Monday, September 2, 2013

Syria: Questions, Analysis And Some Humor

9 Questions About Syria You Were Too Embarrassed To Ask
(By Max Fisher, Washington Post, 29 August 2013)

CommentsMore submit to redditThe United States and allies are preparing for a possibly imminent series of limited military strikes against Syria, the first direct U.S. intervention in the two-year civil war, in retaliation for President Bashar al-Assad’s suspected use of chemical weapons against civilians.  If you found the above sentence kind of confusing, or aren’t exactly sure why Syria is fighting a civil war, or even where Syria is located, then this is the article for you. What’s happening in Syria is really important, but it can also be confusing and difficult to follow even for those of us glued to it.  Here, then, are the most basic answers to your most basic questions. First, a disclaimer: Syria and its history are really complicated; this is not an exhaustive or definitive account of that entire story, just some background, written so that anyone can understand it.

1. What is Syria?
Syria is a country in the Middle East, along the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea. It’s about the same size as Washington state with a population a little over three times as large – 22 million.  Syria is very diverse, ethnically and religiously, but most Syrians are ethnic Arab and follow the Sunni branch of Islam. Civilization in Syria goes back thousands of years, but the country as it exists today is very young. Its borders were drawn by European colonial powers in the 1920s.  Syria is in the middle of an extremely violent civil war. Fighting between government forces and rebels has killed more 100,000 and created 2 million refugees, half of them children.

2. Why are people in Syria killing each other?
The killing started in April 2011, when peaceful protests inspired by earlier revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia rose up to challenge the dictatorship running the country. The government responded — there is no getting around this — like monsters. First, security forces quietly killed activists. Then they started kidnapping, raping, torturing and killing activists and their family members, including a lot of children, dumping their mutilated bodies by the sides of roads. Then troops began simply opening fire on protests. Eventually, civilians started shooting back.
Fighting escalated from there until it was a civil war. Armed civilians organized into rebel groups. The army deployed across the country, shelling and bombing whole neighborhoods and towns, trying to terrorize people into submission. They’ve also allegedly used chemical weapons, which is a big deal for reasons I’ll address below. Volunteers from other countries joined the rebels, either because they wanted freedom and democracy for Syria or, more likely, because they are jihadists who hate Syria’s secular government. The rebels were gaining ground for a while and now it looks like Assad is coming back. There is no end in sight.

3. That’s horrible. But there are protests lots of places. How did it all go so wrong in Syria? And, please, just give me the short version.
That’s a complicated question, and there’s no single, definitive answer. This is the shortest possible version — stay with me, it’s worth it. You might say, broadly speaking, that there are two general theories. Both start with the idea that Syria has been a powder keg waiting to explode for decades and that it was set off, maybe inevitably, by the 2011 protests and especially by the government’s overly harsh crackdown.
Before we dive into the theories, you have to understand that the Syrian government really overreacted when peaceful protests started in mid-2011, slaughtering civilians unapologetically, which was a big part of how things escalated as quickly as they did. Assad learned this from his father. In 1982, Assad’s father and then-dictator Hafez al-Assad responded to a Muslim Brotherhood-led uprising in the city of Hama by leveling entire neighborhoods. He killed thousands of civilians, many of whom had nothing to do with the uprising. But it worked, and it looks like the younger Assad tried to reproduce it. His failure made the descent into chaos much worse.

Okay, now the theories for why Syria spiraled so wildly. The first is what you might call “sectarian re-balancing” or “the Fareed Zakaria case” for why Syria is imploding (he didn’t invent this argument but is a major proponent). Syria has artificial borders that were created by European colonial powers, forcing together an amalgam of diverse religious and ethnic groups. Those powers also tended to promote a minority and rule through it, worsening preexisting sectarian tensions.  Zakaria’s argument is that what we’re seeing in Syria is in some ways the inevitable re-balancing of power along ethnic and religious lines. He compares it to the sectarian bloodbath in Iraq after the United States toppled Saddam Hussein, after which a long-oppressed majority retook power from, and violently punished, the former minority rulers. Most Syrians are Sunni Arabs, but the country is run by members of a minority sect known as Alawites (they’re ethnic Arab but follow a smaller branch of Islam).
The Alawite government rules through a repressive dictatorship and gives Alawites special privileges, which makes some Sunnis and other groups hate Alawites in general, which in turn makes Alawites fear that they’ll be slaughtered en masse if Assad loses the war. (There are other minorities as well, such as ethnic Kurds and Christian Arabs; too much to cover in one explainer.) Also, lots of Syrian communities are already organized into ethnic or religious enclaves, which means that community militias are also sectarian militias. That would explain why so much of the killing in Syria has developed along sectarian lines. It would also suggest that there’s not much anyone can do to end the killing because, in Zakaria’s view, this is a painful but unstoppable process of re-balancing power.

The second big theory is a bit simpler: that the Assad regime was not a sustainable enterprise and it’s clawing desperately on its way down. Most countries have some kind of self-sustaining political order, and it looked for a long time like Syria was held together by a cruel and repressive but basically stable dictatorship. But maybe it wasn’t stable; maybe it was built on quicksand. Bashar al-Assad’s father Hafez seized power in a coup in 1970 after two decades of extreme political instability. His government was a product of Cold War meddling and a kind of Arab political identity crisis that was sweeping the region. But he picked the losing sides of both: the Soviet Union was his patron, and he followed a hard-line anti-Western nationalist ideology that’s now mostly defunct. The Cold War is long over, and most of the region long ago made peace with Israel and the United States; the Assad regime’s once-solid ideological and geopolitical identity is hopelessly outdated. But Bashar al-Assad, who took power in 2000 when his father died, never bothered to update it. So when things started going belly-up two years ago, he didn’t have much to fall back on except for his ability to kill people.

