Monthly Archives: September 2013

Is a US-Iranian nuclear deal suddenly possible?

Anyone eagerly awaiting an Iran-US “great game” had better brace themselves for a potential long-term match postponement.

American President Barack Obama was elected to end and avoid future Middle East conflicts, not begin them, as demonstrated by the Syrian chemical weapons crisis and the American-Russian “diplomatic solution.”

The only Middle East imbroglio Obama has shown any inclination to engage in – apart from a very robust campaign against al-Qaeda involving drones and covert actions – is Iran’s nuclear weapons program.

Obama has drawn a seemingly simple red line: “Iran must not be allowed to possess nuclear weapons.” But what looks at first glance like black letter clarity turns out, on second thought, to be somewhat murky. At least two key terms in that formula – “possess” and “nuclear weapons” – require defining.

Obama has insisted Iran must not build a nuclear weapon. By contrast, Israel insists Iran must not be capable of building nuclear weapons. Obama’s policy, while somewhat murky, nonetheless commits the United States to military action against the Iranian nuclear program at some point if Iran continues to proceed toward greater enrichment and weaponization of uranium.

Obama has pursued a policy of sanctions and repeated offers of diplomatic solutions. Over time, the sanctions took a heavy toll on the Iranian economy, to the point that those who had warned that they would be ineffective have almost certainly been proven wrong.

Enter new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.

He presented himself as a reformist, especially on foreign policy. He has a broad mandate from the Iranian people who seem to blame their own government, more than the West, for the sanctions.

He claims the full backing of the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, and both have said, unconvincingly, that Iran does not want a nuclear weapon.

Obama, naturally, would prefer to forestall this potential crisis and pass it along to his successors.

Even the military option itself can only be a temporary and delaying factor, since Iran – if it is absolutely bound and determined to do so – can and will eventually become a nuclear power. The only long-term solutions would be regime change – with a new Iranian government that is either internationally trusted or abandons nuclear ambitions – or North Korea-style “containment.”

So it’s not a matter of cowardice or weakness on the part of Obama to seek an agreement that essentially freezes Iranian nuclear research and development in its tracks, or slows it to a snail’s pace for the remainder of his term. It is actually the best plausible scenario for himself politically and for American foreign policy.

It would then be up to his successor to try to maintain this pattern of deterrence and thereby continue to avoid a confrontation nobody relishes.

At the start of his second term, Obama appointed a foreign policy team –John Kerry, Chuck Hagel and John Brennan – now augmented by Susan Rice and Samantha Power, that seemed that the time, and now looks even more, like a group assembled specifically with the Iranian problem in mind: “We will offer you the best deal you’ll ever get.”

Rouhani has matched Obama appointee by appointee. He has crafted a team ideally suited to dialogue with the West. Not only is he a striking contrast with the buffoonish Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, he appointed a group of reformers and technocrats to lead his government, most notably Mohammad Javad Zarif as Foreign Minister and Ali Akbar Salehi to once again head Iran’s nuclear program.

The contrast in tone and substance from the Ahmadinejad era is striking.

However, even a strategic shift would not necessarily mean Iran is ready to abandon or even suspend its nuclear program. But it might, in order to end the crippling sanctions and international and regional isolation, be willing to strike a deal with the Obama administration that essentially freezes things as they are.

There is a potential for a temporary win-win scenario for Iran and the United States here. The Syria chemical weapons agreement might even be a kind of trial run for what can be accomplished between the United States and Iran.

And in both cases, the credible threat of military force remaining on the table will be essential for diplomatic solutions to special weapons conundrums in order to have any hope of success.

Neither the diplomatic nor the military solution will work unless Iran voluntarily abandons its nuclear ambitions or is accepted as a trusted member of the international community. Both seem remote possibilities.

But both governments are strongly signaling they feel it is in their interests to postpone any confrontation on the question to some future date. And it is on that basis that a US-Iranian deal has suddenly become plausible. But it’s unlikely to be an agreement that resolves the matter permanently – rather one that buys everyone time.

The prospect of Kurdish statehood moves ever closer

Following the First World War, the victorious powers planned to create an independent Kurdish state. However, due to both Turkish objections and Kurdish infighting, these plans were scrapped at the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne. Kurdish areas were instead divided among Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran.

Almost a century later, we may be witnessing the birth of an independent Kurdistan, albeit in a fraction of majority-Kurdish areas. Kurds cannot have everything they want, but they are on the brink of a real state. And the countries traditionally most hostile to this are suddenly its main facilitators. This is not only counterintuitive. Until recently, it would have been unimaginable.

The ironies are almost overwhelming. Turkey is already serving as the guarantor of de facto Kurdish independence in Iraq, and, increasingly, in a fragmenting Syria. And Iraq has become the most probable midwife of a fully independent Kurdish state.

