Normative Narratives


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Conflict Watch: The Political “Solution” in Syria, and the Syrian End-Game

A comment made practically in jest by Secretary of State John Kerry, has become the centerpiece of the international communities “solution” to holding Assad accountable for chemical weapons attacks:

“He could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week — turn it over, all of it, without delay and allow the full and total accounting, but he isn’t about to do it and it can’t be done,” Mr. Kerry said.

Mr. Kerry’s remarks, especially the reference to the short window of time, underscored the urgency of the administration’s preparations for a strike, and it did not appear to signal a shift in policy. The State Department’s spokeswoman, Jen Psaki, later clarified in an e-mail to reporters that Mr. Kerry was simply “making a rhetorical argument about the impossibility and unlikelihood of Assad turning over chemical weapons he has denied using.”

“His (Kerry’s) point was that this brutal dictator with a history of playing fast and loose with the facts cannot be trusted to turn over chemical weapons, otherwise he would have done so long ago. That’s why the world faces this moment.”

Officials in Syria embraced the idea, as did Britain, France, the United Nations and even some Republican lawmakers in Washington.

President Obama called a proposal by Russia on Monday to avert a United States military strike on Syria over chemical weapons use “a potentially positive development” but said he would continue to press for military action to keep the pressure up. But he said that “if we don’t maintain and move forward with a credible threat of military pressure, I do not think we will actually get the kind of agreement I would like to see.”

In another interview with NBC News, Mr. Obama said he would take the Russian proposal “with a grain of salt initially.” But he told the network that if Syrian officials accept the Russian proposal, “then this could potentially be a significant breakthrough.”

Reacting to another comment by Mr. Kerry — that any attack on Syria would be “unbelievably small” — Mr. Obama said any attack would not be felt like a “pinprick” in Syria.

“The U.S. does not do pinpricks,” he said in the NBC interview. “Our military is the greatest the world has ever known. And when we take even limited strikes, it has an impact on a country like Syria.”

I do not think dismantling Assad’s chemical stockpile is a bad idea, this should certainly be part of any long-term geopolitical strategy for a post-Assad Syria. But the idea that Assad will grant the international community full and unfettered access anywhere in Syria, or that such a mission would even be reasonably safe during a civil war, is ludicrous.  John Kerry said Assad lied to his face about using scud missiles to his face and is “a man without credibility”. Assad is not a man we can trust; even if he was, he may not even have the ability to give full access and cooperation to the international community. This so called “solution” is a non-plan as it is not credible and does not address the root causes of the problem in Syria.

For all of the tough rhetoric from Assad, it is very clear that Syria’s ability to strike back at the U.S. is virtually non-existent. Assad’s forces themselves are rightfully scared of the prospect of American military intervention, and the opportunities it will open up for the Syrian rebels (last week I advocated pairing U.S. military strikes with a redoubled effort to consolidate opposition power / rooting out extremist factions by creating Syrian national rebel army. For the record, I still believe more intelligence must be made available to the public to prove Assad’s forces used the chemical weapons themselves). 

Although commanders spoke of unspecified plans to fight back against U.S. attacks, junior service members described the notion of actually taking on U.S. forces as absurd.

“Our small warships are spread around the coast on full alert, and why? To confront the U.S. destroyers? I feel like I’m living in a bad movie,” said a Syrian Navy sailor reached on a vessel in the Mediterranean.

“Of course I’m worried. I know we don’t really have anything to confront the Americans. All we have is God.”

Obama is correct to take the stance he is taking; if Assad wants to avoid military strikes he must commit to a political resolution in Syria. The U.S. is not intending a “pin-prick”, even limited strikes over the course of 60 (or 90 if he gets a congressional extension) combined with redoubled efforts by the Syrian opposition could help turn the tide of the war.

If the ultimate goal is a pluralistic and democratic Syria, it would be wrong at this point to back away from military intervention. Assad continues to receive support from Russia, Iran and Hezbollah. The opposition has received empty promises from Western allies and fierce fighting from extremist-linked allies. If the U.S. has any hopes of separating out extremist and legitimate factions in the Syrian opposition and truly pressure Assad to come to the bargaining table, it must maintain a “political-transition-or-military-strike” approach to Syria, while continuing to enhance the capacity of a parallel Syrian military and government to assume the power void in post-Assad Syria. 