4. I hear a lot about how Russia still loves Syria, though. And Iran, too. What’s their deal?
Yeah, Russia is Syria’s most important ally. Moscow blocks the United Nations Security Council from passing anything that might hurt the Assad regime, which is why the United States has to go around the United Nations if it wants to do anything. Russia sends lots of weapons to Syria that make it easier for Assad to keep killing civilians and will make it much harder if the outside world ever wants to intervene.
The four big reasons that Russia wants to protect Assad, the importance of which vary depending on whom you ask, are: (1) Russia has a naval installation in Syria, which is strategically important and Russia’s last foreign military base outside the former Soviet Union; (2) Russia still has a bit of a Cold War mentality, as well as a touch of national insecurity, which makes it care very much about maintaining one of its last military alliances; (3) Russia also hates the idea of “international intervention” against countries like Syria because it sees this as Cold War-style Western imperialism and ultimately a threat to Russia; (4) Syria buys a lot of Russian military exports, and Russia needs the money.

Iran’s thinking in supporting Assad is more straightforward. It perceives Israel and the United States as existential threats and uses Syria to protect itself, shipping arms through Syria to the Lebanon-based militant group Hezbollah and the Gaza-based militant group Hamas. Iran is already feeling isolated and insecure; it worries that if Assad falls it will lose a major ally and be cut off from its militant proxies, leaving it very vulnerable. So far, it looks like Iran is actually coming out ahead: Assad is even more reliant on Tehran than he was before the war started.

5. This is all feeling really bleak and hopeless. Can we take a music break?
Oh man, it gets so much worse. But, yeah, let’s listen to some music from Syria. It’s really good!  If you want to go old-school you should listen to the man, the legend, the great Omar Souleyman (playing Brooklyn this Saturday!). Or, if you really want to get your revolutionary on, listen to the infectious 2011 anti-Assad anthem “Come on Bashar leave.” The singer, a cement mixer who made Rage Against the Machine look like Enya, was killed for performing it in Hama. But let’s listen to something non-war and bit more contemporary, the soulful and foot-tappable George Wassouf:  Hope you enjoyed that, because things are about to go from depressing to despondent.

6. Why hasn’t the United States fixed this yet?
Because it can’t. There are no viable options. Sorry.  The military options are all bad. Shipping arms to rebels, even if it helps them topple Assad, would ultimately empower jihadists and worsen rebel in-fighting, probably leading to lots of chaos and possibly a second civil war (the United States made this mistake during Afghanistan’s early 1990s civil war, which helped the Taliban take power in 1996). Taking out Assad somehow would probably do the same, opening up a dangerous power vacuum. Launching airstrikes or a “no-fly zone” could suck us in, possibly for years, and probably wouldn’t make much difference on the ground. An Iraq-style ground invasion would, in the very best outcome, accelerate the killing, cost a lot of U.S. lives, wildly exacerbate anti-Americanism in a boon to jihadists and nationalist dictators alike, and would require the United States to impose order for years across a country full of people trying to kill each other. Nope.
The one political option, which the Obama administration has been pushing for, would be for the Assad regime and the rebels to strike a peace deal. But there’s no indication that either side is interested in that, or that there’s even a viable unified rebel movement with which to negotiate.  It’s possible that there was a brief window for a Libya-style military intervention early on in the conflict. But we’ll never really know.

7. So why would Obama bother with strikes that no one expects to actually solve anything?
Okay, you’re asking here about the Obama administration’s not-so-subtle signals that it wants to launch some cruise missiles at Syria, which would be punishment for what it says is Assad’s use of chemical weapons against civilians.  It’s true that basically no one believes that this will turn the tide of the Syrian war. But this is important: it’s not supposed to. The strikes wouldn’t be meant to shape the course of the war or to topple Assad, which Obama thinks would just make things worse anyway. They would be meant to punish Assad for (allegedly) using chemical weapons and to deter him, or any future military leader in any future war, from using them again.

8. Come on, what’s the big deal with chemical weapons? Assad kills 100,000 people with bullets and bombs but we’re freaked out over 1,000 who maybe died from poisonous gas? That seems silly.

You’re definitely not the only one who thinks the distinction is arbitrary and artificial. But there’s a good case to be made that this is a rare opportunity, at least in theory, for the United States to make the war a little bit less terrible — and to make future wars less terrible.  The whole idea that there are rules of war is a pretty new one: the practice of war is thousands of years old, but the idea that we can regulate war to make it less terrible has been around for less than a century. The institutions that do this are weak and inconsistent; the rules are frail and not very well observed. But one of the world’s few quasi-successes is the “norm” (a fancy way of saying a rule we all agree to follow) against chemical weapons. This norm is frail enough that Syria could drastically weaken it if we ignore Assad’s use of them, but it’s also strong enough that it’s worth protecting. So it’s sort of a low-hanging fruit: firing a few cruise missiles doesn’t cost us much and can maybe help preserve this really hard-won and valuable norm against chemical weapons.

You didn’t answer my question. That just tells me that we can maybe preserve the norm against chemical weapons, not why we should.
Fair point. Here’s the deal: war is going to happen. It just is. But the reason that the world got together in 1925 for the Geneva Convention to ban chemical weapons is because this stuff is really, really good at killing civilians but not actually very good at the conventional aim of warfare, which is to defeat the other side. You might say that they’re maybe 30 percent a battlefield weapon and 70 percent a tool of terror. In a world without that norm against chemical weapons, a military might fire off some sarin gas because it wants that battlefield advantage, even if it ends up causing unintended and massive suffering among civilians, maybe including its own. And if a military believes its adversary is probably going to use chemical weapons, it has a strong incentive to use them itself. After all, they’re fighting to the death.

