Opinion

The Great Debate

Is there a ‘right’ path for the U.S. in Syria?

Key parties to the conflict in Syria are meeting in Switzerland on Wednesday. The participants have been downplaying expectations that the “Geneva II” peace conference — which will bring together for the first time representatives from the Assad government and various rebel groups along with major international players — will resolve the conflict, or even bring about a ceasefire.

For the U.S. government, the crucial issue at this meeting and beyond is determining if and how to intervene and provide support in a conflict where there may no longer be real “good guys,” or supporters of U.S. national interests, to back. This is particularly important given Washington’s interwoven interests throughout the region — not only in Syria, but in Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Turkey and beyond.

U.S. support of the Afghan mujahideen against the Soviet Union during the Cold War teaches two valuable lessons for the current Syrian conflict. First, understand who we are helping, what their goals are and how these goals may differ from those of the United States. Second, think in advance about the endgame.

In Syria, the United States has been rightly careful about whom to aid — but as a result, the U.S. government has provided very little aid and thus created a void that others have filled. It is not yet clear whether Washington understands its own end-goals for the conflict and is communicating clearly how to achieve them. As history has demonstrated, this lack of clarity can lead to fateful unintended consequences. U.S. policy in Afghanistan in the 1980s provides a telling example.

Beginning in 1979, President Jimmy Carter authorized the CIA to send minimal assistance to Afghan rebels fighting the Soviet Union. The Reagan administration vastly increased this aid, to a high of more than $600 million a year in 1987. The Saudi government matched all U.S. funds.

Turkey cashes in on the Iran talks

You may have thought the Geneva deal struck last month between Iran and the P5+1 nations (the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany) was a sweet one for Tehran — getting billions in sanctions relief in exchange for mere promises to halt its nuclear program.

But Turkey may be an even bigger winner. It just needs to open its doors and wait for Iranian funds to pour in.

Iran was Turkey’s third largest export market in 2012. In fact, Turkey is reportedly exporting more than 20,000 products to Iran right now; among them gold and silver. It turns out that the Geneva deal also loosened sanctions on precious metals.

For Syrians, a no-fly zone of their own

­

For two years, the rebels in Al Qusayr held out against the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Then in April the regime, supported by fresh fighters from the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, renewed its attack on the mountain town overlooking the Lebanon border.

But it wasn’t Hezbollah that made the difference. It was the relentless bombardment by Assad’s air force that shattered the rebel defenses — killing 80 opposition fighters and sending the survivors into retreat. Assad’s jets and helicopters, unleashed against rebels and civilians alike in mid-2012, have proved a decisive force in the now 30-month Syrian civil war.

Because of this aerial onslaught, the rebels have begged the United States and its allies in the North American Treaty Organization to enforce a no-fly zone over rebel-held areas concentrated in Syria’s mountainous north. Barring that, opposition leaders have an alternative proposal: Washington and its allies supply rebel fighters with the weapons they need to defend a no-fly zone on their own.

The danger in shutting down national security

The nation awoke Tuesday to find much of the federal government closed for business. The Republican-controlled House of Representatives had refused to fund essential government functions until the rest of Congress and President Barack Obama agreed to reverse a healthcare law passed three years ago and deemed constitutional by the Supreme Court. By doing so, they put reversing healthcare reform ahead of protecting the nation.

Hundreds of thousands of national security professionals are now on furlough. The latest Office of Management and Budget guidance notes no function has been discontinued that would “imminently threaten the safety of human life or the protection of property.” The Defense Department made clear that “military personnel would continue in normal duty status.”

But even furloughing “non-essential personnel” undermines U.S. security. It hits three critical areas: the Defense Department’s civilian employees, the intelligence community and the agencies that respond to health emergencies.

from The Great Debate UK:

48 hours to save Syria’s children

--By Justin Forsyth, CEO of Save the Children. The opinions expressed are his own.--

The pictures of Syrian children lined up dead and others writhing in agony, foaming at the mouth as they struggled to breathe, shocked us all to the core. These horrific chemical attacks were crimes against humanity. That is why we should all welcome the UNSC resolution passed in New York.

