The Middle East Channel

Obama gains support for military action on Syria

The U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee has agreed on a draft resolution on Syria, which is expected to come to a vote on Wednesday. The resolution is scaled down from what was requested by President Barack Obama setting a 60-day limit on military action, with a possible 30-day extension, and preventing the use of U.S. ground troops. Obama has garnered increasing support for an attack on Syria, winning backing from key Republicans including House Speaker John Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. Additionally, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said she supported "targeted, tailored" action "of short duration." While a bill on a military action is expected to pass in the Senate, it will meet challenges in the House. Russian President Vladimir Putin has warned the United States against a unilateral action on Syria. He said it would be "absolutely absurd" for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to have used chemical weapons when it was making significant gains in the conflict. However, Putin said Russia had not ruled out supporting a U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing force against Syria if it was proven "beyond doubt" that Assad's forces had used chemical weapons. Putin was speaking ahead of the G20 conference, which will begin Thursday in St. Petersburg, and will likely be dominated by the Syrian crisis. Putin said that Russia had suspended a partially delivered contract to send an air defense missile system to Syria. Meanwhile, according to Interfax, Russia is sending a missile cruiser, set to arrive in the east Mediterranean in 10 days, to take over naval operations.

Headlines

  • Gunmen killed 16 members of a Shiite family in the Iraqi town of Latifiya overnight meanwhile bombings and shootings on Wednesday targeting Iraqi security forces killed at least 12 people.
  • An Egyptian military court has issued lengthy sentences to dozens of supporters of ousted President Morsi accused of opening fire on soldiers, including one life term.
  • Israeli police have reportedly arrested seven Palestinians after clashes in Jerusalem's Old City.
  • Bahrain's justice minister has issued an order requiring political groups to obtain authorization to meet with foreign diplomats or international organizations further limiting opposition groups. 

Arguments and Analysis

'The Syria vote's political stakes' (Doyle McManus, Los Angeles Times)

"Every member of the Senate with a glimmer of ambition to run for president -- and that's most of them -- knows that a vote for war can make or break a political career. The example of Hillary Rodham Clinton, whose vote to authorize the 2003 invasion of Iraq crippled her bid for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008, is vivid in every mind on Capitol Hill.

So while it might be tempting to assume that members of Congress will be thinking solely of the national interest when they vote on President Obama's request for punitive strikes against Syria, there will be old-fashioned politics at work as well. And the stakes are higher for some than for others.

Obama, of course, has the most to lose. He has made it clear that, like all his recent predecessors, he doesn't think he needs authorization from Congress to launch missile strikes against Syria. But that only underscores the fact that Obama turned to Congress out of weakness, not strength."

'Syria: what happened to diplomacy?' (Trita Parsi, Reuters)

"There is a bizarre quality to the U.S. public debate about bombing Syria. Much time and effort has been spent analyzing President Barack Obama's decision to finally call for a vote in Congress: whether this was a wise choice; what the repercussions of an attack may be; the (il)legality of acting without a United Nations Security Council mandate; the moral case for bombing, and the strategic case for restraint.

But almost no attention has been paid to a fundamental question: Have all other options been exhausted?

Obama has presented the American public with a false binary choice: taking military action or doing nothing.

It is perhaps the sign of our times that diplomacy is not even being talked about as an option, though Obama's 2008 platform included restoring diplomacy as a central tool of American statecraft.

If the key concern is humanitarian -- putting an end to the senseless slaughter of Syrian civilians -- rather than U.S. credibility -- ensuring the enforcement of the president's 'red line' -- much more should have been done earlier to press all sides of the conflict to agree to a cease-fire.

Undoubtedly, this is not an easy task. Neither Syrian President Bashar al-Assad nor the various opposition forces (not to mention the growing al Qaeda elements) are reliable negotiation counterparts.

But such is the nature of civil wars. They are rarely fought by your ideal negotiating partners. Yet most civil wars can only come to an end through a negotiated settlement. The longer one waits, the higher the death tolls, the deeper the wounds and the harder the task."

--Mary Casey & Joshua Haber

Dennis Brack-Pool/Getty Images

The Middle East Channel

Don’t pretend the U.N. can save Syria

It is time to set Lakhdar Brahimi free. After a year's service as envoy for the United Nations and Arab League to Syria, the veteran Algerian mediator faces the final breakdown of his efforts to end the war. Disillusioned with both the Syrian government and its opponents, he came close to resigning in May. Since then he has hung on, mainly because his departure would look like an admission that a peace deal is impossible. His demeanor suggests that he is painfully conscious of the hopelessness of his situation.

A week ago, with Western military action against Damascus apparently looming after the regime's suspected use of chemical weapons in Ghouta, it looked like Brahimi finally had a way out. If the United States and its allies launched missile or air strikes without a U.N. mandate, he could resign with a clear conscience. Yet since Britain balked and U.S. President Barack Obama declared that he would put the issue to Congress, there have been calls for Brahimi to make a last-ditch attempt to show there is still some diplomatic way out of the crisis. 

This weekend, for example, the International Crisis Group argued that the U.N. envoy should make "renewed efforts" to help the United States "optimize chances of a diplomatic breakthrough." Over the next week, Brahimi and his boss U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon are likely to talk a lot about the need for restraint and compromise. But the chances of brokering honest negotiations between the Syrian government and rebels remain remote. It would be foolish, or just dishonest, to claim that Brahimi and Ban as individuals or the U.N. as an institution can overcome the political obstacles that have frustrated multiple mediators since 2011.   