So both sides of any conflict, not to mention civilians everywhere, are better off if neither of them uses chemical weapons. But that requires believing that your opponent will never use them, no matter what. And the only way to do that, short of removing them from the planet entirely, is for everyone to just agree in advance to never use them and to really mean it. That becomes much harder if the norm is weakened because someone like Assad got away with it. It becomes a bit easier if everyone believes using chemical weapons will cost you a few inbound U.S. cruise missiles.  That’s why the Obama administration apparently wants to fire cruise missiles at Syria, even though it won’t end the suffering, end the war or even really hurt Assad that much.

9. Hi, there was too much text so I skipped to the bottom to find the big take-away. What’s going to happen?
Short-term maybe the United States and some allies will launch some limited, brief strikes against Syria and maybe they won’t. Either way, these things seem pretty certain in the long-term:

• The killing will continue, probably for years. There’s no one to sign a peace treaty on the rebel side, even if the regime side were interested, and there’s no foreseeable victory for either. Refugees will continue fleeing into neighboring countries, causing instability and an entire other humanitarian crisis as conditions in the camps worsen.

• Syria as we know it, an ancient place with a rich and celebrated culture and history, will be a broken, failed society, probably for a generation or more. It’s very hard to see how you rebuild a functioning state after this. Maybe worse, it’s hard to see how you get back to a working social contract where everyone agrees to get along.
• Russia will continue to block international action, the window for which has maybe closed anyway. The United States might try to pressure, cajole or even horse-trade Moscow into changing its mind, but there’s not much we can offer them that they care about as much as Syria.

• At some point the conflict will cool, either from a partial victory or from exhaustion. The world could maybe send in some peacekeepers or even broker a fragile peace between the various ethnic, religious and political factions. Probably the best model is Lebanon, which fought a brutal civil war that lasted 15 years from 1975 to 1990 and has been slowly, slowly recovering ever since. It had some bombings just last week.