But the children of Syria desperately need the same level of action that we have seen on chemical weapons to ensure humanitarian access – food and urgent medical care - to the millions still suffering and cut off.

from David Rohde:

The key stumbling blocks U.S. and Iran face

A historic phone call Friday between the presidents of the United States and Iran could mark the end of 34 years of enmity.

Or it could be another missed opportunity.

In the weeks ahead, clear signs will emerge whether a diplomatic breakthrough is possible. Here are several key areas that could determine success or failure:

Enrichment in Iran?

Throughout his New York “charm offensive,” Iranian President Hassan Rouhani made one demand clear: Tehran will rebuff any agreement that does not allow it to enrich some uranium.

from David Rohde:

Iran’s offer is genuine — and fleeting

President Barack Obama’s speech to the United Nations General Assembly in New York on Tuesday is not expected to generate much excitement. Battered by his uneven handling of Syria, no bold foreign policy initiatives are likely.

Instead, the undisputed diplomatic rock star of the gathering will be Iran’s new President Hassan Rouhani. In his first six weeks in office, the cleric has carried out one of the most aggressive charm offensives in the 34-year history of the Islamic Republic. And the Obama administration responded Thursday, saying the president would be open to having a meeting in New York.

If Obama and Rouhani, who will both address the assembly on Tuesday, simply shake hands in public, it will be the seminal event of the gathering’s first day.

The myth of Republican doves

From reading the political press these days, one could get the impression that the Republican Party, from top to bottom, has radically altered its principles on foreign policy. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), an isolationist, is said to be a serious contender for the 2016 GOP nomination. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Sen. Rick Santorum have recently come out against military intervention in Syria, as have Tea Party heroes Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fl) and Ted Cruz (R-TX).

Last week the Hill reported:

“A decisive vote against President Obama’s plan for strikes in Syria would cement a sharp shift by the Republican Party away from the hawkish military posture it adopted after the terrorist attacks that occurred 12 years ago this week.”

Even some steadfast Republican hawks agree. Rep. Peter King (R-NY) told the Hill, “It’s probably an indication that the party has become less internationalist and more isolationist.”

Blocking Syria’s chemical network

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, testifying recently before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, was asked a crucial question: Who has been supplying Syria with its chemical weapons? “Well, the Russians supply them,” Hagel responded. “Others are supplying them with those chemical weapons. They make some themselves.”

The uncertainty of Hagel’s answer reveals a gaping hole in U.S. understanding of how these weapons proliferate, who helps their transfer and where they may turn up next.

Syria’s deadly chemical weapons, which the United Nations report confirms were used to kill at least 1,400 people last month — and which could still spark an American military attack if Syria refuses to turn over the weapons under a U.S.-Russian plan — are made in part from dual-use chemicals. Some of these chemicals are also components of beneficial products, including life-saving medicines, cosmetics and fertilizer.

What is next for Syria’s opposition?

The Syrian regime is crowing victory. The Russians are satisfied at preventing an American military intervention. President Obama is glad to have avoided a Congressional vote against it. Israel is pleased to see Syria’s chemical weapons capability zeroed out, provided the framework agreement reached last week is fully implemented. Even Iran is backing it, while continuing to deny that the regime was responsible for using chemical weapons.

What about the Syrian opposition?

The agreement on chemical weapons leaves them out in the cold. Bashar al-Assad is now vital to implementation of the agreement and will procrastinate implementing it for as long as possible. While destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons capability is supposed to be completed by mid-2014, the logistical challenges involved are colossal. Just accounting for and collecting the 1,000 tons of material will be an enormous task, before getting to deployment of observers and physical destruction, which will likely require shipping the material out of Syria to Russia. Wartime conditions will double the difficulties and prolong the process, even if the regime decides to cooperate fully. That’s unlikely.

Nothing in the agreement changes the battlefield situation. Chemical attacks never made more than a marginal contribution to the regime’s killing capacity. They have killed fewer than 2 percent of the total casualties in Syria’s war. The regime is ratcheting up the violence using conventional weapons. It is raining ordnance on liberated areas with renewed vigor after a several weeks’ lull.

  •