Opinion

David Rohde

Dooming the Syria talks before they begin

David Rohde
Jan 22, 2014 20:55 UTC

The United States won a short-term diplomatic victory over Iran this week. Under intense pressure from American officials, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon withdrew an invitation for Iranian officials to attend the Syria peace conference.

Disinviting Tehran is the latest example of the Obama administration’s continual search for easy, risk-free solutions in Syria. As the conflict destabilizes the region, however, Washington must finally face the hard choice: Either compromise with Iran, or decisively support and arm the rebels.

The lack of an Iranian presence in Switzerland today dooms the talks’ prospects. Whether Tehran’s actions are depraved or not, its comprehensive efforts to supply troops, munitions and funding to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad makes the Iranian government the key foreign player in the conflict.

“Iran is the sine qua non of the solution,” said an American analyst, who closely follows Syria and spoke on condition of anonymity. “They have to feel comfortable with the outcome — if there is going to be a solution.”

As fighting enters its third year, the dynamics in Syria increasingly resemble those of Afghanistan in the 1980s. During the Cold War, the United States, the Soviet Union, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan each backed various factions in Afghanistan for its own gain. The result? Thirty years of proxy war that killed an estimated 1 million Afghans and created one of the world’s most impoverished, fragmented and radicalized societies.

How 2013′s partisanship hurt us abroad, as well as at home

David Rohde
Jan 2, 2014 21:35 UTC

The furious partisan debate that erupted this week after a New York Times investigation questioned the central tenet of the Republican assault on the White House regarding Benghazi was a fitting end to 2013.

The lengthy article revealed that the State Department and CIA’s intense focus on al Qaeda caused officials to miss the threat posed by local militias. David Kirkpatrick’s reporting showed that Libya’s rebels appreciated the U.S. support in helping oust Muammar Gaddafi, but were strongly influenced by decades of anger at Washington’s support for dictators in the region.

Militants gained strength from Syria to the Sahel over the course of 2013. Republicans and Democrats, however, remained focused on winning their daily messaging battle in Washington.

John Kerry has not yet saved — or destroyed — the Middle East

David Rohde
Nov 27, 2013 03:20 UTC

President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry appear to have run the table in Middle East diplomacy. An interim nuclear agreement with Iran has been reached, Israeli-Palestinian negotiations are underway and peace talks to end Syria’s civil war are slated to begin in January.

For an administration under siege domestically, press coverage declaring the triumph of Obama diplomacy over Bush-era militarism is a political godsend.

But talk in Washington of a legacy-defining breakthrough for Obama is overstated and premature. So are the apocalyptic warnings of Iranian hegemony now coming from Jerusalem and Riyadh.

From Cairo to Geneva, Obama steps back from Mideast

David Rohde
Sep 16, 2013 19:36 UTC

It started as “a new beginning” and ended as “America is not the world’s policeman.”

Between President Barack Obama’s historic 2009 address to the Islamic world in Cairo to his address to the American people on Syria last week, Obama has zigged and zagged on Mideast policy, angering supporters and detractors alike.

But he has stuck to a clear pattern: reduce American engagement, defer to regional players and rely on covert operations to counter terrorism.

Dictators never looked so good

David Rohde
Sep 12, 2013 23:43 UTC

Dictators have never looked so good.

Vladimir Putin is saving the United States from another Mideast military intervention. Bashar al-Assad promises to ‘thin the herd’ of jihadists and hold Syria together. And Egypt’s new strongman, General Abdal Fattah el Sisi, says he is sorting out the Muslim Brotherhood. With each passing month in the Middle East, it seems, authoritarianism grows more attractive.

Leaders described as “repressive” sound eminently reasonable. They promise to bring order to chaos without dirtying American hands. Putin’s op-ed article in the New York Times on Wednesday was the latest example.

Written with the help of the American public relations firm Ketchum, the piece provoked a dizzying array of reactions. Here’s one fact check by Max Fisher of the Washington Post. Here’s a take down from Human Rights Watch. And the New Yorker posted this hilarious Andy Borowitz mock Modern Love column by the macho former KGB officer.

A Syria gift Obama must use wisely

David Rohde
Sep 10, 2013 16:46 UTC

In a sober, narrowly framed speech Tuesday night,  President Barack Obama argued that deterring chemical weapons use – not regime change – remained the goal of any American military strike in Syria. Ob ama said he would delay a vote in Congress on the issue, seek a UN resolution requiring Assad to give up his chemical weapons and explore Russia’s surprising – and probably  - offer to help secure Syria’s chemical weapons.

The speech’s most interesting passage was its final one. On the eve of the 9/11 anniversary, Obama offered a rough outline of a new, more limited vision of America’s role in the world.

“America is not the world’s policeman. Terrible things happen across the globe, and it is beyond our means to right every wrong,” Obama said. “But when, with modest effort and risk, we can stop children from being gassed to death, and thereby make our own children safer over the long run, I believe we should act.  That’s what makes America different.  That’s what makes us exceptional.  With humility, but with resolve, let us never lose sight of that essential truth.”

Has Iraq shackled American power?

David Rohde
Aug 29, 2013 22:19 UTC

In an extraordinary series of disclosures this week, Obama administration officials said that the United States will launch only cruise missile strikes in Syria. The attacks will last roughly two or three days. And the administration’s goal will be to punish President Bashar al-Assad, not remove him from power.

But those clear efforts to placate opponents of military action appear to be failing. Warnings of “another Iraq” are fueling opposition to the use of force on both sides of the Atlantic. And the Obama administration’s contradictory record on secrecy is coming back to haunt it.

In Washington on Wednesday, one-third of the members of Congress asked that they be allowed to vote on any use of American force. In London on Thursday, Prime Minister David Cameron’s effort to gain support in Parliament for strikes failed, despite the release of an intelligence assessment which said Assad had used chemical weapons fourteen times since 2012.

A moment of truth in Damascus and Washington

David Rohde
Aug 22, 2013 14:11 UTC

The images emerging from Syria — from this hysterical young girl to these rows of corpses — should be a turning point in a conflict that has killed 100,000 people. The deaths, if proven, demonstrate either the depravity of Bashar al-Assad — or the rebels fighting him.

But the Obama administration has spent so much time distancing itself and Americans from acting in Syria that a serious U.S. reaction is politically impossible in Washington. And instead of learning its lesson — and respecting Syria’s dead — the White House is repeating its destructive pattern of issuing empty threats.

Hours after the images appeared, National Security Adviser Susan Rice demanded on Twitter that the Syrian government “allow the UN access to the attack site to investigate” and vowed that “those responsible will be held accountable.”

Changing Assad’s calculus

David Rohde
May 23, 2013 21:31 UTC

A deserted street with building destroyed by what activists said was shelling by forces loyal to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad , near Aleppo International airport, May 20, 2013. REUTERS/Nour Kelze

AMMAN, Jordan – Secretary of State John Kerry and 10 European and Arab foreign ministers gathered here Wednesday night to again talk about helping Syria’s rebels.

As the international community discussed “grand strategy,” Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was taking decisive action.

The devil who can’t deliver

David Rohde
May 9, 2013 13:30 UTC

Picture of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad riddled with holes on the Aleppo police academy, after capture by Free Syrian Army fighters, March 4, 2013.  REUTERS/Mahmoud Hassano

MOSCOW – After marathon meetings with Secretary of State John Kerry here Tuesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov hinted that Moscow may finally pressure Syrian President Bashir al-Assad to leave office.

“We are not interested in the fate of certain individuals,” Lavrov said at a late night news conference. “We are interested in the fate of the Syrian people.”

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