News / USA

Column: US Syria Policy Takes a New Turn

President Barack Obama is hoping to reach a deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Syria's chemical weapons.
President Barack Obama is hoping to reach a deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Syria's chemical weapons.
Those who follow U.S. foreign policy are understandably suffering a bad case of whiplash.
 
One day, President Barack Obama is vowing to strike targets in Syria to deter it from using chemical weapons again. A few days later, he appears to be handing the decision to Congress. But before Congress can vote, the president says he will give time to consider a Russian plan to put Syria’s chemical weapons under international control.
 
The reason for these zigs and zags appears to be in part political. Obama may not believe that Russian President Vladimir Putin - a staunch supporter of the regime of Bashar al-Assad - can deliver a diplomatic solution to the Syria chemical weapons crisis. But the U.S. president, despite a full-court press from his White House and top Cabinet officials over the past 10 days, has not been able since Syrian attacks killed more than 1,000 people outside Damascus on August 21 to convince either the international community or the U.S. Congress to authorize the use of force against Syria.
 
On Capitol Hill on Tuesday (Sept. 10), hours before Obama addressed the nation from the Oval Office with the latest iteration of his policy, Congressman Jeff Miller, a Republican from Florida on the House Armed Services Committee, challenged Secretary of State John Kerry’s explanation of why the Senate had postponed a debate and vote on a resolution approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week.
 
While Kerry said the delay was to allow time to see if the Russian proposal “has meat to it,” Miller said the real reason was “Because they don’t have the votes, Mr. Secretary, you know that.”
 
In his speech Tuesday night, Obama said it was his decision to ask Congress to delay action while more diplomacy played out.
 
Letting diplomacy play out
 
Although the public was not aware of the Russian plan until Monday when Kerry made an offhand remark at a news conference in London, the idea began to take shape months ago and started to crystallize at the G20 meeting in St. Petersburg last week where Obama was conspicuously unable to rally strong support for striking Syria. There are a number of serious questions about how such a plan can be carried out, not least of them which country or countries would be willing to send inspectors and demolition experts to a nation in the throes of civil war and how their safety can be guaranteed.
 
The proposal has achieved one purpose – beyond sparing Obama a devastating defeat in Congress and defusing the threat of turning him into a lame duck more than three years before he leaves office. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem, in accepting the Russian plan on Monday, admitted for the first time ever that Syria possesses chemical weapons. But Russia rejected an early effort by the U.S. and France to draft a U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force against Syria if it does not verifiably disarm.
 
Iraq and Iran

Many arms control experts remember the tortuous process of getting Iraq to give up its weapons of mass destruction after 1991 Gulf War - despite being authorized by the Security Council - and fear that disarming Syria could turn into an even more dangerous game of cat and mouse.

It is, however, unlikely that the Assad regime would dare to use chemical weapons again while the plan is implemented. Congress, meanwhile, is drafting new resolutions that would oblige Assad to surrender the weapons within a strict time limit.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif is dealing directly with Washington on the Syria issue.Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif is dealing directly with Washington on the Syria issue.
x
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif is dealing directly with Washington on the Syria issue.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif is dealing directly with Washington on the Syria issue.

The crisis has also brought an unexpected dividend for U.S.-Iran diplomacy. According to Iranian media, Iran’s new U.S.-educated foreign minister, Mohammed Javad Zarif, has exchanged messages directly with the Obama administration about ways to defuse the situation.
 
Iranians, who suffered horrific chemical weapons attacks during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, have been appalled by the recent events in Syria. Their new president, Hassan Rouhani, is trying to reduce Iran’s isolation, primarily by achieving a nuclear agreement with the United States that would lead to lifting punishing economic sanctions. Iran also wants to be included in multilateral diplomacy regarding the Syria conflict, which has cost Iran billions of dollars in scarce hard currency and deepened sectarian divisions in the region to the detriment of the world’s largest Shi’ite Muslim nation.
 
