1) International Crisis Group; 2) NY Times focus on Israel; 3) NY Times on Obama as useless and Arab League
The empty chair of the Syrian representative during a meeting of the Arab League, which met to discuss Syria. Syria was suspended from the Arab League in November 2011. Since the Arab Spring, the Arab League has become more political and active body, leaving only the undemocratic Gulf States as staunch US allies. Getty Images.
By International Crisis Group, Brussels
September 01, 2013
Assuming the U.S. Congress authorises them, Washington (together with some allies) soon will launch military strikes against Syrian regime targets. If so, it will have taken such action for reasons largely divorced from the interests of the Syrian people. The administration has cited the need to punish, deter and prevent use of chemical weapons – a defensible goal, though Syrians have suffered from far deadlier mass atrocities during the course of the conflict without this prompting much collective action in their defence. The administration also refers to the need, given President Obama’s asserted “redline” against use of chemical weapons, to protect Washington’s credibility – again an understandable objective though unlikely to resonate much with Syrians. Quite apart from talk of outrage, deterrence and restoring U.S. credibility, the priority must be the welfare of the Syrian people. Whether or not military strikes are ordered, this only can be achieved through imposition of a sustained ceasefire and widely accepted political transition.
To precisely gauge in advance the impact of a U.S. military attack, regardless of its scope and of efforts to carefully calibrate it, by definition is a fool’s errand. In a conflict that has settled into a deadly if familiar pattern – and in a region close to boiling point – it inevitably will introduce a powerful element of uncertainty. Consequences almost certainly will be unpredictable. Still, several observations can be made about what it might and might not do:
A military attack will not, nor can it, be met with even minimal international consensus; in this sense, the attempt to come up with solid evidence of regime use of chemical weapons, however necessary, also is futile. Given the false pretences that informed the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and, since then, regional and international polarisation coupled with the dynamics of the Syrian conflict itself, proof put forward by the U.S. will be insufficient to sway disbelievers and scepticism will be widespread.
It might discourage future use of chemical weapons by signalling even harsher punishment in the event of recidivism – an important achievement in and of itself. Should the regime find itself fighting for its survival, however, that consideration might not weigh heavily. Elements within the opposition also might be tempted to use such weapons and then blame the regime, precisely in order to provoke further U.S. intervention.
It could trigger violent escalation within Syria as the regime might exact revenge on rebels and rebel-held areas, while the opposition seeks to seize the opportunity to make its own gains.
Major regional or international escalation (such as retaliatory actions by the regime, Iran or Hizbollah, notably against Israel) is possible but probably not likely given the risks involved, though this could depend on the scope of the strikes.
Military action, which the U.S. has stated will not aim at provoking the regime’s collapse, might not even have an enduring effect on the balance of power on the ground. Indeed, the regime could register a propaganda victory, claiming it had stood fast against the U.S. and rallying domestic and regional opinion around an anti-Western, anti-imperialist mantra.
Ultimately, the principal question regarding a possible military strike is whether diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict can be re-energised in its aftermath. Smart money says they will not: in the wake of an attack they condemn as illegal and illegitimate, the regime and its allies arguably will not be in a mood to negotiate with the U.S. Carefully calibrating the strike to hurt enough to change their calculations but not enough to prompt retaliation or impede diplomacy is appealing in theory. In practice, it almost certainly is not feasible.
Whether or not the U.S. chooses to launch a military offensive, its responsibility should be to try to optimise chances of a diplomatic breakthrough. This requires a two-fold effort lacking to date: developing a realistic compromise political offer as well as genuinely reaching out to both Russia and Iran in a manner capable of eliciting their interest – rather than investing in a prolonged conflict that has a seemingly bottomless capacity to escalate.
In this spirit, the U.S. should present – and Syria’s allies should seriously and constructively consider – a proposal based on the following elements:
It is imperative to end this war. The escalation, regional instability and international entanglement its persistence unavoidably stimulates serve nobody’s interest.
