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Some opponents of a strike in Syria contend that the norm against chemical weapons is pointless, since they generally produce far fewer fatalities than conventional arms. But chemical weapons, like nuclear and biological ones, are concerning primarily because they make discrimination between civilians and fighters impossible.
Since failing to receive backing for an intervention in Syria, British Prime Minister David Cameron has faced accusations of fatally undermining the United Kingdom’s relations with its closest ally, the United States. In truth, the vote didn’t mark the death of the “special relationship” -- it marked, however inadvertently, its restoration.
The global horror at Syria's alleged use of chemical weapons means that, even short of of a strike, it would take a peculiar leader to judge that he could follow suit without risking sanctions, military attack, or loss of legitimacy and isolation. In other words, the world has already helped reinforce the taboo on chemical weapons, and it can continue to do so through other acts of condemnation.
Despite giving Obama and the United States a “get out of jail free card” at home, most observers agree that, on points, Putin is the real winner of this particular round of the Syrian conflict. The question now is whether the United States and its allies can out-maneuver Putin to regain the diplomatic advantage. If the history of the Syrian conflict is any guide, that will not be easy.
With Congress debating intervention in Syria, Americans may soon realize the tragic truth about the decision at hand. To the extent that any policy is strategically sensible, it is unlikely to be politically palatable; to the extent that a policy can be accepted as politically legitimate, it is unlikely to be of much strategic merit.
So far, public debate about the intervention in Syria has centered on the immediate scope and aims of any U.S.-led military operation, and whether the U.S. Congress should be involved. But no matter how the possible intervention and its aftermath play out, one thing is certain: the eastern Mediterranean -- where exploratory drilling has unearthed vast reserves of natural gas, and where competition between Cyprus, Egypt, Israel, Lebanon, Syria, and Turkey is already fierce -- will become less stable.
Drones are a relatively cheap, low risk, and discriminate way to deal global threats without getting entangled in protracted conflicts -- and, so far, the Obama has never felt the need to get congressional approval to use them. So why aren't they an option in Syria? In truth, it is because they are not as useful as often assumed.
Obama’s recent decision to seek congressional support for military action in Syria caught many, including some of his own advisers, off guard. The decision seemed not merely to violate to his immediate interests, but also to contravene his own past practices. Rather than aberrational, however, the move reveals some longstanding truths about how the United States goes to war.
Despite diplomatic rhetoric, the goal of punishing violations of a near-universally held norm is not the same thing as the goal of protecting civilians. If that were really the purpose, the West would have intervened in Syria long ago. Its strategy now, moreover, would do more to take civilians into account.
Obama should re-articulate his policy of regime change for Syria, something he first announced in 2011 and has quietly revised ever since, and gear any intervention toward meeting that goal and building a reliable opposition. Although that will be incredibly difficult to do, the good news is that the United States and its allies have made more progress on that front than many realize.
The debate about what to do in Syria has been sidetracked by discussions of credibility and reputation. But both logic and evidence prove that reputations are mostly imaginary. Obama should not let fears that others might think him irresolute drive him to disaster. Instead, he should refocus on what U.S. interests really are in Syria, and how he can best obtain them.
The conflict in Syria will only end with a political solution. The United States should use the leverage it has -- through continued pressure and looming military strikes -- to help all sides get to the table and push for the transfer of power, however unlikely such an outcome might look right now.
The Assad regime has lost the legitimacy to govern Syria, and months of fighting have underlined the harsh reality that the opposition is outmatched. In this respect, a military backing of the opposition is not a contradiction to a negotiated transition through regional diplomacy but, rather, a precondition.
Last week, Hezbollah's Hassan Nasrallah confirmed his group's involvement in Syria. In doing so, he contorted Hezbollah's traditional talk of resistance against Israel -- which has broad appeal in the Arab street -- into a narrow defense of Shia interests. In doing so, he damaged the group's credibility and contributed to growing sectarianism across the Middle East.
The recent Kerry-Lavrov initiative to end the conflict in Syria through talks was met with skepticism among those who believe that the United States and Russia will bring their own agendas to the table, that Bashar al-Assad will refuse to step down, and that the Syrian opposition is too fragmented to strike a deal. But those are common problems, and successful talks can be -- and have been -- started under just such conditions.
Given that there are few appealing policy options for Syria, it might be tempting to downplay Assad's alleged use of chemical weapons and brush aside earlier rhetoric about red lines. But that would be a mistake: chemical weapons can kill thousands in a single day, their use becomes a national trauma, and their debilitating effects linger for decades.