The process began with the ousting of Iraqi forces from Kuwait in 1991 and the imposition of a “no-fly zone” above the 36th parallel in Iraq. This gave the Kurds an unprecedented degree of autonomy. They put aside long-standing differences, after a bitter squabble between the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and their rivals, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), from 1994-1998.

By the time of the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Kurds were ready to establish a quasi-independent area – the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) – solidified by a KDP-PUK unification in 2006, mediated by, of all countries, Turkey.

Following the establishment of the de facto independent Kurdish area in 1991, the Turks were faced with a conundrum: to treat this as a hostile entity that could undermine its control of Kurdish parts of eastern Anatolia, or to attempt to build such strong relations with it that Iraqi Kurds would have no incentive to promote rebellion in Kurdish areas of Turkey.

Finding the Kurds receptive, Turkey decided to build an alliance with the KRG. Trade and other relations flourished. By 2008, Turkey had become one of the closest allies of the KRG. And as Ankara’s relationship with Baghdad steadily deteriorates, its relationship with Erbil only intensifies.

Turkey was confronted with a similar conundrum when Kurdish groups – including its longtime nemesis, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) – united to form the “Western Kurdistan Autonomous Region” in northern Syria under the tutelage of KRG President Massoud Barzani.

Kurdish groups in northern Syria have been successful in fending off challenges from jihadists and others who seek to use these same territories for their own purposes. They are, in effect, building an annexe to the KRG in Syria. Both fractured countries will, therefore, produce Kurdish areas that will be, at the least, virtually independent.

Concomitant with this development, a “peace process” was initiated between the PKK and Turkey. The PKK agreed to withdraw its fighters into KRG territory and cease hostilities. Such an agreement is essential for convincing Turkey to regard the Kurdish entity in Syria as tolerable, but this process is now in some peril.

PKK leaders complain Turkish officials are not living up to promises to respect Kurdish minority rights. The PKK has recently suspended the withdrawal of their forces, but have not resumed hostilities.

It is likely, however, that a workable agreement will eventually hold, preventing Turkey from viewing the Syrian Kurdish entity as a threat challenging its rule in Kurdish areas of Turkey.

Even more remarkable than Turkey’s about-face regarding virtual Kurdish independence in Iraq and Syria is the growing sentiment in Baghdad in favour of full Kurdish independence.

Iraqi prime minister Nouri Al Maliki and his allies have tacitly, and occasionally overtly, endorsed this for three main reasons. First, they believe they can more easily control a state which is simply Arab and has a clearer Shiite majority. Second, they see an independent Kurdish state as a buffer with an increasingly hostile Turkey. Third, in their view, approximately $17 billion of oil revenue from the Shiite south gets transferred every year to the KRG without reciprocal benefits.

The disputed city of Kirkuk and some other sensitive issues would have to be negotiated, but, despite Iranian objections, there seems to be genuine interest in Baghdad for Kurdish independence.

Several remaining potential roadblocks must be overcome. Turkey may ultimately find these developments, particularly a PKK-dominated mini-state in northern Syria, simply too threatening. PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan may prove too recalcitrant to finalise a deal with Turkey, or the chauvinistic Turkish AKP government with him. And there could be another crippling intra-Kurdish power struggle, for example between Mr Öcalan and Mr Barzani.

But the stage now seems set for the KRG to continue to consolidate its de facto independence, and expand its influence into an analogous area in northern Syria. This would create a de facto independent Kurdish state for the first time in modern history. However, in order to survive, any de facto or de jure independent Kurdish entity must ensure that it is not seen as posing a direct threat to Turkish rule in Kurdish-majority areas of Turkey for the foreseeable future.

Assuming Turkish anxieties are assuaged, Syria continues to fragment, and the Iraqi Shiite majority remains willing to part ways, then, at long last, the establishment of a fully independent Kurdish state is merely a matter of time.

Israel and Palestine Vs. ‘Blood and Magic’ (coauthored with Prof. Saliba Sarsar)

Ian S. Lustick’s commentary, “Two-State Illusion,” in this weekend’s New York Times dismisses not only the present round of U.S.-brokered Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, but the whole concept of a negotiated two-state Israeli-Palestinian agreement. He describes it as a fantasy that “blinds us and impedes progress,” as if Israelis and Palestinians faced a smorgasbord of interesting and attractive options for resolving the conflict.


