Following the US-Russian agreement, the Syrian government’s chemical weapons must now be destroyed. To do this without putting UN employees at impossible risk, the Syrian civil war must also stop. To do that requires a plan by the Obama administration and others. To do that requires a realistic goal — not just “victory” for the rebels — but which ones?
At best, last week’s diplomacy puts the Obama administration back at Square One before the major chemical weapons attacks on August 21. Still, there are differences. Firstly, the threat of force, strongly put forth by the president in his dramatic speech to the nation last Tuesday, is in fact off the table. For this to be otherwise would require some triggering mechanism of Syrian government “non-compliance,” and Russia would have to concur. It would also return President Obama to the dilemma of trying to get Congressional and public approval for US military force. Two non-starters.
In fact, the debate on the use of force is mostly about US domestic politics. The president should draw upon the famous quotation misattributed to Vermont Senator George Aiken during the Vietnam War: “Declare victory and get out.”
Secondly, the US can no longer ignore what has been happening in Syria and must ramp up its diplomatic efforts.
Thirdly, Russia is now directly involved in Middle East diplomacy. Getting it to “butt out” now is also a non-starter. Maybe President Vladimir Putin will see advantages in genuinely working toward a broader settlement in Syria and elsewhere in the region. The price: Russia will henceforth be “in” and will have to be recognized as more than just a successor to the country whipped in the Cold War.
Both Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan knew how to change bad news to good in foreign policy: the former by “going to China” and making possible withdrawal from Vietnam; the latter by proposing to Mikhail Gorbachev at Reykjavik that the US and USSR get rid of all nuclear weapons, an ice-breaker that helped end the Cold War.
For Obama, “changing the subject” in Syria and the broader Middle East should include the following components:
- Stop insisting that the possible use of force against Syria “remains on the table.” It has no further value and just keeps alive the debate over US “credibility.”
- Recognize that the Syrian government will not negotiate when the outcome is predetermined (the departure of President Bashar al-Assad). If President Obama can’t for domestic political reasons back off from this second “red line,” at least the Alawite community needs cast-iron assurances that it will not be butchered following a deal and can continue to play a major political role.
- Pursue a peace process relentlessly as an honest broker, with all other interested outside countries, co-chaired with Russia and under UN auspices.
- Tell US Arab allies whose citizens export Islamist fundamentalism or fund weapons for terrorists in Syria and elsewhere to “cut it out.”
- Help restrain the wider Sunni-Shia civil war in the region, in part through demonstrating that the US will remain strategically engaged, while acting as an honest broker.
- Take advantage of Iran’s new presidency to propose direct US-Iranian talks and pursue a nuclear agenda that has a serious chance of success, as opposed to past US demands that Iran give us what we want as a precondition. Recognize publicly that we respect Iran’s legitimate security interests, as we rightly demand that Tehran reciprocate.
- Explore possible compatible interests with Iran in Afghanistan, Iraq, freedom of shipping through the Strait of Hormuz, an Incidents at Sea Agreement (as the US and Soviet Union did in 1972) – and perhaps even over Syria.
- Engage the Europeans more fully in both political and economic developments in the Middle East and North Africa, as part of a new Transatlantic Bargain.
- Start shifting the US focus in the region from military to political and economic tools of power and influence. Put substance behind the spirit of Obama’s 2009 Cairo speech that did so much for US standing with the region’s people.
- Propose a long-term security framework for the Middle East, in which all countries can take part; all will oppose terrorism (including its inspiration), all will respect the legitimate security interests of its neighbors, and all will search for confidence-building measures.
- Engage all interested states (including Iran, Russia, China, Pakistan, and India) in developing a framework for Afghanistan after 2014.
- Recognize that Israeli-Palestinian negotiations can only succeed when Israel’s security concerns (Egypt, Syria, and Iran) are addressed and the blockade of Gaza ends.
Other steps may be needed, but all elements in the Middle East must be considered together. The US must exercise leadership. It must primarily work for regional security, political and economic development, be the security provider of last resort, honor its commitments, act as an honest broker, and prove itself worthy of trust.