The Syrian opposition and the Gulf Arab States have already opposed the proposed Syrian chemical arms deal:

Gulf Arab states said on Tuesday a Russian proposal calling for Syria to hand over its chemical weapons to win a reprieve from U.S. military strikes would not stop bloodshed in Syria.

“We’ve heard of the initiative … It’s all about chemical weapons but doesn’t stop the spilling of the blood of the Syrian people,” Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Khaled bin Ahmed al-Khalifa told a news conference in Jeddah.

If the international community wants any chance of having political capital in a post-Assad Syria, it must not renege on it’s commitments to the Syrian opposition now, when after years of inaction meaningful assistance appeared to imminent. Doing so would further sour already strained Western-opposition relations, and bolster the power of extremist groups who have willingly participated in the civil war (not out of the kindness of their hearts mind you, they will try to seize power for their role in the civil war unless a more powerful Syrian national rebel army exists to oppose them).

The Syrian civil war is at a cross-roads, or more like a stalemate that fosters misery, chaos, death, human rights violations and economic decline. It is time for all sides to stop posing behind their positions and try to find mutual ground. Both the international community and Assad wish to avoid U.S.-backed military intervention. The international community and the Syrian opposition want Assad to step down. To reconcile these positions, Assad could agree to hand over his chemical weapons stockpile and move forward with a road-map to democracy in Syria. However, If Assad is interested only in retaining power–which all signs indicate he is–the U.S. and its allies must ultimately show their hand as well and fully commit to overthrowing Assad with force.

There is no long term solution for Syria which involves Assad staying in power–only more years of lost economic growth and death. If the international community is truly interested in a pluralistic and democratic Syria, it must lay the groundwork right now. Failure to do so will mean that either Assad remains in power, or extremist factions fill the power-void after Assad’s ouster. We cannot turn our backs on the legitimate Syrian opposition, who only want the ability to live meaningful lives with dignity and freedom–things generally taken for granted in modernized democratic society. We cannot send the message that political Islam and democracy are irreconcilable, and that jihad is the only path to empowerment for young Muslims. This precedent has already been set in Egypt, it cannot be allowed to be driven home in Syria.

Secretary Kerry said that the public is right to debate the costs and benefits of limited strikes in Syria. But we must remember that we are not talking about “boots on the ground” or any other prolonged effort. We are talking about upholding international law, not some “red-line” Obama made up. “You’ve got to draw lines and there are consequences for crossing those lines.” “You’d say, ‘don’t do anything’. We believe that’s dangerous, and we will face this down the road in some more significant way if we are not prepared to take some sort of stand now.” The Syrian civil war cannot be left to fester unattended–the consequences currently are catastrophic for Syria and its neighbors and in the future could be for the world.

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Conflict Watch: U.S. and its Allies Believe Assad Used Chemical Weapons (But What Does it Mean?)

A little mix-up from our normal schedule. When I saw this article in the NYT this morning I could not concentrate on any economics related news, I will put something out on that front tomorrow.

“The White House, in a letter to Congressional leaders, said the nation’s intelligence agencies assessed “with varying degrees of confidence” that the government of President Bashar al-Assad had used the chemical agent sarin on a small scale.

But it said more conclusive evidence was needed before Mr. Obama would take action, referring obliquely to both the Bush administration’s use of faulty intelligence in the march to war in Iraq and the ramifications of any decision to enter another conflict in the Middle East.”

Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, who is chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the agencies actually expressed more certainty about the use of these weapons than the White House indicated in its letter. She said Thursday that they voiced medium to high confidence in their assessment, which officials said was based on the testing of soil samples and blood drawn from people who had been wounded.”

“In a statement last summer, Mr. Obama did not offer a technical definition of his “red line” for taking action, but said it was when “we start seeing a whole bunch of weapons moving around or being utilized.” In Jerusalem last month, he said proof that Syria had used such [chemical] weapons would be a “game changer” for American involvement.”

“The timing of the White House disclosure also suggested the pressures it is facing. It came the same day that the British government said that it had “limited but persuasive” evidence of the use of chemical weapons, and two days after an Israeli military intelligence official asserted that Syria had repeatedly used chemical weapons.

In a letter to the United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, several weeks ago calling for a United Nations investigation, Britain laid out evidence of the attacks in Aleppo and near Damascus as well as an earlier one in Homs.