Secretary of State John Kerry watches as Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, right, and Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat shake hands during a meeting on the Middle East Peace Process Talks at the Department of State on July 30, 2013 in Washington, DC. Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat joined Kerry in some of the first direct talks in three years between Israel and Palestine. (Win McNamee/Getty)

However, as the latter part of his article makes clear, his “new ideas” are mainly an incoherent jumble of imaginary scenarios, all of which require an alternative reality to emerge at some point in the future. Nothing he suggests can be built on under present circumstances. None of it holds together as a coherent or even semi-coherent counterproposal.

Worse still, most of what he envisages requires by his own admission decades, if not centuries, to become possibilities, and further Israeli-Palestinian conflict is inevitable.

So not only would we have to wait scores of decades, if not centuries, for any of these “alternatives” to begin to emerge, they could only be the product of further wide-scale bloodshed.

Despite Prof. Lustick’s passionate dismissal, the two-state solution remains the only viable option for ending the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. His counterfactual musings don’t provide any practicable, coherent or implementable alternatives. It’s an interesting thought experiment to dismiss the global consensus, stated position of all relevant parties, logical implementation of international law, and only practicable means of achieving the minimum goals of each party in favor of flights of fancy. But it has no political value whatsoever. Indeed undermining the only plausible conflict-ending scenario, while not suggesting any serious, practicable alternatives, is actually harmful.

Although realizing a two-state solution faces serious and growing obstacles, it alone allows both Palestinians and Israelis to avoid an ongoing struggle with no end in sight. Yes, “Time can do things that politicians cannot,” as Prof. Lustick writes, but the goal must be to achieve a solution in our lifetime—not in 120 years as with Irish independence, or 132 years as with Algerian independence, two of the key examples he cites.

The occupation is an emergency, not a macro- or trans-historical problem, particularly for the millions of Palestinians living under its oppressive rule. They, especially—but we too—do not have the luxury of waiting to see what the next hundred years of history will bring us, good or bad. On the contrary, we must have the courage to act now, and with urgency, within the existing realities, however difficult, to try to create a working solution to a situation that is both intolerably unjust and regionally (and to some extent even globally) destabilizing.

Other than a two-state solution, other scenarios may have constituencies but they cannot end the conflict. There are three main extant “alternative” visions.

First is the continuation of the status quo of Israeli occupation and unilateralism. Israel rules millions of Palestinians who, uniquely in the world, are not citizens of Israel or any other state. Israel also controls large amounts of Palestinian territory beyond its internationally recognized boundaries. This situation is completely untenable, and, over time, can only lead to further confrontations. It is a relationship of dominance and subordination that makes further conflict inevitable.

Moreover, it can only defer a resolution of the essential issues between the two peoples and deepen and entrench divisions, thus further raising the stakes and making a conflict-ending agreement more difficult at every stage. Israeli exclusivity in Jerusalem is a recipe for continued conflict with the Palestinians, since a Palestinian state without a sovereign role in occupied East Jerusalem would not be viable. More dangerous still, exclusive Israeli control of Jerusalem creates the circumstances through which the conflict could easily morph from being a difficult but resolvable political struggle between two ethno-national communities over land and power, into a far more intractable, and possibly irreconcilable, religious confrontation between Israel and the Muslim world in general over holy places and the will of God.

Second, among both Israelis and Palestinians, minority discourses are demanding complete Israeli/Jewish (as expressed by the Jewish Israeli settler and annexation movements) or Palestinian/Muslim (as reflected in the positions of Hamas and Islamic Jihad) rule over the whole of historical Palestine. These maximalist visions offer nothing but ongoing and, in all likelihood, catastrophic conflict without apparent resolution, since neither side can seriously hope for any sort of comprehensive military solution. Neither Israelis nor Palestinians, both of whom exist in roughly equivalent numbers between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, are going to vanish from the land. And neither people shows the least interest in either accepting subjugation at the hands of the other or abandoning its own national identity.

Third, especially in the Palestinian diaspora and in Western universities, a utopian vision of a single, democratic state in which Israelis and Palestinians both set aside their national identities in favor of an as-yet-undefined umbrella identity in some sort of joint or bi-national state may be appealing in theory, but does not constitute a practical path to ending the conflict. No political movement of any significance among either Palestinians or Israelis has adopted it as a policy goal, because both sides are still clinging to their national projects and self-determination. Moreover, no version of this has yet explained what could make it attractive to Jewish Israelis who would have to be convinced to abandon their national project. Indeed, this idea remains entirely mired in sloganeering aimed at Palestinian and pro-Palestinian sentiments and, thus far, hasn’t even attempted to address the basic interests of Jewish Israelis and their national sentiments or narratives.

All of these “alternatives” represent unworkable fantasies and, in practice, the demand for them abandons the goal of resolving the conflict and ending the occupation in favor of an open-ended struggle in pursuit of impossible goals. In short, these “solutions” represent neither principles nor pragmatism, and instead reflect dangerous phantasms and fanaticism.