Across The Red Line
(By Michael Crowley, Time magazine, Monday, Sep. 09, 2013)
Foreign policy grants American presidents almost supernatural powers. From thousands of miles away, they can mobilize fleets and squadrons at a whim, sometimes killing without risking a single soldier's life. But foreign policy can also become a curse, with an equally mystical ability to ruin a presidency. Barack Obama learned that lesson watching his predecessor wage what Obama famously called "a dumb war" of choice in Iraq. His opposition to the invasion launched the one-term Senator's first presidential run, and he arrived in the White House with a clear vision of a humbler America narrowly focused on core interests, like healing domestic economic and social wounds. Obama would hunt down terrorists in caves and deserts and throw a harder punch at the Taliban in Afghanistan. But he also presented himself as a conciliator, a peacemaker who would land the Nobel Peace Prize before he'd even redecorated the Oval Office.
From the start of his presidency, Obama sounded his call in speeches from Washington to Prague to Cairo, describing a transformed world order--"a revolutionary world" where "we can do improbable, sometimes impossible things." Cynics said Obama was just putting a gloss on harsh economic reality: deep in debt and with its financial sector in a tailspin, the U.S. couldn't afford an interventionist foreign policy. But Obama seemed genuine enough when he spoke of starting a dialogue of "mutual respect" with Iran, and to other rivals, he vowed that "we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist." Reason would replace raw power, and the neoconservative vision would be retired. It was hope and change on a global scale. 
But history, it has turned out, wasn't interested.  The fists remained clenched, the rhetoric toward the U.S. was disrespectful, and although there was revolution from Cairo to Tripoli to Damascus, it often unleashed dangerous religious and tribal passions across the Middle East. The hope has fermented into fear, the change into danger. Now, in a region that has confounded Presidents for decades and where the security stakes are highest, Obama faces a defining test in Syria.  This is not where Obama wanted to be. On Aug. 22, one day after a cloud of what is suspected to have been nerve gas descended on a Damascus suburb, killing hundreds of people, the President left the White House for an all-smiles bus tour of upstate New York, focused on college affordability. But that morning in the Situation Room, Obama's national-security team was grasping the shocking scale of the attack and its implicit challenge to American power and authority.
In a bitter irony, the attack had come on the one-year anniversary of Obama's warning that the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime constituted a "red line" that, if crossed, would have "enormous consequences." Video footage showed ghastly images of the dead, including women and infants, who almost seemed fortunate compared with the spasming, frothing survivors. As Obama was briefed on his presidential bus, it became clear that he too was facing the prospect of military action in the Middle East over weapons of mass destruction.  The world watched to see whether Obama would flinch from the role of global cop. He had already allowed multiple chemical-weapons attacks to come and go without any clear consequences beyond modest U.S. support for a disorderly rebel movement.
And the Syria crisis was not the only one testing the limits of Obama's foreign policy approach or the power of his country. Iran is moving forward with its nuclear program in defiance of Obama's similar warnings of military retribution. In Egypt a military regime backed by U.S. taxpayers continues to ignore his calls for peace after it killed more than 600 protesters. Afghanistan's shaky government warily prepares for the prospect of civil war when U.S. troops finally leave next year, while terrorist bombs continue to torment the unstable cities of Iraq. Al-Qaeda, meanwhile, is alive and well in places like Yemen and North Africa, even if Osama bin Laden is not. At home, the perception of his foreign policy performance has steadily declined: only about 40% of Americans now approve.    Syria's defiance, if left unpunished, risked a domino effect of further defiant actions around the globe, the White House concluded. "We have our reputation on the line," explains Brent Scowcroft, the onetime National Security Adviser to Presidents George H.W. Bush and Gerald Ford who has informally advised Obama.  It was exactly the place Obama hoped to avoid in those early optimistic speeches around the world: boxed in by the madness of the Middle East, forced into military action by Syria's dictator, a former ophthalmologist most Americans would be hard-pressed to name.
How did it come to this?  Some of it is bad luck- although that often comes with the job: Bush had 9/11, Clinton had the Balkans, Carter had the Iranian hostages. But Obama has made missteps as well. The art of foreign policy is preventing no-win decisions from ever presenting themselves. And in retrospect, Obama's caution may have worked against him.  From the start, he kept a wary distance from the Arab Spring. The first incarnation, though it wasn't obvious at the time, was the reform movement that filled the streets of Tehran in June 2009. Calling for regime change might have had a Bushian ring, and the White House feared making statements that would allow Iran's government to make the protests look like a foreign plot. Obama wound up saying only that the U.S. would "bear witness to the extraordinary events" taking place there, with little support for the protests. In hindsight, his staff found fault with the timidity. "I think we were too cautious," says Dennis Ross, the point man for Iran policy in Obama's first term. "I regret it." It was, perhaps, a harbinger of things to come.
As protests ignited across the Middle East two years later, Obama continued to tread lightly--choosing stability over the risk of the unknown and refusing to lay out any unified theory of U.S. reaction. "Trying to calibrate how we need the U.S. to involve itself without overextending has been a central foreign policy question of this presidency," says Ben Rhodes, Obama's Deputy National Security Adviser.  It took Obama weeks to embrace the 2011 Cairo protests that forced Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak from power. When the Gulf kingdom of Bahrain--a strategic ally and host to the U.S. Fifth Fleet--violently repressed a popular uprising, Obama took no action. Even in Libya, he at first stood by as rebels fighting Muammar Gaddafi's forces found themselves outgunned and on the run.  Obama finally intervened only when Gaddafi's forces massed outside the city of Benghazi, threatening a slaughter of innocents while pressure mounted from France and Britain.
Republicans latched onto this as "leading from behind," a phrase uttered by an Obama aide to draw a contrast with George Bush's pre-emptive cowboy diplomacy but which critics called an abdication of real leadership.  Gaddafi's relatively quick downfall initially made the intervention in Libya appear a success. "[We've] demonstrated what collective action can achieve in the 21st century," Obama said. But the story would sour. Wary of trying to rebuild another Arab nation, Obama invested little in post-Gaddafi Libya, where rogue militias and radicalism flourished--including the militants who attacked an underguarded U.S. compound in Benghazi, the very city Obama had saved, killing Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. 
The Syrian uprising began in earnest around the same time as Obama's Libya operation. He watched Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime brutally respond for another six months but took no action. As the death toll mounted, observers who saw an "Obama doctrine" in the Libya intervention wondered, Why not Syria? Obama's aides say the comparison is futile. "The notion of a doctrine is good as an organizing principle for people thinking about foreign policy," Rhodes says. "But in government, it's impossible in practice."
Syria was clearly a harder problem. Libya had shabby air defenses and offered a desert battlefield that made air strikes easy. Syria has densely populated cities, and Assad has serious firepower. Unlike Gaddafi, who had no close international allies, Syria boasts decades of military and intelligence partnerships with both Iran and Russia. Obama waited until August 2011 to declare that "the time has come for President Assad to step aside." In hindsight, this may have been his first misstep in Syria. When Assad ignored the advice, the dictator faced no consequences. "He hasn't gotten the message," Obama told reporters a year later. More likely, Assad saw no reason to heed it.
Not that Obama had great choices. Some argue that he could have escalated support for Syria's moderate rebel factions a year or more ago, before radical Islamists hijacked the uprising. Even at the end of 2012, top Obama officials, including Hillary Clinton and David Petraeus, were still arguing for this course. But Obama rejected their proposals, fearing the U.S. could do little to influence such a complex situation. He also worried about empowering al-Qaeda-affiliated rebels who could threaten U.S. interests more than Assad ever did. Now, even onetime supporters of such policies say the window has likely closed. "Syria today is not about choosing between two sides but rather about choosing one among many sides," none of whom share U.S. interests, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin Dempsey recently wrote.