The letter, a copy of which was obtained by The New York Times, reported that dozens of victims were treated at hospitals for shortness of breath, convulsions and dilation of the pupils, common symptoms of exposure to chemical warfare agents. Doctors reported eye irritation and fatigue after close exposure to the patients.

Citing its links to contacts in the Syrian opposition, Britain said there were reports of 15 deaths in the suburban Damascus attack and up to 10 in Aleppo, where the government and rebels have each accused the other of using chemical weapons.”

“White House officials gave no indication of what Mr. Obama might do, except to say that any American action would be taken in concert with its allies.

While lawmakers from both parties swiftly declared that the president’s red line had been breached, they differed on what he should do about it.”

And I honestly could have quoted the whole article; I highly suggest you read it if you are interested in this matter (and if you made it this far you are, so go read it).

Before I dive into the article, a little background on why chemical warfare is different from conventional warfare. “Chemical warfare is different from the use of conventional weapons or nuclear weapons because the destructive effects of chemical weapons are not primarily due to any explosive force.”

This means that chemical weapons can be detonated without the natural warning that conventional and nuclear weapons carry (the explosion). Chemical weapons can be silent, indiscriminate killers, and have the potential to cause mass destruction (yes chemical weapons are considered weapons of mass destruction).

The U.S. unilaterally denounced the use of chemical weapons in 1969, ratified the Geneva Convention in 1975, and ratified the Chemical Weapons convention in 1997. The U.S. has put a lot of effort into winding down chemical weapon stockpiles both at home and abroad. These are just some of the reasons why a small number of deaths (around 25), in a civil war that has claimed over 70,000 lives, is a “red line” issue.

Why, after appearing to have his “red line” crossed, is the Obama administration’s response unclear?

Most immediately, I would think of the shortcomings of conventional warfare. The Iraq war was costly, and recent sectarian violence in Iraq shows how unsustainable “nation building” can be (if it is imposed from the outside, accompanied by war, or generally pushed in an unrealistically small time-frame; the process of democratization and modernization is gradual and must come from a countries own citizenry).

There also needs to be concrete proof that Assad used these weapons. There are some who would argue that the opposition has reason to use chemical weapons. If the opposition made it appear that Assad used the weapons, it could tip the fight in its favor. While this is a morally reprehensible thought, “all is fair in love and war”. Realistically it is unlikely that the Syrian opposition, which has been hampered by an arms disadvantage throughout the 2 year civil war, has access to such weapons, even if it wanted to use them to draw outside support. Still, this unlikely scenario must be ruled out before the U.S. gets further involved in the war.    

The Obama administration has said any response would be carried out in coordination with our allies—good! But how much of the response is going to fall on the U.S? France and Britain have been particularly outspoken about EU intervention in Syria. However, a recent article highlights that U.S. military expenditure accounts for about 75% of the NATO budget. The U.S. may want its allies to take a larger role, and our allies may want to take a larger role, but unless leaders can push military expansion in a time when austerity has constrained spending even on important social programs (which I am not certain is the right thing to do or should be these countries top priority given constrained resources), it looks like America will likely be footing most of the cost of any coordinated effort.

But let us not forget our recent $10 billion arms deal with Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The stated purpose of such a deal was to deter a nuclear Iran, but such geopolitical allies would almost certainly have to play a significant role in any coordinated effort to support the Syrian opposition militarily.

Also, Russia and China, Syria’s two largest allies who have continually blocked UNSC intervention, have signed the Chemical Weapons Convention banning the use of chemical weapons. If there is evidence Assad used these weapons, China and Russia may allow a UN military intervention, ending an international stalemate almost as old as the war itself.

If allies in NATO, the Middle-East, and around the world (UN intervention) pitch in, the situation in Syria could change swiftly and drastically.

There are no easy answers. I would be shocked if the U.S. attempted unilateral and conventional warfare in response to this news (they have explicitly stated they won’t so I’m not exactly going out on a limb with that prediction). Likely, if it is confirmed that Assad indeed used chemical weapons, the U.S. and its allies would for the first time supply military aid to the opposition. NATO and strategic allies in the Middle-East would likely take up the majority of any ground forces deployed.

It will be interesting to see how this recent news plays out. The Syrian civil war has been stuck in a “hurting stalemate”, perpetuating a humanitarian crisis and causing regional instability. It appears that there may finally be evidence that demands multilateral international intervention that ultimately ends the war.

And when the war does end, a whole new host of issues will emerge…

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