Brahimi has certainly never had much of a chance of forging a peace deal. He was called up to defend the U.N.'s honor after Kofi Annan stood down as Syria envoy in August 2012. He has been frustrated by the obduracy and bloodthirstiness of President Bashar al-Assad and the maneuverings of Assad's opponents in the Arab League, such as Saudi Arabia, which have never had much interest in a compromise peace. His one success was to engineer regular meetings on the crisis between senior Russian and U.S. diplomats, raising hopes for a backroom deal.

By the second quarter of this year, however, he had concluded that he could achieve no more. He was on the verge of resigning in May, but U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry upset Brahimi's plans with his joint call with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov for a new peace conference in Geneva to follow up on talks in the Swiss city convened by Annan in July 2012. Under pressure from Kerry, Brahimi agreed to stay on to oversee the conference. But with the Syrian government ruling out Assad's resignation and rebel leaders bickering publicly over whether to attend at all, "Geneva 2" has been repeatedly postponed.

Brahimi and Ban Ki-moon have been reduced to a sort of Greek chorus in the Syrian tragedy, sternly cataloging the unfolding horrors of the war and making pleas for peace, yet unable to shape events. The U.N. duo did manage to get some traction last week, warning the West not to take military action without a Security Council mandate and demanding that U.N. weapons inspectors have time to investigate Ghouta properly. While U.S. officials indicated that they did not want to get bogged down in U.N. process issues, their British counterparts felt obliged to float a Security Council resolution approving military action to protect Syrian civilians. While the British were primarily motivated by memories of Iraq and public opposition at home to non-U.N.-mandated action, Ban and Brahimi's calls for caution did feed into debates in London in the run-up to Thursday's parliamentary vote against military engagement.

Nonetheless, Brahimi appears to be fatalistic about the future of his diplomatic process, telling journalists, "the Russians and the Americans are both telling me they remain committed to Geneva 2, but what will happen, I think, we will know only if and when this military action takes place." In reality, the events of the last fortnight have already rendered Brahimi's strategy of trying to build consensus between Russia and the United States over Syria null and void. An eventual U.S. military strike, Lavrov made clear this week, would "push the planned Geneva 2 a long way back or even kill it altogether."

But even if the United States steps back from launching strikes, it will be very hard for Moscow and Washington to agree on any diplomatic alternatives. The Obama administration is out of patience with Russia's obstructionism at the U.N. while President Vladimir Putin has poured scorn on U.S. statements about the Ghouta atrocity. Brahimi's bet that the two powers could eventually be induced to cooperate has decisively failed. The Syrian government, meanwhile, is treating the delay in Western action as a victory -- the idea that Assad's emissaries would negotiate in good faith in Geneva is just not credible.

So what is left for the U.N. to do? One option would be for Brahimi to stand down and Ban to appoint another envoy to inject fresh energy into diplomacy. But this would largely be window-dressing. It is hard to think of any potential envoy who could really make a difference. Since the Syrian conflict has escalated, diplomats have kicked around a range of other names. Former Finnish president, and successful mediator in Kosovo, Martti Ahtisaari was one serious early alternative to Annan. But some ambassadors at the U.N. have previously told Ban that it would look farcical to name a third envoy: if the U.N. is to have any further role in peacemaking in Syria, the Secretary-General should lead it himself.

Ban probably doesn't want to do that. He has spoken out strongly against the violence in Syria for two years, infuriating Assad, but engaging directly in negotiations would put his personal credibility at risk. The Secretary-General might prefer to take a higher-profile route, using the upcoming meeting of world leaders for the new session of the U.N. General Assembly (starting September 24) as the basis for a peace conference. There has also been talk of Australia, which holds the Security Council's rotating presidency this month, trying to find common ground between the United States and Russia.

The chances of either the General Assembly or Security Council delivering significant diplomatic dividends are, however, minimal. Putin is not even scheduled to attend the General Assembly. Hawkish Arab leaders, still intent on ousting Assad, may use the assembly as a platform to demand forceful action against Assad, undermining any peace initiatives. While European policy makers still place considerable weight on the Security Council, especially after the British vote, the Obama administration will not wait for a U.N. mandate for military action if it can secure congressional backing.   

Rather than scrabble to pull off an unlikely diplomatic coup, Ban could challenge the United States and Russia -- along with the main Middle Eastern powers -- to find a way out of the impasse they have created. One option would be for Moscow and Washington, and their various European and Arab allies, to send delegations of intelligence and military officials to Geneva for discussions on how to stop Assad from using chemical weapons again. In the short term, it may be easier to make progress on this limited goal than to search for a broader diplomatic breakthrough. In the longer term, if Russia and the United States can find a way to cooperate on the chemical weapons issue, it could allow them to rebuild some of the trust they have lost.

Brahimi could still play a role in convening discussions of this type. But once he has done so, he should be allowed to step away from the Syrian war. He has worked hard to end the war. But if there is no hope of compromise between the United States and Russia, he cannot continue indefinitely. To do so would simply be to nurture false hopes about the vanishingly small prospects for a diplomatic solution on Syria.

Richard Gowan is Research Director at New York University's Center on International Cooperation and a Senior Policy Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

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