Monday, September 02, 2013

Worth reading on Syria

As a Labor Day labor, I thought it might be useful to share some of the strongest analyses I've read about Syria, some of which are at odds with each other. The choices below address three interrelated questions: what should any U.S. response to the Assad regime's chemical weapons attack seek to achieve? How, if at all, does U.S. (and Obama's) "credibility" factor into the equation? And how, if at all, should we engage with adversaries other than Syria with a stake in the conflict?

1. How narrow a mission?

The Washington Post's Max Fisher argues that the "red line" is not about Obama, it's about a hundred year-old international norm. A strike narrowly focused on upholding the international taboo against chemical weapons use makes sense:

Washington has a tendency to perceive what happens in Washington as the most important factor in any event, which is a big part of why many here are focusing primarily on Obama’s “red line” against chemical weapons. What this misses is that Obama’s red line is only a year old, was never taken particularly seriously by the rest of the world (few missed Obama’s reticence to intervene) and was always vague. More importantly, it missed that there is an international norm against the use of chemical weapons, which is far more established and taken more seriously than Obama’s red line.

The international norm against the use of chemical weapons is old, reasonably well established and recognized by almost every country on Earth. It was established by the 1925 Geneva Protocols and has been observed far from perfectly but at least partially ever since. It’s one of the few international norms restricting warfare that we have in the world. And, while Obama’s red line might matter a whole lot in Beltway politics, the international norm against chemical weapons matters in just about every corner of the globe, because no country wants to expose itself to future chemical weapons use by letting the norm slacken.
Many observers wary of U.S. entanglement or alarmed at the possible triggering of regional war take refuge in the concept of a mission thus narrowly defined. On the other hand, to suggest, as opponents of more open-ended U.S. involvement often do, that secular and viable elements of the Syrian opposition have been eclipsed or hopelessly entangled with religious extremist groups is a gross oversimplification, according to scholars and reporters with on-the-ground knowledge. The relative strength of rival groups ebbs and flows with funding from rival outside powers. Thomas Pierret offers a detailed anatomy and chronicle, concluding:
...recent military developments show that Syrian insurgents have become increasingly dependent on state supporters for their logistics. Gone are the days when rebels could storm lightly defended regime positions with assault rifles and a few RPGs. The retreat of loyalist forces on heavily fortified bases last winter has required a major quantitative and qualitative increase in the opposition's armament. This is something only foreign governments, not jihadi utopians, can offer. Given Saudi Arabia's apparent determination to lead the way in that respect, this situation will probably continue to favor mainstream insurgents over their radical brothers in arms in the foreseeable future.
The clear implication of his reporting, as well as that of Michael Weiss and Elizabeth O’Bagy,(found via Hussein Ibish) is that carefully sifted and titrated U.S. support for the "right" rebel groups in Syria could be constructive. Of course, such support is a matter of degree -- and to a limited extent, the U.S. is providing it. And the final piece cited below suggests that the sectarian aspects of the conflict vastly complicate U.S. efforts to offer constructive support to chosen groups.

2. How credible are credibility arguments?

Jonathan Mercer, a scholar of international relations who has researched the degree to which a leader's past actions influence other countries' perceptions of his (or his country's) likely future moves, argues that reputation doesn't matter:
Do leaders assume that other leaders who have been irresolute in the past will be irresolute in the future and that, therefore, their threats are not credible? No; broad and deep evidence dispels that notion. In studies of the various political crises leading up to World War I and of those before and during the Korean War, I found that leaders did indeed worry about their reputations. But their worries were often mistaken.

For example, when North Korea attacked South Korea in 1950, U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson was certain that America’s credibility was on the line. He believed that the United States’ allies in the West were in a state of “near-panic, as they watched to see whether the United States would act.” He was wrong. When one British cabinet secretary remarked to British Prime Minister Clement Attlee that Korea was “a rather distant obligation,” Attlee responded, “Distant -- yes, but nonetheless an obligation.” For their part, the French were indeed worried, but not because they doubted U.S. credibility. Instead, they feared that American resolve would lead to a major war over a strategically inconsequential piece of territory. Later, once the war was underway, Acheson feared that Chinese leaders thought the United States was “too feeble or hesitant to make a genuine stand,” as the CIA put it, and could therefore “be bullied or bluffed into backing down before Communist might.” In fact, Mao thought no such thing. He believed that the Americans intended to destroy his revolution, perhaps with nuclear weapons.