Although chemical weapons are often considered weapons of mass destruction, they are not. In the case of sarin gas, many tons must be released under favorable conditions before it can inflict significantly more damage than conventional explosives. However repugnant Assad's use of chemical weapons in Syria might be, in other words, it should not change the United States' basic calculations.
If the 2011 intervention in Libya revived the responsibility to protect (R2P), the lack of intervention in Syria has seemed to bury it. But the doctrine was never meant as a panacea and could still work in future contexts, especially if decoupled from regime change.
Vladimir Putin's unwavering support for the Assad regime in Syria is best explained by his dread of fracturing states and Sunni Islamism -- fears he confronted most directly while brutally suppressing Chechnya's attempted secession from Russia.
Last week, after two years of uneasily watching the Syrian crisis from the sidelines, Israel staged a bombing run near Damascus. So far the political fallout remains limited -- but the episode shows how easily Syria's civil war could spark a broader conflict.
Today, it is taken for granted that using chemical weapons -- as the Assad regime has reportedly done -- is uniquely intolerable. Observers have speculated that humans simply harbor a particular fear of them or that militaries have never considered them useful. In fact, the proscription is the result of decades of international work.
After almost two years of bloodletting in Syria, there is little chance that negotiations of the kind UN peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi has been urging would end the conflict. More likely, they would prolong it. And worse, they would perpetuate Bashar al-Assad’s favorite strategy of fanning fears of rebel sectarianism and extremism to dissuade the world from intervening against him.
For several sound reasons, Western decision-makers have up to now rejected the idea of comprehensively arming Syria's opposition. But the facts on the ground have increasingly overrun those arguments, and the case for arming the rebels grows stronger by the month.
As fighting takes place along Syria's central artery running northward from Homs to Idlib, minority Alawites are increasingly setting up shop in a coastal enclave, looking to cordon themselves off from the chaos that they believe will come as President Bashar al-Assad's grip on the country weakens.
A onetime high-ranking Syrian Army officer on the state of the revolt in Syria.
Foreign Affairs Managing Editor Jonathan Tepperman moderates a discussion with authors Shadi Hamid and Robert Malley on the Arab Spring one year later.
In February 1982, Hafez al-Assad put down a rebellion in the city of Hama by his Islamist opponents. Three decades later his son faced down a similar rebellion in Homs. These two events were remarkably similar -- both Hafez and Bashar believed they were wrestling not only with internal dissent but with a large-scale American and Israeli conspiracy.
In 1982, the United States said very little about Hafez al-Assad's shelling of Hama and no one suggested that the United States intervene. In the wake of the Arab Spring, Washington is willing to speak out against Bashar al-Assad's crackdown in Homs, but is not yet willing to send in troops.
Terrible rulers, sullen populations, a terrorist fringe -- the Arabs' exceptionalism was becoming not just a human disaster but a moral one. Then, a frustrated Tunisian fruit vendor summoned his fellows to a new history, and millions heeded his call. The third Arab awakening came in the nick of time, and it may still usher in freedom.
More and more outsiders are calling for a humanitarian intervention in Syria to stop Bashar al-Assad's killing sprees. But for this to work, Syria's various opposition groups will have to first coalesce into a single, unified political and military force.
With Bashar al-Assad's regime on the brink of collapse, Hezbollah stands to lose a close ally. And by supporting Damascus' repression, the organization has compromised its reputation in a region gripped by anti-autocratic fervor. Given that, an off-balance Hezbollah may well shift gears, focusing less on its regional ambitions and more on domestic Lebanese politics.
When violence first erupted in Syria, the EU responded carefully, using sanctions to target members of Assad's government in Damascus. Since, European officials have ditched those concerns and moved toward heavy, or comprehensive, sanctions. The problem is that they will hurt the Syrian people more than the regime.
Throughout the year, Assad relied on Iran and Russia to block international intervention, hoping to buy time to quash the protests without interference. It's not working -- but he has no other options.
Michael Bröning, Tony Badran, and Mara E. Karlin and Andrew J. Tabler on the increasingly brutal crackdown in Syria, the durability of the Assad regime and what, if anything, the United States can do to bring the crisis to a peaceful end.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad may blame Israel for his problems, but the Israelis are more ambivalent about their sometime antagonist. Yet with little ability to affect the outcome of the uprisings, Jerusalem can only watch nervously as events unfold.
According to many observers, Syria's Bashar al-Assad was supposed to be immune to the kind of popular protest that swept the country today. Ironically, the basis was Assad’s own public relations strategy. With no real legitimacy, his only resort to stop the protests will be violence.
This article appears in the Foreign Affairs/CFR eBook, The New Arab Revolt.