Opinion

The Great Debate

In Syria, try banks before bombs

As President Barack Obama weighs the U.S. response to chemical weapons attacks against Syrian civilians, one soft power option should still be at top of his to-do list: cutting off access to the U.S. financial system to those doing business with Syria’s Bashar al-Assad.

Russian banks and others are reported to be helping the Assad regime circumvent U.S. and EU sanctions by holding Syrian money while continuing to do business, legally, in the Europe Union and the United States. With a more aggressive and coordinated approach to financial sanctions, Obama could inflict serious capital damage on Assad’s enablers — without collateral damage in the form of slain or injured civilians.

Aggressive sanctions could be more effective than bombing in hastening the end of the Syrian civil war by imposing substantial financial costs on those who are propping up Assad — without enraging the Arab street.

Iran probably won’t abandon Assad. But if Russia is forced to choose between its banks and a regime that has become a global pariah, Moscow could opt to stop arming the Syrian government.

This banks-before-bombs strategy would require buy-in from the European Union and diplomatic heft. But it wouldn’t require a United Nations Security Council resolution against Syria — which Russia already said it would veto. It would also send an immediate message about the civilized world’s resolve to punish chemical weapons use, without invoking or precluding military action.

Time for action on Syria

The Syrian civil war now threatens to split the Middle East along a Sunni-Shia chasm. The horrifying news reports Wednesday about the Assad government’s possible chemical attack on civilians, if proven true, mean that the Obama administration’s “red line” has been crossed yet again.

Thursday, both France and Turkey called for stronger action — including a possible use of force. Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) renewed his call for a no-fly zone.

But does all this mean that the United States and the European Union will now follow a more assertive policy in Syria?

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."

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.

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