Similarly, Ted Hopf, a professor of political science at the National University of Singapore, has found that the Soviet Union did not think the United States was irresolute for abandoning Vietnam; instead, Soviet officials were surprised that Americans would sacrifice so much for something the Soviets viewed as tangential to U.S. interests. And, in his study of Cold War showdowns, Dartmouth College professor Daryl Press found reputation to have been unimportant. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Soviets threatened to attack Berlin in response to any American use of force against Cuba; despite a long record of Soviet bluff and bluster over Berlin, policymakers in the United States took these threats seriously. As the record shows, reputations do not matter.
Jon Western, also a professor of international relations, takes Mercer's point, but argues that it's not necessarily applicable to the contemplated strike against Syria:
It’s pretty clear that the primary objective here is to punish the Syrian regime and deter a future chemical weapons attack in Syria. The Obama administration is focused on a very limited strike and doesn’t want to see an outright rebel victory. The logic of this strategic objective makes sense to me. I am persuaded by Daryl Press and Jon Mercer’s respective works that precedent effects, reputation, and credibility concerns are often overstated. But, their works look at how third-party leaders infer or read other actors’ responses elsewhere — not at how actors respond to bluffs in a particular case. It seems pretty clear that if the U.S. does not punish the perpetrators of this attack, these same perpetrators almost certainly will calculate that they can act again with impunity. And, as we’ve seen in the past week, the use of chemical weapons quickly changes the international political dynamics. In other words, if there is no action now, there will almost certainly be events on the ground that provoke international action later. It’s probably not a question of whether, but when, the international use of force happens.
3. Can the U.S. deal constructively with Syria's supporters?

Iran, long closely allied with Syria for geostrategic purposes, also has visceral cause to be repelled by chemical weapons use, since Iranians were victims of Saddam's use of CW in the Iran-Iraq war (a deployment winked at or actively abetted by the U.S.).  In recent days, former president Rafsanjani has on two separate occasions obliquely condemned the Assad regime's CW deployment. While the powers that be in Iran have forced him to wipe these comments off the map, the fact that they were made at all seems significant, and they may have been green-lighted by incoming president Rouhani.

That faint feint raises the question of whether the U.S. can constructively engage Iran, Russia or both to limit the further spread the Syrian civil war and push toward a diplomatic solution. The next round of talks with Iran about its nuclear program is scheduled for September 27, a couple of weeks after the U.S. Congres will vote on whether to authorize Obama to use force in Syria and within the time frame sketched out by Obama for action in Syria in his remarks yesterday. That led me to a perhaps rather flip exchange on Twitter with veteran international relations reporter Laura Rozen:
  1. IAEA or P5? RT : Head of AEOI Salehi says next round of - P5+1 talks scheduled for 27Sept
  2. Should mesh interestingly w/ possible strike on Syria. Deal? You cut off arms to Syria for 3 months; we won't bomb.
    18m  there are an awful lot of moving parts, some potentially pushing US & Iran to an understanding, incl. on Syria CW

    9m
    ...steady stream of messages from Iran suggesting tacitly may accept US assessment re: Syria CW :
More substantively, Anatol Lieven argues that U.S. support for the chemical weapons-using Saddam in the 1980s should "discourage demonization of those who for legitimate reasons fear the consequences of U.S. actions in Syria" in favor of diplomatic outreach, to this end: 
In the long run, if Syria is not to disintegrate as a country, there will have to be a peace settlement that guarantees the sharing of power among Syria’s different ethno-religious groups. The participation of Russia, Iran and Iraq in such a settlement will obviously be essential.
For Lieven, outreach to Russia and Iran is the flip side of rebalancing our too-close alliance with Sunni autocracies. I'll let Lieven's sophisticated read serve as the last word here:
The importance of Russia to the conflict in Syria lies both in its links to the Baath regime, and its good relations with Iran. A deeply negative consequence of the intensifying Syrian crisis has been to undermine the possibility of a new dialogue with Iran that was opened by the victory of the moderate President Hassan Rouhani in the June elections. 

One of the grave problems of the Syrian civil war for U.S. policy has been that it has risked entangling the United States even more deeply in an anti-Iranian (and historically at least, anti-Russian) alliance with the Sunni autocracies of the Persian Gulf that back the Syrian rebels. 

This alliance sits badly with America’s own secular and democratic values, with America’s commitment to a Shiite-dominated government in Iraq and with America’s hopes for progress in the Muslim world. The sponsorship of Sunni Islamist extremism by some of these states poses a threat to American security, and their pathological hatred for Shiism has contributed to deepening the Middle East’s disastrous sectarian divides. 

Using Moscow to develop new relations with Iran is therefore necessary not only for a resolution of the Iranian nuclear issue and (eventually) of the Syrian conflict, but also in the long run for the restoration of basic stability in the Middle East. 

And it should be noted that while Russia has preserved good relations with Iran, it has also on occasion been prepared to be tough with that country. The intensified U.N. sanctions eventually agreed to by Russia and China had a severe effect on the Iranian economy and seem to have contributed significantly to Hassan Rouhani’s victory in Iran’s elections. 

Of course, a Syrian peace settlement will be terribly difficult to achieve, and will probably not be achievable until both sides have fought themselves into a state of exhaustion. 

Nonetheless, the basic contours of any long-term settlement are already clear, as is the need for Iranian and Russian participation. While sending a strong military signal to Damascus and other regimes to never again use chemical weapons, Washington should at the same time intensify attempts to lay the diplomatic basis for this eventual settlement.

Update, 9/3: Barbara Slavin relays some signs that the U.S. may be opening the door to including Iran in Syrian peace talks.

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