Then there was the "red line" statement. In response to a question at a White House press briefing in August 2012, Obama said the use or movement of chemical weapons would have "enormous consequences." Obama likely came to regret that remark. Assad seemed to taunt him with small-scale chemical attacks--large enough to kill dozens but not quite enough to precipitate an international crisis. Perhaps in response, Obama fine-tuned his red-line definition last April, saying it was the "systematic" use of chemical arms he would not tolerate. By June 2013, with Assad gaining a clear upper hand, the Administration said it would finally arm Syria's rebels. But credible reports that few, if any, arms have actually been delivered again cast doubt on Obama's resolve.  The apparent nerve-gas attack outside Damascus on Aug. 21 became the final straw. Here was a culmination of factors: evidence of a pattern of attacks and grotesque footage of victims suffering convulsions. It was a "moral obscenity", as Secretary of State John Kerry put it, that was too much for Obama to ignore, explain away or refer to a committee for study.
The timing was perfectly terrible, at a moment when Obama already appeared intent on favoring stability over American values. Seventeen phone calls from Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to Egyptian General Abdul Fattah al-Sisi had failed to stop the coup and bloodshed there. Now Washington is left with few vocal allies in the Arab world's most populous country. "It is pretty remarkable," says Eliot Cohen, a former senior adviser to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, "that we've managed to convince everybody in Egypt we've betrayed them."
Some of Obama's problems have a familiar ring. Early in his first term, Bill Clinton--who, like Obama, focused on domestic matters--also faced charges of timidity and weakness. "We simply don't have the leverage, we don't have the influence [or] the inclination to use military force," a senior State Department official complained in 1993. And much as Obama is facing pressure at home and abroad over Syria, Clinton was castigated for not intervening in the Balkan wars. "The position of leader of the free world is vacant," French President Jacques Chirac lamented in 1995.  Obama has likewise developed a strangely broad coalition of critics: humanitarians who want to stop the war in Syria; hawks who want a bolder U.S. foreign policy; democracy and human-rights advocates appalled that Obama isn't tougher on Egypt's generals. Meanwhile, U.S. allies in Europe complain that America isn't showing leadership, and a senior Arab government official tells TIME that friendly states in the region don't feel they can count on the U.S. "There's no perception that we're engaged in issues in the Middle East right now," says Christopher Hill, a veteran diplomat who served as Obama's ambassador to Iraq.
Obama's defenders say he has done the best with a poisoned inheritance--from anti-Americanism abroad to tight budgets and rising isolationism at home. And his White House predecessors have often heard cries from overseas that the U.S.'s will to power was faltering. But it's also true that the public is tired of paying in blood and treasure to solve faraway problems that often look unsolvable. "At the end of the day, the U.S. cannot impose its will on every problem in the world," says Adam Smith, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee.  The blunt instrument of military power may be especially useless when it comes to untangling the Arab Spring's social upheavals. "Frankly, the U.S. is not good at resolving another country's political implosion," says Mieke Eoyang, a national-security analyst at Third Way, a Washington think tank. "It may be that the U.S. just doesn't have the tools."
Syria would certainly require high-precision equipment. The country of 22 million, bordered by the Mediterranean to the west and Iraq to the east, has been a dictatorship since 1949. It has also been a constant thorn in the U.S.'s side, aligning with Iran's ruling mullahs and sponsoring the Lebanese terrorist group Hizballah. During the U.S. occupation of Iraq, Assad left his border open to Islamist fighters crossing into Iraq to kill American soldiers. Even so, Assad said in 2009 he "would like to have a dialogue" with the U.S., and American diplomats including Kerry, then chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, paid several visits to Damascus before the uprising began there. But Assad could never quite be coaxed into real cooperation.  The Assad family comes from Syria's Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam. Their rule over a country that is roughly three-quarters Sunni has always required repression of a degree reminiscent of Saddam Hussein's Iraq. But in March 2011, Syrian society fractured and Assad's rule was openly challenged in the streets for the first time by what would become a Sunni-dominated rebellion.
Syria matters a lot to its neighbors. The civil war has already produced nearly 2 million refugees, an exodus that threatens to destabilize Jordan and Turkey, and has heightened Shi'ite-Sunni tensions in Lebanon and Iraq, inflaming a sectarian conflict that could stretch from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean. For months, Assad's allies in Iran and Lebanon have been sending fighters to support his regime. That's one reason the stakes in Syria are so high: it has become a proxy war, fueled by cash and arms, between Iran and its Sunni rivals like Saudi Arabia. There is the obvious moral imperative with regard to a conflict in which more than 100,000 people have been killed. And there is the matter of Israel's security when a chemical-armed state is collapsing.
Obama doesn't deny any of this. "We've got serious interests there," he told PBS's Charlie Rose in June. "And not only humanitarian interests. We can't have the situation of ongoing chaos in a major country that borders a country like Jordan, which in turn borders Israel. And we have a legitimate need to be engaged and to be involved." What he disputes is that he can shape the outcome in Syria through military intervention, either with direct action or by arming rebels who may have radical Islamist ties.  So as they planned their response to the Aug. 21 chemical-weapons attack, Obama's aides focused on calibrating a response that would send a message without causing wider chaos. Too much force could alter the strategic balance of the conflict, possibly empowering Islamist rebels--some of whom are allied with al-Qaeda--whom the White House considers more dangerous than Assad himself. Use too little force, however, and you look feckless. Warns Scowcroft: "Nothing would be worse than to make a gesture which changed nothing and made us look even more impotent."
On Dec. 10, 2009, Obama flew to Norway to accept the Nobel Peace Prize, a premature honor that was not entirely welcomed by the White House. By then Obama had already sent more troops to Afghanistan, escalated drone strikes against al-Qaeda terrorists and seen his hand of friendship rejected by Tehran. It was growing clear that the world might not transform after all. So even as Obama celebrated the cause of world peace that day, he acknowledged that a dangerous world sometimes calls for war, usually led by American arms. "Whatever mistakes we have made, the plain fact is this: the United States of America has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms," he said.
Obama is applying that principle now in Syria. Whatever comes of Obama's confrontation with Assad, an even more dangerous confrontation lies in wait--the one with Iran. If another round of negotiations with Tehran should fail, Obama may soon be obliged to make good on his vow to stop Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. "I will not hesitate to use force when it is necessary to defend the United States and its interests," Obama told the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in March 2012.
But to his critics, Obama does hesitate, and trouble follows as a result. With more than three years left in his presidency, he has the opportunity to reverse that impression. Success in Syria and then Iran could vindicate him, and failure could be crushing. "The risk is that, if things in the Middle East continue to spiral, that will become his legacy," says Brian Katulis, a former Obama campaign adviser now with the Center for American Progress.  Some Democratic Presidents have been crippled by foreign policy: Carter by Iran, Lyndon Johnson by Vietnam. But there is another model. Clinton doused the fires in the Balkans and demonstrated the nobility of American intervention. Obama has time to find a path through the current chaos to a successful legacy abroad.  As he charts his course, he might consider a thought from an unlikely source. In a 2009 British newspaper interview that struck a moderate tone, Assad said he hoped Obama would take an active role in the Middle East peace process because only Washington could broker a lasting solution. He said, "There is no substitute for the United States."