The only exit is political. That requires far-reaching concessions and a lowering of demands from all parties. The sole viable outcome is a compromise that protects the interests of all Syrian constituencies and reflects rather than alters the regional strategic balance;
The Syrian crisis presents an important opportunity to test whether the U.S. and the Islamic Republic of Iran can work together on regional issues to restore stability;
A viable political outcome in Syria cannot be one in which the current leadership remains indefinitely in power but, beyond that, the U.S. can be flexible with regards to timing and specific modalities;
The U.S. is keen to avoid collapse of the Syrian state and the resulting political vacuum. The goal should thus be a transition that builds on existing institutions rather than replaces them. This is true notably with respect to the army;
Priority must be given to ensuring that no component of Syrian society is targeted for retaliation, discrimination or marginalisation in the context of a negotiated settlement.
Such a proposal should then form the basis for renewed efforts by Lakhdar Brahimi, the joint United Nations/Arab League envoy, and lead to rapid convening of a Geneva II conference.
Debate over a possible strike – its wisdom, preferred scope and legitimacy in the absence of UN Security Council approval – has obscured and distracted from what ought to be the overriding international preoccupation: how to revitalise the search for a political settlement. Discussions about its legality aside, any contemplated military action should be judged based on whether it advances that goal or further postpones it.
By Jodi Rudoren, NY Times
September 05, 2013
JERUSALEM — President Obama’s position on Syria — punish President Bashar al-Assad for using chemical weapons without seeking to force him from power — has been called “half-pregnant” by critics at home and abroad who prefer a more decisive American intervention to end Syria’s civil war.
But Mr. Obama’s limited strike proposal has one crucial foreign ally: Israel.
Israeli officials have consistently made the case that enforcing Mr. Obama’s narrow “red line” on Syria is essential to halting the nuclear ambitions of Israel’s archenemy, Iran. More quietly, Israelis have increasingly argued that the best outcome for Syria’s two-and-a-half-year-old civil war, at least for the moment, is no outcome.
For Jerusalem, the status quo, horrific as it may be from a humanitarian perspective, seems preferable to either a victory by Mr. Assad’s government and his Iranian backers or a strengthening of rebel groups, increasingly dominated by Sunni jihadis.
“This is a playoff situation in which you need both teams to lose, but at least you don’t want one to win — we’ll settle for a tie,” said Alon Pinkas, a former Israeli consul general in New York. “Let them both bleed, hemorrhage to death: that’s the strategic thinking here. As long as this lingers, there’s no real threat from Syria.”
The synergy between the Israeli and American positions, while not explicitly articulated by the leaders of either country, could be a critical source of support as Mr. Obama seeks Congressional approval for surgical strikes in Syria. Some Republicans have pushed him to intervene more assertively to tip the balance in the Syrian conflict, while other politicians from both parties are loath to involve the United States in another Middle Eastern conflict on any terms.
But Israel’s national security concerns have broad, bipartisan support in Washington, and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the influential pro-Israel lobby in Washington, weighed in Tuesday in support of Mr. Obama’s approach. The group’s statement said nothing, however, about the preferred outcome of the civil war, instead saying that America must “send a forceful message” to Iran and Hezbollah and “take a firm stand that the world’s most dangerous regimes cannot obtain and use the most dangerous weapons.”
After years of upheaval in the Middle East and tension between Mr. Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, the two leaders are now largely in sync on how to handle not just Syria, but also Egypt. Mr. Obama has not withheld American aid to Egypt after the military-backed ouster of the elected Islamist government, while Israel strongly backs the Egyptian military as a source of stability.
On Syria, in fact, Israel pioneered the kind of limited strike Mr. Obama is now proposing: four times this year, it has bombed convoys of advanced weapons it suspected were being transferred to Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militia that Israel considers a major threat.
It has otherwise been content to watch the current stalemate in Syria pull in what it considers a range of enemies: not only the Syrian Army and Iran, but also Hezbollah, which has thousands of fighters engaged on the battlefronts in Syria, and Sunni Islamists aligned against them.
Though Syria and Israel have technically been at war for more than 40 years, the conflict in Syria is now viewed mainly through the prism of Iran. A prolonged conflict is perceived as hurting Iran, which finances Mr. Assad’s war effort. Whether Mr. Obama follows through on his promise to retaliate for the use of chemical weapons is a test of his commitment, ultimately, to prevent an Iranian nuclear bomb — as long as the retaliation does not become a full-scale intervention in Syria.
