Opinion

Ian Bremmer

The vote on Syria hardly matters

Ian Bremmer
Sep 10, 2013 21:30 UTC

The details of American involvement in Syria seem to change every minute. First the Obama administration was going to launch a “limited, narrow” attack, with international backing, against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime as a punitive response to chemical weapons use. Then the administration was going to do it more or less alone. A week and a half ago, Obama punted on the issue, asking for congressional backing (but all the while stressing he could strike without Congress’ permission). And now, thanks to gaffe diplomacy, it’s possible that America won’t strike Syria at all, as the administration is willing to delay a vote in favor of pursuing a diplomatic solution — like Russia’s proposal that Syria hands over its chemical weapons to the international community. That Russia’s plan is likely aimed more at scuttling strikes than at actually rounding up Assad’s chemical arsenal seems beside the point.

For more than a week, the prospect of a strike has dominated headlines, with a vote billed as the all-important variable. Here’s what all that hype is missing: While Obama’s decision to punt to Congress had far-reaching implications, at this point whether the U.S. actually strikes hardly matters. Whether the vote goes through, goes down, or never happens, it doesn’t have a huge impact on Obama, Syria, or America’s underlying priority in the region — Iran.

If the decision to strike Syria mattered overwhelmingly to President Obama, he wouldn’t have gone to Congress in the first place. Obama knows that, in this decade, elections are not won and lost on foreign policy. Only 5 percent of voters in the 2012 presidential election said their top issue was foreign policy. By punting to Congress, Obama made clear that he values the political cover it provides more than the actual issue at hand — to strike or not to strike. If the strike gets voted down, the defeat would only have limited domestic impact for Obama, as most of the damage is already done. And if the vote is delayed indefinitely — as a result of exploring Russia’s proposal, for example — then the fallout for Obama is even less severe.

The vote also doesn’t matter that much for Syria. It would certainly matter if America was planning on engaging in the war at large with a mind to shift the balance of power. But the United States isn’t aiming to fundamentally undermine Assad. Remember that America would be telegraphing in advance how long this strike would last and what it would target. John Kerry called any potential strike “unbelievably small.” And now Obama is angling for a diplomatic path that could avert such a strike altogether.

And it’s clear the Syrian attack has never been about Syria, but about American credibility abroad. Most of the credibility that America has lost came when Obama first opened the matter up to Congress. It matters little to Iran whether Congress approves or rejects a Syrian strike, because the deliberations are so different from what we’ll see if Iran hurtles toward nuclear breakout capacity. Iran was most interested in whether Obama could summon allies, and then his own courage, to defend a red line that he personally set. He could not. If you’re Iran, the major lesson is that the Obama administration is weak when it’s trying to mount backing for military action. Whatever happens from here doesn’t change that.

Can the U.S.’s limited military strike against Assad stay limited?

Ian Bremmer
Aug 27, 2013 21:44 UTC

After Secretary of State John Kerry’s speech about Syria’s chemical warfare yesterday, it’s clear that the U.S. is going to attack Syria. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel says U.S. forces are “ready to go.” Envoys are telling rebels that Western forces “could attack Syria within days,” per Reuters.

But even as the United States prepares to strike, Syria is not really the heart of the issue. As Kerry said in his speech, “The meaning of [Assad’s chemical weapon] attack goes beyond the conflict in Syria itself.” The goal will not be to tilt the scales in Syria’s civil war or to put an end to the violence; rather, the U.S. wants to retaliate against an affront to its credibility, and the unambiguous breaching of an international norm. But there is danger. What begins as a limited military strike to punish Assad could quickly devolve into deeper engagement in Syria, or it could scuttle America’s top regional priorities like its nuclear discussions with Iran.

Months ago President Obama made clear that he would not permit any chemical weapons abuses in Syria, calling it his “red line.” But despite evidence of small batches of chemical weapons being deployed on Syrians, Obama sat idle for months. It’s only now, after chemical attacks last week that left hundreds dead and more traumatized, that the U.S. is moving to action. The chemical warfare became too large — and calls from the United States’ allies too loud — for the United States to remain a spectator any longer. So after two years of idling on Syria, it’s clear that what the U.S. is really defending is not Syrians, but the international prohibition of chemical weapons, and, most of all, its own credibility. Assad has to be punished because he clearly and publicly crossed Obama’s one explicit red line — however arbitrary hundreds of chemical weapons-induced deaths may seem in comparison to the 100,000-plus Syrians who have perished in the civil war.

In a G-Zero world, Syria’s civil war will drag on and on

Ian Bremmer
Jul 27, 2012 17:55 UTC

“Syria: Towards the Endgame” was the headline the Economist splashed across one of its most recent covers. But as we’ve seen with this week’s assault on Aleppo, the end of the Assad regime is, in all likelihood, not even close. Let’s unpack why and enumerate the ways:

1. China’s and Russia’s vetoes

The two countries vetoed the most recent U.N. Security Council resolution, which would have authorized sanctions against Assad’s government as a result of its repeated failures to adhere to promises to bring peace to the nation. While the result is disappointing for the Syrian people, the effect of the vetoes of China and Russia is twofold. First, the U.N. obviously has been robbed of one of the tools it uses to protect citizens of oppressive regimes. But second, the impact of the veto, coming from two countries that have up-and-down relationships with the U.S., serves to turn any American interventionism into an international incident.

Let’s be clear: This is playing politics on a global, humanitarian scale. We always knew that Russia and China would not support a U.S. intervention in Syria, not even in the way they grudgingly did when it came to Libya. But ultimately, the bloodshed there is not just on their hands. While Obama has cover for his hands-off foreign policy thanks to the veto, U.N. resolutions have hardly stopped or even influenced U.S. foreign policy in the past, especially when it mattered.

Why Syria’s Assad is still in power

Ian Bremmer
Apr 4, 2012 16:23 UTC

We can’t afford to throw him out.

Last week, likely GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney caused a tempest in a teapot when he told CNN that he thought the top U.S. geopolitical foe is Russia. President Obama’s White House seized on the comment, rebutting that al Qaeda is actually our top foe abroad. But if we look at the way American foreign policy has been enacted since the beginnings of the global crisis, it’s clear that America’s biggest opponent on the world stage is really itself.

Take what’s going on in Syria as the most recent example. That country’s leader, Bashar al-Assad, continues to tease the world’s diplomats by claiming to want peace for his people, yet he cracks down with unfettered abandon on their protests against his oppressive regime. Having just agreed to yet another peace plan, a troop withdrawal by Apr. 10, it’s clear he’ll find some way around his latest bargain, as he always has. What’s even more shocking is that the peace deal, negotiated by Kofi Annan, did not even call for Assad to leave power, which to outside eyes seems like a precondition for any sort of success. And the absence of the demand that Assad go is squarely due to the U.S.’s refusal to back it up with the sort of severe consequences it used to dole out: military strikes, preemptive wars and overwhelming use of force. For the U.S., at least for now, those days are over. And Washington won’t make foreign policy promises it can’t or doesn’t intend to keep.

After all, consider the fall of Gaddafi in Libya. Here was a decades-long enemy of the U.S. whose people rose up against him in a huge insurgency. His people lived in a backward state while he enriched himself with billions of stolen dollars. To borrow a phrase, the case for his deposal was a slam-dunk. Yet even this most climactic act of the Arab Spring did not draw out a single ground-troop commitment from the Obama administration. The U.S., in fact, only ran about 10 percent of the total NATO bombing runs over Libya – not exactly the type of campaign the U.S. military is used to making against brutal dictators with bad reputations who antagonize it.

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