Foreign entanglements
 
In presenting his case for U.S. action on Syria, President Obama addressed American concerns about becoming entangled in an intractable conflict in which it is hard to distinguish good guys from bad guys and there is “no direct or imminent threat to our security.” Obama also mentioned Iran and his concern that “a failure to stand against the use of chemical weapons would weaken prohibitions against other weapons of mass destruction, and embolden Assad’s ally, Iran -- which must decide whether to ignore international law by building a nuclear weapon, or to take a more peaceful path.” But Obama focused more on the humanitarian case and the United States’ role as the guarantor of last resort in dealing with gross abuses of human rights.
 
Today, on the 12th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks, Americans are understandably weary of shouldering the burden of American “exceptionalism.” It would be ironic if Putin – a former KGB officer – and Rouhani – a veteran apparatchik of the Islamic Republic of Iran – can reduce this burden on the United States in the case of Syria.
 
As for Assad, while the diplomatic machinations of his allies and the flaws of his opponents may save his skin for a few more months or years, eventually he will face a reckoning, as did the last dictator to employ chemical weapons against his own people, Saddam Hussein.

(To see more of Barbara Slavin's columns, click on the link below)

Barbara Slavin

Barbara Slavin is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center and a correspondent for Al-Monitor.com, a website specializing in the Middle East. She is the author of a 2007 book, Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the US and the Twisted Path to Confrontation, and is a regular commentator on U.S. foreign policy and Iran on NPR, PBS, C-SPAN and the Voice of America.

You May Like

Photogallery Strong Words Start, May End, S. African Xenophobic Attacks

President Jacob Zuma publicly condemned rise in attacks on foreign nationals but critics say leadership has been less than welcoming to foreign residents More

Video Family Waits to Hear Charges Against Reporter Jailed in Iran

Reports in Iran say Jason Rezaian has been charged with espionage, but brother tells VOA indictment has not been made public More

Video Overwhelmed by Migrants, Italy Mulls Action to Stabilize Libya

Amnesty International says multinational concerted humanitarian effort must be enacted to address crisis; decrepit boats continue to bring thousands of new arrivals daily More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Are Energy Needs Putting Thailand's Natural Beauty at Risk?i
X
Steve Sandford
April 17, 2015 12:50 AM
Thailand's appetite for more electricity has led to the construction of new dams along the Mekong River to the north and new coal plants near the country's famous beaches in the south. A proposed coal plant in a so-called "green zone" has touched off a debate. VOA's Steve Sandford reports.
Video

Video Are Energy Needs Putting Thailand's Natural Beauty at Risk?

Thailand's appetite for more electricity has led to the construction of new dams along the Mekong River to the north and new coal plants near the country's famous beaches in the south. A proposed coal plant in a so-called "green zone" has touched off a debate. VOA's Steve Sandford reports.
Video

Video Overwhelmed by Migrants, Italy Mulls Military Action to Stabilize Libya

Thousands more migrants have arrived on the southern shores of Italy from North Africa in the past two days. Authorities say they expect the total number of arrivals this year to far exceed previous levels, and the government has said military action in Libya might be necessary to stem the flow. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Putin Accuses Kyiv of ‘Cutting Off’ Eastern Ukraine

Russian President Vladimir Putin, in his annual televised call-in program, again denied there were any Russian troops fighting in Ukraine. He also said the West was trying to ‘contain’ Russia with sanctions. Henry Ridgwell reports on reactions to the president’s four-hour TV appearance.
Video

Video Eye Contact Secures Dog's Place in Human Heart

Dogs serve in the military, work with police and assist the disabled, and have been by our side for thousands of years serving as companions and loyal friends. We love them. They love us in return. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports on a new study that looks at the bio-chemical bond that cements that human-canine connection.
Video