“If it’s Iran-first policy, then any diversion to Syria is not fruitful,” said Aluf Benn, editor of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. “From the Israeli point of view, the worst scenario is mission-creep in Syria and America gets entangled in a third war in the Middle East, which paralyzes its ability to strike Iran and limits Israel’s ability to strike Iran as well.”
This spring, when an Israeli official called for an international response to what he said were earlier Syrian chemical attacks, he was muzzled and reprimanded for appearing to pressure the White House. Now, said Eyal Zisser, a historian at Tel Aviv University who specializes in the region, “it’s clear that Israel does not want to appear as somebody that is pushing the United States for a deep involvement.”
There are significant differences between Israel and the United States on Syria. There was widespread criticism here of Mr. Obama’s decision to delay responding to the chemical attack, with the quote “When you have to shoot, shoot, don’t talk” from “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” becoming a common refrain. One Israeli dentist even took out a large newspaper ad promoting his implant services with a picture of Mr. Obama captioned, “He doesn’t have teeth?”
There has also been a broader debate about how best to respond to the war in Syria.
When the uprising began, many here saw Mr. Assad, who like his predecessor and father had maintained quiet on the border, as “the devil you know,” and therefore preferable to the rebels, some of whom were aligned with Al Qaeda or Sunni militants like the Palestinian Hamas faction.
As the death toll has mounted, more Israelis joined a camp led by Amos Yadlin, a former head of Israeli military intelligence, who argues that the devil you know is, actually, a devil who should be ousted sooner rather than later.
That split remains. But as hopes have dimmed for the emergence of a moderate, secular rebel force that might forge democratic change and even constructive dialogue with Israel, a third approach has gained traction: Let the bad guys burn themselves out.
“The perpetuation of the conflict is absolutely serving Israel’s interest,” said Nathan Thrall, a Jerusalem-based analyst for the International Crisis Group.
Tamara Cofman Wittes, director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, was one of several experts who said this view differs from the callous “let them all kill each other” shrug popular here during the long-running Iran-Iraq war. Rather, Ms. Wittes said, the reasoning behind a strike that would not significantly change the Syrian landscape is that the West needs more time to prop up opposition forces it finds more palatable and prepare them for future governing.
She cited dangers for Israel if the conflict continues to drag on, including more efforts to transfer advanced weapons to Hezbollah, instability in Lebanon and pressure on Jordan.
Despite those threats, Matthew Levitt, who studies the region at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said Jerusalem and Washington essentially agree that “right now, there’s no good way for this war to end.”
Israeli leaders “want Assad to be punished; they’d like it to be punishing enough that it actually makes a difference in the war but not so much that it completely takes him out,” Mr. Levitt said. “The Israelis do not think the status quo is tenable either, but they think the status quo right now is better than the war ending tomorrow, because the war ending tomorrow could be much worse. There’s got to be a tomorrow, day-after plan.”
By David D. Kirkpatrick
September 01, 2013
CAIRO — The Arab League on Sunday urged international action against the Syrian government to deter what it called the “ugly crime” of using chemical weapons. It was a major step toward supporting Western military strikes but short of the explicit endorsement that the United States and some Persian Gulf allies had hoped for.
The League moved beyond the more cautious stance it took just a few days ago, when it asked the United Nations Security Council to overcome its internal differences on the Syrian conflict — an outcome that was extremely unlikely given Russia’s strong support for Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad.
This time, the League called for the United Nations and “the international community” at large to exercise their responsibilities under international law “to take the necessary measures” against the Syrian government. But aside from calling for trials of the perpetrators of chemical weapons attacks, the resolution — adopted at a meeting in Cairo late Sunday night — did not specify what kind of international measures might be needed or justified.
Obama administration officials considered the statement a step forward because it opened the door to action outside the Security Council. But many in the region said the ambiguity was the latest manifestation of Washington’s diminishing influence.
President Obama’s last-minute pullback to seek a vote in Congress on military intervention put some of his Arab allies in a bind, analysts meeting with Arab diplomats said. Hoping to produce a strong Arab League statement to provide cover for Washington, Arab leaders had new cause to wonder if Mr. Obama would follow through.
