The Middle East Channel

United States and Russia begin talks on Syrian chemical weapons disarmament

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will begin two days of meetings in Geneva Thursday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to discuss Russia's proposal for an international plan to disarm the Syrian government of its chemical weapons. Kerry and Lavrov, aided by chemical weapons experts, are aiming to agree on a blueprint for a U.N. Security Council resolution. According to a U.S. official, the meetings will be an exploratory session to see if it is possible to dismantle Syria's chemical arsenal amidst the civil war. Additionally, Kerry will push for Syria to take immediate steps to show it is serious about relinquishing its chemical arms. The United States and Russia are divided over whether the resolution will include a chapter seven mandate which would allow for the use of military force if Syria does not comply with its provisions. Russian President Vladimir Putin argued against a U.S. military intervention in Syria appealing to the U.S. public in a New York Times op-ed Wednesday. Meanwhile, fierce clashes have continued in the historic Christian town of Maaloula, despite reports that government forces have taken control. Additionally, Syrian warplanes bombed a main hospital in northern opposition-held territory on Wednesday. The bombing, in the town of al-Bab, about 19 miles northeast of Aleppo, reportedly killed 11 civilians, including two doctors, and destroyed the emergency and radiology departments of the hospital.


  • Two explosions carried out by a suicide bomber killed at least 35 worshippers leaving a Shiite mosque in northern Baghdad Wednesday evening as violence continues to surge in Iraq.
  • The National Security Agency (NSA) has an intelligence-sharing agreement with Israel and has routinely shared raw intelligence information about U.S. citizens.
  • Al Jazeera said it will take international legal action against Egypt's military-led government over a "sustained campaign of harassment and intimidation" against its journalists.
  • There is increasing evidence that camels are likely the link in the transmission from bats to humans of the MERS virus, which has recently claimed dozens of lives predominantly in the Gulf.

Arguments and Analysis

'"The Big If": Ending bloodshed in Syria' (Leila Hilal, CNN)

"It appears clear that by threatening military intervention, Obama was able to advance Syria's conflict toward a potential point of agreement for action. The United States should reserve that right to use force within a particular timeline but without letting it become a stumbling block at the Security Council.

The administration should also continue to make the case to the American people that Syria's suffering didn't start with chemical weapons and will not end in the chance that they are secured or destroyed.

If these negotiations are to be a real opportunity, they must be viewed as a step toward a larger political initiative to achieve conditions for a negotiated transition from civil war to relative stability and eventually the democratic Syria for which so many have sacrificed."

'Limited Options' (George Packer, The New Yorker)

"The Administration's case for making Assad pay is as practically flawed as it is morally defensible. The war-weary American people overwhelmingly oppose it, and the debate in Washington is not winning them over to President Obama's side. There's also a problem with the debate itself: Obama seems to be reserving the right to ignore Congress if it fails to deliver the verdict he wants, which has led Senator Rand Paul, of Kentucky, to accuse the Administration of 'making a joke of us.' In the meantime, a number of Republicans talk about the Syria crisis as if it were an overseas extension of the debt crisis -- another chance to thwart a President they despise. The geopolitics of military action are just as problematic: the United States, supported by a handful of mostly silent partners, is upholding a collective standard single-handedly, and preserving the mission of the United Nations by ignoring it.

It would be less difficult to wave off these contradictions if the Administration seemed to have a plan for the day after the last cruise missile takes out the last Syrian jet. But the flaws start to appear fatal when you consider the lack of any strategy beyond bombing. It's a worrying sign when America's chief diplomat refers to the central objective in Syria as 'a collateral connection.' The Administration would like to frame missile strikes as a kind of judicial action, a one-time ruling from the bench, not as a military intervention. Yet bombing would change the balance of power in Syria and, one way or another, entangle America in the civil war despite Obama's ardent wish to stay out. The White House clearly failed to plan for a mass chemical-weapons attack; it would now be far better for the Administration to think through ways of reaching American goals before the missiles launch."

'Iran Surprises Itself and the World' (Suzanne Maloney, Brookings)

"Three decades of rule by a revolutionary Islamic regime has generated a political reality that in many ways fails to conform to the ideological imperatives of its founders-or, for that matter, to the one-dimensional depiction that has become entrenched in the Western imagination. Iran remains a place of jarring contradictions. It is at once an autocratic system, governed by the whims of a ruler who claims a divine mandate, and at the same time a fractious country shaped by factional competition and the institutions of representative rule. Oddly enough, the secret to the Iranian regime's survival may lie in this very volatility. The dual and dueling institutions of the Islamic Republic are in its DNA, inciting the power struggles that ultimately determine Tehran's decisions. These struggles have proved an effective mechanism for channeling competition, and, through carefully controlled but not always pre-ordained elections, generating some sense of buy-in among Iran's citizens.

