defended the idea of regime change in Syria prior to the alleged chemical weapons attack. Having rightfully desisted from a unilateral intervention, Turkey has focused its efforts on strengthening the opposition. Ankara has given substantial diplomatic and logistical – as well as more recently military – support to the Syrian rebels. But Ankara’s overt antagonism toward Damascus has started to exact a heavy toll.
By Ryan Costello, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Ryan Costello is a policy fellow with the National Iranian American Council. The views expressed are his own.
Amid the debate over how to respond to Bashar al-Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people, few expect any military action to actually ease the brutal civil war (a prospect that could recede if Assad follows through on a recent Russian proposal to hand over its chemical arsenal). Certainly, at best, military strikes would deter al-Assad from the future use of chemical weapons even as the slaughter continues. But while the United States may not be able to orchestrate a decisive shift in the civil war, another vexed issue for U.S. diplomats may be ripe for a breakthrough – Iran’s nuclear program.
The recent election of pragmatic former nuclear negotiator Hassan Rouhani as president raised hopes for a diplomatic resolution to the nuclear crisis, optimism that that has been stoked by the recent decision to move the nuclear file from the Supreme National Security Council, under the direct purview of the Supreme Leader, to the Foreign Ministry where new Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif will directly oversee it. With experienced diplomats like Rouhani and Zarif directly in charge of negotiations, the prospects for diplomatic progress are as good as they have been for years – and President Obama has an opportunity to secure a legacy-defining foreign policy victory.