Video Ukrainian Volunteers Search for Bodies of Missing Soldiers

As the cease-fire becomes more fragile in eastern Ukraine, a team of volunteer body collectors travels to the small village of Savur Mohyla in the what pro-Russian separatists call the Donetsk Peoples Republic - to retrieve bodies of fallen Ukrainian servicemen from rebel-held territories. Adam Bailes traveled with the team and has this report.
Video

Video Xenophobic Violence Sweeps South Africa

South Africa, long a haven for African immigrants, has been experiencing the worst xenophobic violence in years, with at least five people killed and hundreds displaced in recent weeks. From Johannesburg, VOA’s Anita Powell brings us this report.
Video

Video Sierra Leone President Koroma Bemoans Ebola Impact on Economy

In an interview with VOA's Shaka Ssali on Wednesday, President Ernest Koroma said the outbreak undermined his government’s efforts to boost and restructure the economy after years of civil war.
Video

Video Protester Lands Gyrocopter on Capitol Lawn

A 61-year-old mailman from Florida landed a small aircraft on the Capitol lawn in Washington to bring attention to campaign finance reform and what he says is government corruption. Wednesday's incident was one in a string of security breaches on U.S. government property. Zlatica Hoke reports the gyrocopter landing violated a no-fly zone.
Video

Video Apollo 13, NASA's 'Successful Failure,' Remembered

The Apollo 13 mission in 1970 was supposed to be NASA's third manned trip to the moon, but it became much more. On the flight's 45th anniversary, astronauts and flight directors gathered at Chicago's Adler Planetarium to talk about how the aborted mission changed manned spaceflight and continues to influence space exploration today. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports.
Video

Video Badly Burned Ukrainian Boy Bravely Fights Back

A 9-year-old Ukrainian boy has returned to his native country after intensive treatment in the United States for life-threatening burns. Volodia Bubela, burned in a house fire almost a year ago, battled back at a Boston hospital, impressing doctors with his bravery. Faith Lapidus narrates this report from VOA's Tetiana Kharchenko.
Video

Video US Maternity Leave Benefits Much Less Than Many Countries

It was almost 20 years ago that representatives of 189 countries met at a UN conference in Beijing and adopted a plan of action to achieve gender equality around the world. Now, two decades later, the University of California Los Angeles World Policy Analysis Center has issued a report examining what the Beijing Platform for Action has achieved. From Los Angeles, Elizabeth Lee has more.
Video

Video Endangered Hawaiian Birds Get Second Chance

Of the world's nearly 9,900 bird species, 13 percent are threatened with extinction, according to BirdLife International. Among them are two Hawaiian honeycreepers - tiny birds that live in the forest canopy, and, as the name implies, survive on nectar from tropical flowers. Scientists at the San Diego Zoo report they have managed to hatch half a dozen of their chicks in captivity, raising hopes that the birds will flutter back from the brink of extinction. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Exhibit Brings Renaissance Master Out of the Shadows

The National Gallery of Art in Washington has raised the curtain on one of the most intriguing painters of the High Renaissance. Mostly ignored after his death in the early 1500s, Italian master Piero di Cosimo is now claiming his place alongside the best-known artists of the period. VOA’s Ardita Dunellari reports.
Video

Video Sidemen to Famous Blues Artists Record Their Own CD

Legendary blues singer BB King was briefly hospitalized last week and the 87-year-old “King of the Blues” may not be touring much anymore. But some of the musicians who have played with him and other blues legends have now released their own CD in an attempt to pass the torch to younger fans... and put their own talents out front as well. VOA’s Greg Flakus has followed this project over the past year and filed this report from Houston.
Video

Video Iran-Saudi Rivalry Is Stoking Conflict in Yemen

Iran has proposed a peace plan to end the conflict in Yemen, but the idea has received little support from regional rivals like Saudi Arabia. They accuse Tehran of backing the Houthi rebels, who have forced Yemen’s president to flee to Riyadh, and have taken over swaths of Yemen. As Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA, analysts say the conflict is being fueled by the Sunni-Shia rivalry between the two regional powers.

VOA Blogs