The Islamic Republic's unpredictability belies an unsteady but persistent stability. When the devastating sanctions that were the byproduct of the nuclear crisis threatened this equilibrium, the system stepped in to right itself again, and there is now reason to hope that the crisis can be managed to the satisfaction of both Iran and the West.

But, there is also reason to worry that this self-correction will not happen. We expect revolutions to diminish in fervor, to modulate fiery tenor and rationalize unconventional policies, once the chaos and violence that accompanies any sudden change has subsided. The Iranian Revolution has not followed this model. Despite substantive changes during its 34-year history, the Islamic Republic has yet to fully embrace the moderation that should herald the twilight of the revolution. It is still too soon to say if Rouhani's election will be the harbinger of a durable Thermidor for Iran's theocracy."

--Mary Casey & Joshua Haber


The Middle East Channel

Obama appeals for backing on Syria strike, but shifts focus to Russian chemical plan

President Barack Obama addressed the United States Tuesday in efforts to convince the U.S. public of the need for retaliation against the Syrian regime for its suspected use of chemical weapons. Facing strong opposition, Obama argued that a military action is in the U.S. interest. However, he said he would hold off on a strike to pursue a possible diplomatic option with a Russian proposal for Syria to turn over its chemical arms, and he has asked Congress to postpone a vote authorizing military action. Obama said the initiative has potential, but it is too early to know if it will succeed. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is expected to meet with Russia's foreign minister Thursday to discuss the proposal, but said coming to an agreement on details for the plan would be "exceedingly difficult." Syria accepted the Russian plan on Tuesday and for the first time Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem admitted the government possesses chemical weapons. Moallem released a statement saying, "We are ready to reveal the locations of the chemical weapons sites and to stop producing chemical weapons and make these sites available for inspection by representatives of Russia, other countries and the United Nations." Up to that point, the government and President Bashar al-Assad have been unwilling to acknowledge possessing what is believed to be one of the largest chemical munitions arsenals in the world. Meanwhile, the U.N. Human Rights Council has released a report accusing all sides of committing war crimes in the Syrian conflict. U.N. investigators said government forces have massacred civilians and "committed gross violations of human rights." Additionally, rebel fighters have been increasingly responsible for summary executions.


  • Suicide car bombings hit a military intelligence headquarters and an army checkpoint in the town of Rafah in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula after the military launched an offensive this week against militants in the region.
  • A car bombing has damaged a foreign ministry building in the Libyan city of Benghazi on the anniversary of an attack on the U.S. Consulate that killed four Americans, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens.
  • Israel will pay $1.1 million to the family of "Prisoner X," alleged Mossad spy and Israeli and Australian national Ben Zygier, who reportedly hanged himself in prison in 2010. 

Arguments and Analysis

'What an attack on Syria will mean for US-Iran relations' (Geneive Abdo, Al Jazeera)

"If President Barack Obama does indeed attack Syria, with or without congressional approval, he will forfeit an opportunity to make headway with Iran over its nuclear programme and risk allowing Tehran once again to reap the greatest benefit from Washington's military excesses in the Middle East.

The more reasonable minds among Iranian political elites, including former President Hashemi Rafsanjani and his protege, President Hassan Rouhani, have publicly condemned Syria's alleged use of chemical weapons. In doing so, they have become targets of Iranian hardliners, who voice unconditional support for Bashar al-Assad and his regime. Even though Rouhani's rare, pragmatic messages from Tehran have caught the attention of the US, they should not be interpreted to mean that Iran would sit on the fence, if a strike is launched at Damascus.

If an attack occurs, Rouhani and company either will be pushed to the sidelines or be forced to join the chorus led by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). As Major General Qasem Soleimani, the brilliant tactician inside the IRGC, said this week: ‘Some ask why we help Syria, why we need to. Syria is part of our axis of resistance, and we are responsible for the defence of all Muslims.' These words are all too familiar to Western ears, but they indicate that in Iran, where the IRGC wields enormous economic and political power, the Guards will likely have more to say than the politicians on how to react to an attack on Syria."

'A Syrian's Cry for Help' (Yassin Al-Haj Saleh, The New York Times)

"In the West, reservations about supporting the Syrian rebels that once seemed callous and immoral are now considered justified because of the specter of jihadism. But this view is myopic.

Jihadist groups emerged roughly 10 months after the revolution started. Today, these groups are a burden on the revolution and the country, but not on the regime. On the contrary, their presence has enabled the regime to preserve its local base, and served to bolster its cause among international audiences.

It is misguided to presume that Mr. Assad's downfall would mean a jihadist triumph, but unfortunately this is the basis for the West's position. A more accurate interpretation is that if Mr. Assad survives, then jihadism is sure to thrive.

What Syria needs is a legitimate government that is strong enough to delegitimize militias, to disarm and integrate them, and to enforce adequate policies to confront them. The Assad government does not have popular legitimacy. Only its demise can signal the beginning of the end of nihilist jihadism, and thus the beginning of Syria's recovery."

--Mary Casey & Joshua Haber

Evan Vucci-Pool/Getty Images