Opinion

The Great Debate

from David Rohde:

A moment of truth in Damascus and Washington

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."

Deputy White House Spokesman Josh Earnest called the use of chemical weapons, if proven, “completely unacceptable” and also said those responsible “will be held accountable.”

Yet it was unclear how, exactly, the administration will hold anyone accountable in Syria. For the last two years, American military action has been off the table. And the White House's decision in June to give light weapons to the Syrian rebels is likely to have little immediate impact.

Lessons for interpreting Iran

Iranian President-elect Hassan Rohani speaks with the media in Tehran June 17, 2013. REUTERS/Fars News/Majid Hagdost

Almost two weeks have passed since Hassan Rohani, the mild-mannered cleric often described as politically and socially moderate, was elected president of Iran by a landslide — surprising virtually every expert and foreign government as well as many Iranians. The postmortems have been fast and furious — mostly from the same experts who got the elections wrong in the first place, which makes one wonder whether the proverbial monkey with a typewriter can predict Iran better than those with iPads.

Iran watchers now appear to be falling over themselves trying to parse Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s intentions in “allowing” a free election that defied every expectation. For it is Khamenei who reigns supreme over the land. When he wants to, that is.

Congress should lead on Syria

Civilians hold up pictures of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad and of his father, Syria’s late president Hafez al-Assad (R), as they celebrate in Qusair June 6, 2013. REUTERS/Rami Bleibel

The American public is hearing it again – the drumbeat for intervention into a foreign land. Now it’s about Syria.

For decades, presidents have dominated the decision-making to commit American forces to battle. But today, as the country approaches another decisive moment, after a decade of problematic wars, perhaps the time has come for another decider, Congress, to enter the picture. The legislature must not just ask the tough questions but assume the leadership role. A novel idea? Not really. After all this is what the Constitution demands. Senators John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) have led the beat calling for Washington to enforce a no-fly zone in Syria to give the rebels a chance to protect themselves while bringing down the Assad regime.

Civil wars and Syria: lessons from history

A man at a site recently hit by what activists said was a Scud missile in Aleppo’s Ard al-Hamra neighborhood, February 23, 2013. REUTERS/Muzaffar Salman

Most of the international debate about Syria policy focuses on how to remove President Bashar al-Assad from power.

Options for NATO states and key Arab League partners include everything from enlisting Russia’s help in a diplomatic approach, with a conference now envisioned for early June, to arming the rebels to perhaps even supporting them with limited amounts of airpower. Removing Assad, however, would no more end the Syrian conflict than overthrowing Saddam Hussein in 2003 brought stability to Iraq. The United States must create a more integrated overall strategy.

For Russia, Syria is not in the Middle East

Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with (clockwise, starting in top left.) U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, British Prime Minister David Cameron, next Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. REUTERS/FILES

A string of leaders and senior emissaries, seeking to prevent further escalation of the Syria crisis, has headed to Moscow recently to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin. First, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, then British Prime Minister David Cameron, next Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and now, most recently, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon These leaders see Russia as the key to resolving the Syria quandary.

But to get Russia to cooperate on any stabilization plan, the United States and its allies will have to take into account Russia’s significant interests in the Mediterranean region.

Learning the wrong lessons from Israel’s intervention in Syria

Israel’s recent attacks on military targets in Syria have made clear the widening regional dimensions of Syria’s civil war. They have also fueled debate about whether the United States should intervene. Look, some say, Israel acts when it sets red lines, and Syria’s air defenses are easy to breach. Israel’s involvement has energized those, like Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), who argue for U.S. military intervention in Syria. Unfortunately, the interventionists are drawing the wrong lessons from the Israeli actions.

The first misconception is that the Israeli strikes showed how Israel stands by its red lines in ways that bolster its credibility – a sharp contrast to the perceived equivocation of President Barack Obama’s stated red line that the use of chemical weapons in Syria would be a “game changer.”

Israel has stated that it views any transfer of chemical weapons by Bashar al-Assad’s regime to Hezbollah as unacceptable. So its targeting of missile arsenals believed to be capable of delivering such weapons appears to be making good on the threat. But while such Israeli action against Hezbollah within Syria is an escalation, it is not new. Israel targeted such missiles earlier in the year and has been targeting Hezbollah arsenals in Lebanon for years. It also fought a costly war with Hezbollah in the summer of 2006 largely to degrade (unsuccessfully, it turns out) the group’s missile capabilities. Israel was thus not acting in Syria to maintain the credibility of its red lines, but acting on specific perceived threats to its national security.

from David Rohde:

The devil who can’t deliver

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.”

A ‘Game of Thrones’ in Damascus

In last Sunday night’s episode of Game of Thrones, Lord Baelish and Lord Varys, perhaps the show’s most Machiavellian characters, discuss their political philosophies. While admiring the <a “href=”http://awoiaf.westeros.org/index.php/Iron_Throne”>Iron Throne, the show’s iconic symbol of absolute power, they debate the true nature of the realm: What power, they ask, holds the seven kingdoms of Westeros together?

Lord Baelish: “Do you know what the realm is? A story we agree to tell each other over and over until we forget that it’s a lie. But what do we have left once we abandon the lie?”

Lord Varys: “Chaos. A gaping pit waiting to swallow us all.”

It might be bleak and melodramatic, but this resembles today’s global order. In the wake of the financial crisis, the first Group of 20 summit helped save the financial system, but it was fear for survival rather than fealty to a common worldview that drove progress. Since then, it’s become all too clear that the G-20 is more of an aspiration than an institution: There are simply too many member countries with too many conflicting interests.

Sarin: The lethal fog of war

The Syrian government’s reported use of sarin in its war against rebel forces is ominous. It suggests dissemination of the nerve agent could become more frequent there — whether by the Syrian military or by opposition forces in possession of captured stockpiles. If this happens, many more people will likely suffer the tortured effects of the chemical.

This could weaken the international taboo against such weaponry. No wonder President Barack Obama has warned that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s use of sarin would be a “game changer.”

For sarin is considered a weapon of mass destruction. As with all chemical agents, effectiveness depends on the purity, the means of dissemination and vulnerability of the exposed population. At worst, chemicals can be devastating agents of death, even if less expansive in their effect than a biological release or a nuclear detonation.

Preventing mass atrocity after Assad

As the second anniversary of the Syrian uprising approaches, close to 80,000 people have been killed, a million are refugees and several million are displaced. The Syrian army and air force are under severe stress and attacking civilian populations, the revolutionaries are increasingly radicalized in a Sunni Islamist direction and Lebanese Hezbollah as well as Iranian Revolutionary Guards are getting deeply engaged in the fight.

It may seem superfluous to worry about what happens to the Alawite community — the mainstay of Bashar Al Assad’s regime – after he falls. But revenge killing is common after an uprising of this sort, and few regimes born in mass atrocity survive as democracies. A massacre of Alawites could be prelude to state collapse, an extremist regime and regional warfare far worse than the spillover we have seen thus far.

How can mass atrocity in the aftermath of the Assad regime be avoided? Above all, it is Syrians who will need to make sure it does not happen. The Syrian Coalition of Revolutionary and Opposition Forces has already made clear that it intends to construct a multi-sectarian, multi-ethnic and democratic regime post-Assad. What needs to be accomplished to achieve that goal?

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