Prof. Lustick has provided a very good illustration of how far fantasies about alternative scenarios can be taken when they proliferate on the page in what appears to be an unstructured stream of consciousness.

By contrast, one of the most compelling aspects of the two-state solution is that a solid majority of both Palestinians and Israelis alike have shown, in virtually every poll taken in the past twenty years and more, that they are in favor of peace based on two states. Moreover, the international community, the U.N. Security Council, and the international legal framework are all very clear in their support for a Palestinian state that would live alongside Israel in peace and security.

Nevertheless, radical minorities on both sides and in the U.S. have thus far been allowed to thwart the mutual wishes of the large majority of both Israelis and Palestinians. Moreover, they have been allowed to impede the realization of a crucial American national security interest.

Prof. Lustick looks forward to future transformations beyond a two-state framework based on a combination of “blood and magic,” which he argues are the key to avoiding “truly catastrophic change.” In our view, it’s hard to imagine a political perspective that more certainly invites “truly catastrophic change” than a reliance on “blood and magic.” We prefer to rely on the national interests, political common sense, and the basic humanity of all the parties to recognize that, under current circumstances, only a two-state solution offers a conflict-ending scenario.

Moreover, we strongly feel that we do not have the luxury of centuries to let “blood and magic” do their work, assuming that Prof. Lustick is right that these are indeed the factors that avoid catastrophe. Prof. Lustick says that in the early 1980s, when working for the U.S. government, he was asked outright if he was “willing to destroy the only available chance for peace between Israelis and Palestinians?” He says he responded in the affirmative.

We are no less aware of the challenges facing the realization of a two-state solution, and there’s nothing in Prof. Lustick’s commentary with which either of us was unfamiliar. The big difference is that we are not willing to destroy the only available chance for peace between the Israelis and Palestinians, or to dismiss or denigrate it. Instead, we strongly advocate that all people of goodwill join together to find a way to make it work because Prof. Lustick’s alternative—centuries of conflict and a reliance on “blood and magic” as a solution—appears to us to be inexcusably reckless.

Time to aid, not stigmatize, the Syrian rebels

With potential American strikes against Syrian chemical weapons-related targets averted for now, attention once again turns to the Syrian opposition. This is a crucial issue because the main way the West and the Arab states can, and should, act to influence the Syrian conflict is through a robust engagement with acceptable armed opposition forces.

As long as the Damascus dictatorship continues to enjoy impunity, air supremacy and unrestrained support from Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia, the existing power structure has no incentive whatsoever to look for an agreement, nor can it be forced into a de facto stalemate that can provide a modicum of stability.

They think they’re winning, and have no reason to adjust either their narrative or their calculations. So they will stick with the story they have clung to since they began gunning down unarmed protesters in the first few months of the uprising: that Syria is under attack by foreign-led and inspired al-Qaeda terrorists.

Since the days of the American invasion of Iraq, President Bashar al-Assad and the jihadists have had a bizarre kind of partnership in which they loath yet find each other mutually useful. This Iraqi pattern is replaying itself in Syria. Indeed, it’s so useful that the potential for Syrian and Iranian regime penetration of certain aspects of the jihadist leadership cannot be discounted.

Meanwhile, Westerners who don’t want to have anything to do with the conflict are quaffing this Kool-Aid with evident gusto. The Assad/al-Qaeda binary is very appealing, even comforting, to many Westerners who just don’t care about Syria. It is a perfect excuse for not only inaction, but apathy and indifference.

As French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius reportedly observed, “much of the public appeared to think that the choice in Syria was between Mr. Assad’s government and Islamic militants, but he said that was false.”

Al-Qaeda groups in Syria are small, but disproportionately funded and empowered. Among the rest of the fragmented rebel groups, the majority are affiliated with the Supreme Military Command (SMC) of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Added to that are the nationalistic and anti-jihadist, but religiously conservative, Salafist forces that range from the fairly moderate to the more doctrinaire.

A recent evaluation by Barak Barfi estimated that about 80,000 troops fall under the FSA umbrella, with another 40,000 moderate Islamists, 30,000 more hardline but nationalistic Islamists, and 6,000 “foreign jihadists.” Even allowing for a doubling of jihadist figures to 12,000, this illustrates that the neglected and underfunded nationalist groups comprise the large majority of fighting personnel in the Syrian opposition.

It is imperative for the West and its Arab allies to move quickly to help turn them into a unified, streamlined, and moderate military and political force that can serve as a functional opposition to marginalize al-Qaeda while combating, and ultimately potentially negotiating with elements of, the existing power structure.

