Ambassador Graham on Syria

Thomas Graham, Jr. (Special Representative of the President for Arms Control, Nonproliferation and Disarmament, 1994-1997)


The current Syrian crisis may be potentially the most dangerous crisis since the end of the Cold War. If nothing is done by the United States and other outside powers to change things on the ground in Syria there appears to be, broadly stated, three more or less likely outcomes.

The first such outcome could be that the Syrian government prevails resulting in a newly emboldened Iranian client state in Syria as well as a considerably strengthened Hezbollah, and depending on the effectiveness of the recent U.S. Russian agreement – an uncertain matter at best – perhaps with Syria still in possession of chemical weapons. It should be remembered that not long ago, Syria was building – with North Korean help – a plutonium producing nuclear reactor, in violation of Syria’s obligations as a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The only logical purpose for such a reactor would be the construction of nuclear weapons. Israel destroyed the facility with an air strike in 2007.

The second outcome could be that the opposition prevails. As presently constituted, the opposition is a hodgepodge of many elements but a significant element is the Al Nusra front and its allies which are strongly influenced by Al Qaeda. So instead of an Iran/Hezbollah controlled rogue state, Syria could become an Al Qaeda influenced rogue state.

The third and perhaps the most likely outcome is continued stalemate. This possibly could lead to a spreading of the Sunni-Shia sectarian war in Syria, first to Syria’s neighbors and then gradually to the entire region. Thus much of the Middle East could be in flames creating a security nightmare and a significantly detrimental effect on the world economy. Already Iraq has to a considerable degree been drawn into the conflict.

All three of these outcomes would have important negative effects on U.S national security interests. The issues of the Iraq and Afghan conflicts should be completely put aside; Syria is a very different matter. Just because major policy mistakes were made a decade ago is no excuse for a serious mistake now. The United State simply cannot afford to sit idly by. The stakes in the Syrian crisis are too high.

Russian recently proposed that Syria permit international monitors to take possession of its chemical weapons and ultimately destroy its stockpile – a tall order in the middle of a civil war. Russia also called for Syria to join the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) which prohibits chemical weapons. Syria agreed to the Russian proposal and has adhered to the CWC although it is not in force for Syria until October 14 according to the UN Secretary General. The U.S. and Russia concluded an agreement on September 14 pursuant to which Syria is to present an accounting of its chemical weapons in a week, allow inspectors in the country in 30 days, and have all such weapons destroyed by the middle of 2014.

It is important to remember that it has been the threat of U.S. military action that has enabled us to come even thus far. U.S. willingness to use force in case of Syrian noncompliance will be essential if this Agreement is to be successful. The President of the United States deserves the support of the Congress and the country in this. As the Prime Minister of Turkey commented on September 12, President Assad is not a man who keeps his commitments. He certainly demonstrated that with respect to the NPT in the previous decade.

But all these discussions about chemical weapons do not address the main issue: how to stop the killing, end the war and bring Syria a respectable, moderate government. The U.S. over time must try to turn the Syrian crisis into at least a slightly better direction, one that is not destructive to peace and security, as difficult as that may be to accomplish. In addition to a security element there is also a moral component to the Syrian tragedy. With 100,000 dead and millions of refugees this crisis is near to Rwandan proportions. To not a least try to seek a less disastrous solution would be wrong. The only possible way out of this tragic quagmire that is acceptable is a negotiated solution. The objective of any such negotiation should be a new government, authoritarian – not democratic, the time is long past for a democratic outcome – moderate not sectarian, with the rights of all minorities guaranteed, which includes moderate elements from the government if they can be found and moderate elements from the opposition, and fully backed by both regional powers as well as the Permanent Five of the United Nations Security Council. This will take serious, difficult, and patient negotiations for some time and perhaps the occasional use of, or at least the threat of the use of, American military force as an essential catalyst-there is no other available. This is a long shot to be sure but it is preferable to submitting willingly to catastrophe.


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