Poll: Majority Of Americans Approve Of Sending Congress To Syria
(By The Onion Staff,, 05 September 2013)

WASHINGTON—As President Obama continues to push for a plan of limited military intervention in Syria, a new poll of Americans has found that though the nation remains wary over the prospect of becoming involved in another Middle Eastern war, the vast majority of U.S. citizens strongly approve of sending Congress to Syria. 
The New York Times/CBS News poll showed that though just 1 in 4 Americans believe that the United States has a responsibility to intervene in the Syrian conflict, more than 90 percent of the public is convinced that putting all 535 representatives of the United States Congress on the ground in Syria—including Senate pro tempore Patrick Leahy, House Speaker John Boehner, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, and, in fact, all current members of the House and Senate—is the best course of action at this time.
“I believe it is in the best interest of the United States, and the global community as a whole, to move forward with the deployment of all U.S. congressional leaders to Syria immediately,” respondent Carol Abare, 50, said in the nationwide telephone survey, echoing the thoughts of an estimated 9 in 10 Americans who said they “strongly support” any plan of action that involves putting the U.S. House and Senate on the ground in the war-torn Middle Eastern state. “With violence intensifying every day, now is absolutely the right moment—the perfect moment, really—for the United States to send our legislators to the region.”  She added, “In fact my preference would have been for Congress to be deployed months ago.”
Citing overwhelming support from the international community- including that of the Arab League, Turkey, and France, as well as Great Britain, Iraq, Iran, Russia, Japan, Mexico, China, and Canada, all of whom are reported to be unilaterally in favor of sending the U.S. Congress to Syria—the majority of survey respondents said they believe the United States should refocus its entire approach to Syria’s civil war on the ground deployment of U.S. senators and representatives, regardless of whether the Assad regime used chemical weapons or not.  In fact, 91 percent of those surveyed agreed that the active use of sarin gas attacks by the Syrian government would, if anything, only increase poll respondents’ desire to send Congress to Syria.
Public opinion was essentially unchanged when survey respondents were asked about a broader range of attacks, with more than 79 percent of Americans saying they would strongly support sending Congress to Syria in cases of bomb and missile attacks, 78 percent supporting intervention in cases of kidnappings and executions, and 75 percent saying representatives should be deployed in cases where government forces were found to have used torture.  When asked if they believe that Sen. Rand Paul should be deployed to Syria, 100 percent of respondents said yes.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that sending Congress to Syria—or, at the very least, sending the major congressional leaders in both parties—is the correct course of action,” survey respondent and Iraq war veteran Maj. Gen. John Mill said, noting that his opinion was informed by four tours of duty in which he saw dozens of close friends sustain physical as well as emotional injury and post-traumatic stress. “There is a clear solution to our problems staring us right in the face here, and we need to take action.”  “Sooner rather than later, too,” Mill added. “This war isn’t going to last forever.”