Even sensationalistic claims that grossly exaggerate the presence and power of al-Qaeda or other “hardline Islamist” forces militate for such a policy, unless, of course, that’s a situation one finds acceptable or desirable.

Cutting through the dizzying minutia some clear core realities can be discerned.

First, there is a sizable body of nationalistic and anti-jihadist armed rebels who desperately need support of all kinds.

Second, al-Qaeda-related forces in Syria are in big trouble. They have recently split into two quarreling factions: Jabhat al-Nusra and the “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant” (ISIS). ISIS appears to be both prevailing in this split and systematically repeating all the mistakes which made al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) disintegrate into a vicious irrelevancy: overreaching, excessive violence, and a refusal to cooperate with anyone that will not submit to their authority.

This is an ideal situation for Mr. Assad, but no one else.

A grim pattern has emerged in the north: rebel forces take control of areas, and ISIS then attempts to establish theocratic dictatorships in towns such as Raqqa where they stand accused of making the Assad dictatorship look benign. Their demand is simple: total, unquestioning obedience to their vicious, obscurantist rule or death.

It is difficult to exaggerate the extent to which they have become despised by local populations and other insurgent groups. Popular demonstrations calling for the ouster of ISIS from Raqqa have been large and continuous, and met with the utmost brutality by the jihadists. ISIS is on the same path of systematic self-destruction as its AQI predecessor in Iraq, but much more rapidly.

Third, an influx of Arab state support for the SMC has shifted the war to the south, where jihadists are much less present than in the north, and also altered the balance of power within the armed opposition itself.

The present moment presents a perfect opportunity for outside forces to take advantage of the split within the al-Qaeda factions and greatly expand and enhance the support for nationalists opposed to both al-Qaeda and the regime.

Searching for “secularists” as opposed to “Islamists” in this variegated, fractured, and fluid opposition movement is futile and pointless. The question is, can groups that will stand in opposition to both al-Qaeda and Mr. Assad be identified, supported, and strengthened? The answer is yes.

The more support they receive, the stronger they will become. And, if such support is contingent on increasing moderation and a growing commitment to a tolerant, pluralistic Syrian future – a goal many such groups already say they fully share – they will be greatly strengthened.

The only reasons for not engaging in a massive project of support for moderate armed opposition forces – including ones that could fall somewhere in the taxonomy of “Islamist” – would be either not to care at all about the outcome in Syria, or to implicitly or explicitly support either the long-term survival of the Damascus regime or the indefinite continuation of the conflict.

The war will go on, and the West and its Arab allies can either act belatedly to hasten its conclusion and influence its outcome. Or they can sit back and watch the chaos continue to flourish, entirely to the advantage of the regime.

Widespread misinformation in the West deepens Syria’s crisis

When the focus in the United States shifted towards possible American air strikes to degrade the Syrian regime’s capacity to use chemical weapons, the armed Syrian opposition was criticised or dismissed from a variety of perspectives.

The air-strike debate is now paused, after the US and Russia agreed on a way to eliminate the chemical weapons peacefully. But the debate highlighted certain misconceptions that malign the entire armed opposition as Al Qaeda.

The crude Islamophobia at work is unmistakable. A notorious viral video circulated by the right-wing Tea Party movement purports to show serving American military personnel, in uniform, holding placards over their faces with messages such as: “Obama, don’t deploy me to fight your war for Al Qaeda in Syria.”

Such assertions are hardly restricted to anonymous videos or fringe figures. Republican Senator Ted Cruz, a rising star on the American right, summarised this misapprehension in a Washington Post article saying a reason he would vote against President Barack Obama’s requested (now suspended) authorisation for the use of force in Syria is that: “We should never give weapons to people who hate us, and the United States should not support or arm Al Qaeda terrorists.”

On both the American left and right, it is widely assumed that the primary beneficiaries of American strikes against regime targets would be Al Qaeda, and that any effort to provide aid to rebels will similarly merely boost jihadists.

After the experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the growth of an Islamophobic narrative in American popular culture, the working assumption now seems to be that armed non-governmental Arab Sunni Muslims are probably either Al Qaeda or in league with it.

In policy circles, this sentiment is echoed by a far more subtle misreading of the situation through research that takes into account mainly open-source materials such as online videos and statements. Observing the war at a distance and focusing only on the self-promoting multimedia put out by various groups – which compete for aid from extremist, wealthy private donors, and seek radicalised recruits from abroad – often leads to an exaggerated sense of the role of the most extreme groups in Syria’s conflict.

It can also promote a misunderstanding of the real belief systems operative among the fighters on the ground, particularly the rank-and-file, and the actual relationship between such rebel groups. The result is almost invariably an underestimation of non-jihadist forces and their effectiveness and an overestimation of the jihadists.