“He is seen as feckless and weak, and this will only give further rise to conspiracy theories that Obama doesn’t really want Assad out and it is all a big game,” said Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center and a former United Nations envoy in the region. “Many Arab leaders already think that Obama’s word cannot be trusted — I am talking about his friends and allies — and I am afraid this will reinforce that belief.”
On Sunday afternoon, some Arab diplomats sought to portray themselves as stepping forward to take the lead in the Syrian crisis after Mr. Obama on Saturday abruptly pulled back from any immediate military action, surprising many Arab leaders hours before they had expected airstrikes might begin.
But by the end of the night on Sunday, the outcome at the Arab League meeting failed to deliver the strong call to arms that Saudi Arabia and some others had sought as a way of encouraging the United States to press on with a strike.
Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf monarchies have privately urged the United States to take decisive military action to topple the government of Mr. Assad, whom they view as the main regional ally of their opponent, Iran. Some, including Jordan and other Gulf states, are already collaborating with the United States to try to train and equip the Syrian rebels.
But before Sunday, none had come close to publicly calling for Western military intervention, in part because the notion is so deeply unpopular among citizens across the Arab world. Egypt, the recipient of $1.5 billion a year in American aid and for decades a stalwart ally, has actively opposed Western intervention in Syria since the military takeover that ousted President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood.
The Arab League’s resolution thus represented a double compromise: between the supporters and the opponents of Western intervention within the chamber, but also between the conflicting desires to urge on the West and to avoid getting caught at it.
Saudi Arabia on Sunday gave the strongest public call by any Arab government for international military action. In a news conference in Cairo before the Arab League meeting, Prince Saud al-Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister, accused opponents of Western military action of abetting the mass killing of Syrians by Mr. Assad’s government. Such Arab states were telling Syrians, “I will not help you and I will not allow you to be helped by others,” he said.
“We demand that the international community does the action required to stop the bloodshed,” the foreign minister said at the news conference. “We support them in this, and we don’t find condemnation and denouncement enough. We instead support the international community to use its resources to stop the aggression on the Syrian people before they’re exterminated.”
Morocco, a North African kingdom newly embraced by the Gulf monarchies as an ally after the Arab Spring revolts, also issued a strongly worded statement demanding the Assad government be held accountable for its use of chemical weapons. But in an interview, its foreign minister, Youssef Amrani, declined to say whether the kingdom would support a Western airstrike. “When the American government will make a decision on this, we will respond,” he said.
Standing next to the Saudi foreign minister at the same news conference, his Egyptian counterpart came close to directly opposing the same international action that the Saudis called morally imperative. Nabil Fahmy, the Egyptian foreign minister, called for internationally mediated talks between the Assad government and its opponents, “the political base that we think provides the best possible way to deal with the entire Syrian issue.”
Inside the chamber, Mr. Fahmy declared more forcefully that Egypt continued to “reject” any military action against Syria.
After Egypt signed on to the final resolution, many analysts pointed to the growing regional influence of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, which have extended Egypt billions of dollars in critical financial support since Mr. Morsi’s ouster, giving them the upper hand in the behind-the-scenes talks that crafted the resolution. But the Egyptians may have felt they could support the resolution without fear of contradiction because it made no reference to military force.
Mayy El Sheikh contributed reporting.
Members of Arab League
Algeria, Comoros, Djibouti, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Palestine, Somalia, Sudan, Syrian National Council*, Tunisia, United Arab Emirate, Yemen
Gulf state members Arab League: support US intervention in Syria
Bahrain, former British protectorate: oil-rich monarchy, ruled by King Hamad bin Isa bin Salman Al Khalifa
Kuwait, former British protectorate: oil-rich constitutional monarchy, ruled by Emir Sabah IV Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah
Oman: oil-rich Islamic monarchy, currently ruled by Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said. formally independent, with heavy British investment and a close relationship with the UK military.
Qatar: former British protectorate: oil-rich monarchy (no political parties allowed) ruled by Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani
Saudi Arabia: very oil-rich monarchy, currently ruled by (rumoured by Iran to be clinically dead) King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz
*The state of Syria, as represented by President Asser’s government, was suspended from the Arab League in November 2011 for its aggression against civilians. Under pressure from the Gulf states, the Arab League recognised the Syrian National Council as a legitimate representative of the Syrian people in November 2012 and admitted it to membership as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people in March 2013.