4 Takeaways From President Obama’s Syria Speech
(By Chris Cillizza, Washington Post, September 10, 2013)
President Obama just concluded his primetime address to the country, a speech in which he largely remade arguments he had offered over the past 96 hours for why it is in America’s interest to consider a military strike against Syria.  Obama spoke for roughly 15 minutes, but the speech will be analyzed for a LOT longer than that. My takeaways on what he said — and why he said it — are below. 
* This was a speech Obama had to give, not one he wanted to deliver.  The reality of the situation — the rising congressional opposition to a use-of-force resolution coupled with the uncertainty surrounding a nascent Russian-led effort to force Syria to hand over its chemical weapons — meant that there really wasn’t much definitive the president could say about the future of U.S. action in the region. And, he didn’t. This was a holding-pattern speech.
* The core of the Obama argument was — as it has been for days now — a moral appeal. “When dictators commit atrocities, they depend on the world to look the other way,” Obama said at one point. But, it wasn’t just an appeal to our common morality. It was that if an act — gassing your own people — is condemned but tolerated by America, then the chances of other rogue actors pressing the bounds of acceptable behavior in the future increases. What Obama seemed to be saying is that this isn’t about Syria — it’s about the next Syria and the one after that.
* Obama made a very carefully argued case for how America should think of its place in the world in the 21st century. He said twice that America was “not the world’s policeman” but that in a case like Syria — where the United States could send a moral message around the globe with small risks  – we should do so.  That’s a complex calculation that has a level of subjectivity built into it — what small risks, large rewards actually are often lies in the eye of the man or woman making the decision.
* This is not Iraq. The president went above and beyond, rhetorically speaking, to drive home the point to the public that Syria is not Iraq and he won’t let it be. ”We cannot resolve someone else’s civil war through force,” he said bluntly at the start of his speech. He also made clear that he knew people want him to focus on growing the economy at home, not litigating other nations’ conflicts. It was, in that way, a remarkably frank speech about the political realities/difficulties he faces in making the case for action.  What did you take away from the speech? Did what President Obama say change your mind? Why or why not?
Obama Takes Syria Case To The Public In White House Address
(By Zachary A. Goldfarb and David Nakamura, Washington Post, 10 September 2013)
President Obama said Tuesday that he would seize one last diplomatic opening to avoid a military strike on Syria, while trying to convince a skeptical United States that it must retaliate against the Middle Eastern nation’s alleged use of chemical weapons if the effort fails.  In a nationally televised prime-time address from the East Room of the White House, Obama cautiously embraced a Russian proposal that the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad give up its stockpile of chemical weapons, signaling that he would drop his call for an assault on the regime if Assad complies.  But with little guarantee that diplomacy would prevail, Obama spent the bulk of his 17-minute speech trying to directly address the concerns that have moved public opinion and Congress against him over the past week.
The president argued that a military response is in the national interest, although he conceded that Syria poses no direct threat to the United States. Obama said that not responding to Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons in an Aug. 21 attack that killed more than 1,400 outside Damascus would allow him to use them again and would embolden other regimes hostile to the United States, including Iran.  At the same time, Obama made an emotional appeal to Americans’ basic sense of right and wrong, invoking the use of gas in World War I and the Holocaust in arguing that the United States has the “exceptional” responsibility to use its military power to punish nations that use weapons of mass destruction. Obama went so far as to urge Americans to watch graphic videos of the aftermath of the attack in Syria.  “What kind of world will we live in if the United States of America sees a dictator brazenly violate international law with poison gas and we choose to look the other way?” Obama said. “Our ideals and principles, as well as our national security, are at stake in Syria, along with our leadership of a world where we seek to ensure that the worst weapons will never be used.”
The speech was an unusual plea from a president who had risked his and his nation’s credibility on whether he could get Congress to support him, even as he has put off the possibility of a military strike for the moment and has maintained that as commander in chief he doesn’t need congressional approval to launch one in any case.  As it became clear this week that lawmakers probably would oppose the use of force, perhaps overwhelmingly, the Russian proposal offered Obama a potential way out. At his request, Congress has postponed votes on whether to authorize a strike.  The address Tuesday followed an extraordinary, fast-moving and unpredictable two days in American politics and international diplomacy.
Obama began the week planning to make a clear-cut case for attacking the Assad regime. But on Monday morning, an offhand remark by Secretary of State John F. Kerry prompted the Russians to propose that Syria, an ally, surrender its chemical weapons to avoid strikes.  That set off a flurry of negotiations by American, European, Russian and United Nations officials in search of a diplomatic deal. The talks gained steam on Tuesday when the Assad government said it was open to the proposal, for the first time acknowledging that it possesses chemical weapons, and agreed to sign an international pact banning their use.  But by late afternoon, momentum behind a diplomatic solution was beginning to wane. Western and Russian diplomats clashed over whether the United Nations would authorize military action to degrade Syria’s chemical weapons programs if a diplomatic agreement were violated.
Western diplomats insisted that the threat of strikes was a critical ingredient that would ensure Syrian compliance. But Russian officials said that a diplomatic route would work only if the United States and its allies renounced the use of force.  And experts questioned whether it would be possible to transfer stockpiles of chemical weapons to an international monitor amid a civil war that has killed more than 100,000 people.  Still, Obama said Tuesday night that he wants to give the process more time, and he dispatched Kerry to meetings in Europe to work out the details of a potential U.N. agreement.  The president said he turned to Congress for authorization because he thinks that any action would be stronger if backed by lawmakers, especially after more than a decade of war.
Obama’s speech did not immediately appear to change minds on Capitol Hill. A number of Democratic senators expressed support afterward for his diplomatic approach, while remaining wary of military action. Most Senate Republicans who were on the fence remained unconvinced.  “I don’t think the case for military action has been made,” said Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa). But, he added, “the Russian proposal to force Assad to turn over chemical weapons to international monitors presents a possible alternative.”  Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said they regret that Obama “did not speak more forcefully” about providing military assistance to moderate opposition groups in Syria and for not laying out “a clearer plan to test the seriousness” of the Russian proposal.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) argued that the administration’s threat of force has already yielded benefits.  “The president using the credible threat of American military action to bring diplomatic solutions back to the table demonstrates the strength of his leadership and his willingness to exhaust every remedy before the use of force,” she said.  Obama had previously taken his argument to Capitol Hill to lobby lawmakers, saying that he would pursue the diplomatic option but that the United States must be prepared to strike if it failed.
Lawmakers emerging from the meetings agreed that the diplomatic route should be given a chance. House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), one of the few members of either party in the House who backs a military strike, said he suspects the new proposal is a stalling tactic.  “Clearly, diplomacy is always a better outcome than military action,” he said. But, he added, “I’m somewhat skeptical of those that are involved in the diplomatic discussion today. . . . I’m skeptical of it because of the actors that are involved — simple as that.”