A third dismissive attitude is simply driven by “Middle East fatigue”. This sense holds that “we” don’t or can’t know who “they” (the Syrian opposition) are, and therefore it is folly to arm or support any of “them”. This sentiment reflects a willingness to throw up one’s hands in despair of ever understanding what Middle Easterners say and think, or why.

This means, in effect, that large sections of American opinion have, in one way or another, swallowed the line promoted by the Damascus dictatorship since the days of the unarmed protests, that Syria is under attack by a gang of foreign-led, Al Qaeda terrorists.

The Assad regime worked very hard to ensure that peaceful protests turned into an armed movement and that the subsequent conflict turned sectarian in nature. The regime, in so far as it can promote this impression and in some cases reality, is mainly confronting Al Qaeda-related groups. And for a combination of reasons – not least of them neglect by western and Arab states of the non-jihadist opposition groups – in parts of the country this has become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

This trend is being reversed to some extent but more needs to be done to deprive Bashar Al Assad of what he has always wanted. While, in the long run, he has little hope of prevailing throughout the country, his preferred enemy is Al Qaeda because they simply cannot win. Salafist-jihadist groups have a long history of self-defeat, most recently in Iraq, by indulging in overreaching, excessive violence and alienating potential allies and constituents because of their unremitting extremism.

The Al Qaeda-related groups in Syria recently split into two opposed factions and their areas of dominant influence are restricted to certain parts of the north and the east of the country. At least one of those factions, the “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant”, is already repeating almost all the mistakes that destroyed Al Qaeda in Iraq. They are now thoroughly despised by both the public and other insurgents in the areas where they operate. There is a golden opportunity to exploit this but that cannot be done without bolstering their nationalistic rivals.

In the south, where the most strategic and dynamic part of the war is now situated, the battle is being led largely by various forms of Syrian nationalists willing to turn their guns against both the regime and Al Qaeda – hence intensive western and Arab support for non-jihadist groups is essential.

The question of American military strikes aside, both the West and the Arab states have an urgent interest in supporting these groups to simultaneously combat both a murderous dictatorship and armed extremists who are at least as dangerous. On the ground, the opportunity is ripe for such an expanded programme. But as long as westerners think that Syria is trapped in a binary between Mr Al Assad and Al Qaeda, resistance to such a programme will remain widespread and crippling.

Buying time, but for what?

Seemingly offhand remarks by American Secretary of State John Kerry about a potential scenario for avoiding a series of limited US strikes against Syria offer many involved parties a potential way out of an uncomfortable standoff. He suggested that if the Syrian regime were to hand over its chemical weapons stockpile entirely to international control, American military action might become unnecessary. Mr. Kerry appeared to be contextualizing the suggestion in the context of its implausibility, if not impossibility. But, with blinding speed, the idea has developed into a potential diplomatic solution to the present standoff.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov seized on the comments, turning them into a vague Russian proposal. This, in turn, was endorsed by China and many others. And, most significantly, it was tentatively embraced by US President Barack Obama last night, although both Mr. Obama and Mr. Kerry have expressed great skepticism about the Syrian government’s readiness, willingness, and ability to comply with such terms.

These doubts are extremely well-founded. The Damascus dictatorship is nothing if not duplicitous.

Though it has yet to issue any formal response to the idea, the regime of Bashar al-Assad is likely to also seize on the concept as a method of buying time and avoiding an American strike.

But the plausibility that any such plan could be effectively crafted and implemented seems somewhat far-fetched. It would involve levels of international presence and verification – in the context of a chaotic, fluid, and rapidly-evolving civil war – and cooperation by a Syrian regime that seems to belong much more to the world of theory than anything practicable.

Yet it is not difficult to see the appeal such an idea could hold for all of these parties.

The Obama administration was never enthusiastic about a deep American involvement in Syria. Indeed, the Obama “red line” was always a manifestation of that. Mr. Obama set a standard for American engagement – no use of chemical weapons – that would have been easy to avoid by a less vicious regime. But apparently someone senior in the Syrian government panicked and ordered a major use of chemical weapons against hundreds of defenseless civilians, thereby forcing Mr. Obama’s hand.

With evident reluctance but determination, the Obama administration committed itself to limited military intervention to restore deterrence on chemical weapons use. Finding scant domestic and international support for such an action, the administration sought the approval of Congress. A resolution authorizing use of force seems likely to pass in the Senate, but still faces an uphill battle in the House of Representatives, and is deeply unpopular with a large percentage of Americans who fear another Middle East quagmire.

The new diplomatic initiative, however implausible in practice, offers all the parties an opportunity to buy some welcome time.

It gives Russia the opportunity to pose as a mediator and problem-solver in Syria, when in reality it bears the heaviest responsibility for the carnage in Syria by supporting the regime at every level, and blocking all international efforts to restrain the Syrian government and conflict. It gives Mr. Assad another opportunity to exercise his considerable skill at obfuscation, delay, and doubledealing at multilateral forums like the United Nations.

And it gives the Obama administration time to build more domestic and international support for any eventual military action. They will insist the United States would welcome and support any initiative that provides a diplomatic solution for the chemical weapons conundrum that has led the administration to feel bound to act. It can underscore the idea that it explored and exhausted all diplomatic possibilities before taking action, thereby adding considerable legitimacy to the perception of any future strikes as an unavoidable method of last resort.

But even if such an agreement were reached on paper – which seems difficult to imagine given the complexities involved – actually implementing it effectively would be all-but-impossible.

So the Obama administration is likely to find itself back at square one, confronting a situation in which its red line has been brazenly crossed by a murderous dictatorship that appears ready to do so again unless its impunity is firmly repudiated.

Meanwhile, the Syrian people continue to pay the real price on the ground.

For the war that is wracking their country to end, the strategic equation on the ground needs to be fundamentally changed. Limited US military action may still prove a major step in that direction.

Whether and when the United States acts directly against the Syrian regime it is imperative that it and its allies greatly increase support to non-extremist rebel groups. It is such support, after all, far more than limited military strikes, that can affect the nature and the outcome of the conflict and help to give Syrians a viable way out of their appalling, and regionally destabilizing, national nightmare.


Is the US facing a ‘Suez moment’ over Syrian crisis?

If the United States does not act in Syria, that could signal a turning point in international relations. We could witness, in effect, a self-imposed American version of what happened to France, and, much more dramatically, Britain, in the failed 1956 Suez campaign.

Although President Barack Obama is gaining congressional support, the Washington Post estimated on Tuesday that there were still twice as many members of the House of Representatives committed to vote against, rather than for, the resolution. Opinion polls also demonstrate overwhelming public opposition.

So American inaction remains a real possibility.

Mr Obama has clearly placed his own domestic and international credibility in grave peril. But the vote will reflect on the standing, and credibility of the United States itself. And not only in the Middle East but globally.

The analogy with the British fiasco in Suez is both compellingly similar and strikingly different. In the 1956 campaign – launched in a secret plot hatched with France and Israel to reverse Egypt’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal – Britain attempted to assert its age-old imperial role.

What Britain did not realise until it was too late was that it had overreached. Their era had passed, and was now superseded by a new order: the Cold War defined by American power in competition with the Soviet Union.

The old colonial forces then still had the desire, but they lacked the means to enforce their will.

Should the United States decline to act in defence of international order in Syria, as recently endorsed by the Arab League, and not respond forcefully to the abominable use of chemical weapons by the Damascus dictatorship, the international order could witness a similar outcome from the opposite conundrum.

The United States clearly retains the means to intervene in global crises. But does it still have the will?

The American people are experiencing a profound sense of “Middle East fatigue”, following the debacle in Iraq, a failed nation-building effort in Afghanistan and a lingering economic crisis back home. This accounts for the extreme opposition in American public opinion, and, perhaps, the House of Representatives, to authorising even limited military action in Syria.

If that sense of exhaustion comes to define a passive reaction to the outrage in Syria, it will almost surely signal the beginning of the end of the era of American regional leadership in the Middle East. Whatever their interpretations of the Suez catastrophe, almost all British historians regard it as symbolising not only the end of British hegemony in the Middle East, but also of Britain’s global role.

Thereafter, it could play only a supporting part to the American lead. Elizabeth Monroe famously described it as the end of “Britain’s moment in the Middle East”, after which it could not wield much regional influence because, simply, “the power behind it was permanently impaired”.

This was objectively true of Britain in the 1950s. But it is objectively untrue of the United States at the moment.

However, since the 19th century a wide range of Americans from Mark Twain to Gore Vidal have pitted “republican virtues” against “imperial decadence”, and bemoaned the fact that the United States became an international “great power”.

A contemporary strain of neo-isolationist, America-first thinking has become extremely popular on both the left and the right. It could lead to a voluntary surrender of American leadership and credibility in the Middle East by refusing to act in Syria now and following that inclination to its logical conclusion. This would mean, essentially, the end of “America’s moment in the Middle East”, although prematurely and wilfully.

If the United States voluntarily walks away from its will to act in the Middle East, what, short of direct attacks against American targets, would make it more inclined to be assertive elsewhere? In other words, this would likely be the precursor to a more thoroughgoing end of the “American moment” globally.

When the Suez crisis demonstrated the impotence of the traditional European colonial powers, an old order died. But it had already been replaced by a fully formed new one: the American-Soviet rivalry of the Cold War.