Lawmakers predicted that it could take until next week, or longer, before a decision is made in Congress.  “I don’t think we need to rush out right now with our hair on fire,” said Sen. Bob Corker (Tenn.), the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “Our best course of action is to pause.”  Obama’s address came after his administration has struggled to sell his case to the public and Congress, offering muddled messages about the reasons for intervention and the nature of a potential attack.  The president and aides have alternatively argued that a strike would constitute a significant intervention that could help undermine Assad’s stance in the Syrian civil war, and that it would be an extremely limited intervention that would leave Assad in power. Obama has made clear that he will not put U.S. troops on the ground.
About a year ago, he set a “red line” against the use of chemical weapons. When he concluded that the Syrian regime had launched a sarin attack, he prepared to unilaterally order strikes — only to change his mind and seek congressional support.  National security experts said it made sense for Obama to delay action given that his hand may be strengthened even if the diplomatic solution fails.  “It gets him out of his disastrous political mess,” said Rosa Brooks, a former defense official in the Obama administration and Georgetown professor. Obama will be able to say he made every effort to avoid a military conflict, making it “a lot easier for him to make the case for force.”  But others said that even a deal would have downsides.  “You can be seduced into thinking you’re working the problem,” said Jon Alterman, a former State Department official now at the Center for Strategic & International Studies.” The problem is the broader consequences of a longer-term insurgency in Syria which attracts jihadis, brings in neighboring countries and destabilizes the region.”
Obama Goes To The Hill; Complications Ensue
(By Joel Achenbach, Washington Post, September 10, 2013)
I took a trip yesterday to the Hill, and today filed this report:  It’s a free-for-all on Capitol Hill. The usual polarization, the simple calculus of R vs. D, has been blown up by the Syria issue. As President Obama seeks authorization to strike the Syrian regime for its alleged use of chemical weapons, he’s looking for support anywhere he can find it on the political spectrum — even on the fringes.  He could use a “yes” vote, for example, from Rep. Trent Franks, the Arizona Republican and tea party favorite.  Here’s Franks, in a subterranean corridor, emerging Monday night from a high-level briefing on Syria:  “It just seems that everything the president touches in foreign policy, he injects it with chaos and death.”
So, not an Obama fan. The “chaos and death” phrase is one Franks uses a lot (“I know that sounds partisan, but the record reflects it,” he said, almost apologetically). But he also abhors the Syrian regime. Conundrum: One instinct says to hit Syria hard, and the other says to do the opposite of whatever Obama wants. Franks said he’s “undeclared” on how he’ll vote. Undecided? No, just undeclared. He wouldn’t even confirm that he’s made up his mind. This is an unusual Washington moment, completely unscripted, with few if any precedents in recent memory. The situation changes by the hour. The Russian overture — an offer to put Syria’s chemical weapons under international control — further scrambled any sense of where this is leading. Obama will address the nation in a prime-time broadcast Tuesday night in an attempt to sell his Syria policy to a skeptical citizenry.
The only thing certain at this point is that a military strike against Syria would arrive with the same element of surprise as Christmas.  Decisions on war and peace are always fraught with constitutional questions, and the War Powers Resolution, passed in the 1970s after the Vietnam War, gives Congress a certain degree of authority to approve or deny the deployment of forces in war zones.  But Congress’s role is also circumscribed by that same resolution. The president has up to 90 days to take military action without seeking congressional approval, and there is always debate about when, precisely, the clock starts ticking, and what, exactly, constitutes hostilities, said Douglas Kriner, associate professor of political science at Boston University and author of “After the Rubicon: Congress, Presidents and the Politics of Waging War.”
Kriner and other historians said they can’t think of a time when a president went to Congress on a military authorization vote when the vote was very much in doubt. Obama seemed poised to order airstrikes against the Syrian government 10 days ago, but at the last moment, he shocked his aides and many allies by kicking the question to the Hill, where the president has few close friends among Democrats and where many Republican lawmakers are loath to say yes to anything the president favors.  Barring a Russian breakthrough, or some other diplomatic solution, Congress will have to do something it doesn’t like to do and hasn’t been good at doing for a long time: Make a decision.
In Washington, indecision on big matters has become a refined art. This week, for example, congressional leaders will once again deploy a favorite tool of collective indecision on the budget, the “continuing resolution,” a way of punting harder decisions until the end of the year. The sequester is already chewing through agency budgets even though most everyone who created those budget cuts agreed that they were a terrible way to trim spending. It’s just easier than making decisions on how to do that.
Obama, in effect, is forcing Congress to share the ownership, for better or worse, of American military policy toward Syria, a situation that offers no attractive options. If Congress votes yes, Obama will at least have some brothers and sisters in arms going forward. If Congress votes no, Obama will take a short-term hit to his prestige, but Congress could wind up looking worse if Syrian President Bashar al-Assad uses chemical weapons again.  If Obama had gone ahead with the military strikes in August, and they had turned out badly, then opponents in Congress would “just sit back and hammer him on it,” Kriner said. They’d have called for investigations and held hearings for the rest of Obama’s presidency, the political scientist added.
President George H.W. Bush was confident he’d win authorization to prosecute the Persian Gulf War, and he got it, though many Democrats voted against the president. President George W. Bush also knew he had the votes for the 2002 invasion of Iraq.  Vote counters believe that even if Obama prevails in the Senate, the House is unlikely to give him authorization to go ahead. Obama could potentially ignore the House, but that would be another reversal of course and most political observers consider that unlikely.  Sen. Rand Paul, the Kentucky Republican who skews libertarian, has threatened to filibuster the resolution in the Senate. “We will ensure that it’s a 60-vote margin,” he said as he entered a senators-only elevator on his way to the chamber. Of the possibility of Russia rounding up Syria’s chemical weapons, Paul said, “That’d be much better than bombing Assad to make him so unstable that these weapons get into the hands of terrorists.”
The whip counting is full of leaners — lean yes, lean no — as Obama and his proxies work the meeting rooms on the Hill to make their case that Assad violated an international norm. Obama went to both Senate caucuses Tuesday; his meeting with Republicans on their home turf was a rare event for this president.  “Pretty late in the administration to start making friends,” Sen. Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican, said late Monday.  Some members of Congress want nothing to do with the decision. They think the president should have acted straightaway rather than drawing in another branch of government.  “I think this is a circus. We ought to take a timeout,” said Rep. Devin Nunes, a California Republican who serves on the House Intelligence Committee. “This is ridiculous that they’re putting the Congress through this.”  Rep. Peter T. King, a New York Republican, said Obama had the power to act without congressional approval and should have done so in August.  “It was a terrible dereliction of duty,” King said. Why didn’t Obama attack Syria? “My own feeling is, he flinched.”
But many other members of Congress had asked to be looped into the decision. And the fact that the process has become messy is just the way democracy is supposed to work, said Rep. John B. Larson, a Connecticut Democrat and one of the president’s allies on the Syria issue. Liberally paraphrasing the famed Judge Learned Hand, Larson said, “Democracy and freedom is that which leaves you not too sure.”

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