The greatest danger with the potential “American Suez” in Syria is not just that it could signal the beginning of the voluntary international retreat of a power that tends, when it can, to promote reasonable values. Worse, there is nothing already at work to take the place of a Middle Eastern regional, and indeed global, American-led order.

Whether the ensuing free-for-all and scramble for power would look more like Hedley Bull’s Anarchical Society, in which international communities somehow find rules because they need them, or Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, in which the lack of a clear leader produces “the war of all against all”, is unknowable. But that uncertainty in itself is cause enough for alarm.

It’s not just in the interest of Americans that they overcome their understandable reticence and accept the responsibility to act in Syria, thereby implicitly recommitting to act as guarantor of the global order. It’s also in the common interest because the international community is not ready for a post-American era.

Mr Obama has made a gamble that, at least in Congress, will probably pay off. The possibility that Americans might be imposing a “Suez moment” on themselves appears to be receding. But, the implications of even the prospect this might – and still could – happen ought to be sobering to all.

An Open letter to Congress on Syria

The vote facing you when you return after September 9 is one of the most momentous foreign policy decisions Congress has faced in decades. I urge you to have the courage to support President Barack Obama in defending the American national interest by authorizing military action in Syria.

I know that for many of you, especially in the House, pressure from your constituents to vote no is extremely strong.

The American people came by “Middle East fatigue” honestly. The fiasco in Iraq, among the greatest foreign policy blunders in American history; the failure in Afghanistan, a necessary war that was subsequently mismanaged; and the fiscal crisis of 2008 from which we are still struggling to recover, have all left them with an understandable aversion to any further “adventures” in the Middle East.

So has disappointment with the “Arab Spring,” which, despite the initial optimism, has yet to produce stable, Western-friendly democracies.

Therefore, no one can blame the American people for their skepticism or reluctance. But it’s also extremely important for all Americans to understand what is actually at stake.

Your role in the American system of government is twofold. You must represent the best interests of your constituents, but not necessarily be guided by their immediate impulses. But you must also represent the best interests of the nation as a whole.

In deciding how to vote, you must answer two fundamental questions. Does the United States wish to remain a great power internationally? And isn’t the Middle East still crucially important to that American global role? If the answers are yes, then we must act now in Syria.

There are those who bemoan the fact that the United States ever decided to become a global power at all. Many of them would identify the Middle East as the very first place for a strategic withdrawal into a neo-isolationist, America-first, foreign policy.

But countries do not become great powers capriciously, and military force projection is necessary, among other things, in order to protect investments and assets overseas.

Neither the Americans nor the world are ready for a new order in which the United States is, at best, first among equals. That does not reflect either American interests or international realities.

The Syrian regime has violated one of the most fundamental tenants of modern international law by using chemical weapons against defenseless civilians. No one else is going to act in response to that. If the United States also does nothing, then there is, in fact, no prohibition against, and no consequences for, the use of weapons of mass destruction.

If, after the speeches by President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, the United States fails to act, friend and foe alike will draw the logical conclusion: the United States has finally begun its slow and painful withdrawal from Middle Eastern regional, and ultimately global, leadership.

The United States would be creating a widespread international misapprehension that it is an exhausted power, literally and figuratively bankrupt. It is crucial all Americans understand that this would severely undermine the role of global leadership we cherish.

Syria is not going to be a repetition of Iraq or Afghanistan. We have learned the lessons of those mistakes. The public is fully justified in skepticism about another quagmire, but that is not going to happen. No one in the United States, Syria, or anywhere else, wants a major American military presence there, and it’s not going to happen. The United States is not preparing to walk into another inextricable trap or quixotic nation-building campaign.

At the same time, missile strikes only make sense when combined with efforts in conjunction with our allies to strengthen and reinforce the Free Syrian Army and other groups that will stand in opposition to both the Damascus dictatorship and al-Qaeda.

And it needs to be said very clearly both to you and to your constituents: despite all the claims to the contrary, al-Qaeda does NOT dominate the rebel opposition in Syria. That is simply false.

If we work to strengthen patriotic rebels while also weakening the regime, al-Qaeda will be undermined and not strengthened by our limited intervention. Further American neglect, though, will greatly strengthen al-Qaeda.

Congress and the public are right to worry about the dangers and consequences of military action, although they are likely to prove far less costly than many fear.

But the damage we will certainly incur by inaction at this stage is both severe and guaranteed. The outcome in Syria, like it or not, has become a defining feature of our international credibility.

The President has asked Congress to share in the burden of this decision, though precedent demonstrates he need not have. American values and, even more starkly, American interests both provide an overwhelming imperative that you endorse his request.