Ambassador Stephenson on Syria

Thomas Stephenson (Ambassador to Portugal, 2007-2009)


There is nothing easy about conducting effective diplomacy, and doing so in the Middle East has been especially challenging over the decades since the end of WWII.  A U.S. administration needs to have a vision of and a strategy for what it wants to attempt to accomplish with an individual country or in a particular geographic region.  Events will, of course, intervene in unanticipated and complicating ways, but adherence to underlying principals should be evident to all concerned.  It is somewhere between difficult and impossible to describe what our policy is today with regard to the Middle East.   Pressing the “reset button” with Russia and “leading from behind” are not viable strategies to guide foreign policy and diplomacy.  Syria, unfortunately, is only the latest in a string of hesitations and missteps that have characterized our Middle East policy in the last five years.

Shortly after this administration took over in January of 2009, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became president of Iran in an election heavily marred by fraud.  We had an opportunity to provide at least strong emotional support to the large portion of the Iranian population opposed to the ayatollahs and their repressive minions.  Instead we said and did nothing, and by, in effect, endorsing this oppressive regime destroyed any likelihood of an overthrow of the Islamist extremists from within.  In Libya we procrastinated for months until France and NATO finally demonstrated some leadership, thereby dragging out the demise of Gaddafi and enabling the killing of many innocent victims in the intervening months.  Twice now in Egypt we have chosen to be a passive observer for the most part as our long time key ally in the Middle East has undergone major turmoil and change in leadership.  Our strategic interests are significant , our other allies in the region are watching, and we chose to simply let events unfold as they did.  A much better approach with our long time friend Mubarak would have been to tell him it was time to go and to have provided him and his family safe transport to another Arab country prepared to provide asylum.  It’s not helpful for other rulers to see that we totally abandon long time friends when events turn against them even for good or self imposed reasons.  With regard to the current situation in Egypt, it’s difficult to determine what our current position or preferred outcome is as we stand by and provide little more than mixed messages as a passive observer.

The current situation in Syria is bizarre to say the least.  For the better part of two years we have done little but make gratuitous comments about the unacceptable conduct of Assad and the human tragedy he has precipitated in his country.  We have said that Assad must go and that the use of chemical weapons would not be tolerated, and yet we have stood by and watched an incredible human tragedy unfold.  Then, just when it appears that this administration is finally prepared to enforce a red line it has drawn, a decision is made to seek congressional approval for a military response.  As the administration is trying to line up support in congress and meeting heavy resistance from factions on both sides of the aisle, an offhand comment by the secretary of state provides an opening for Russia to intervene and essentially take control of a process to turn over Syria’s chemical weapons to an international body.  What a mess!  In the space of a couple of days, we have allowed the rug to be pulled out from underneath the Syrian resistance movement making it highly likely that Assad will survive.  We have enabled a Russian controlled process that is highly unlikely to result in anything close to the removal of all of the regime’s chemical weapons.  How in a war zone are third parties going to be able to collect and verify that  all, or substantially all, of the chemical weapons have been turned over to an international body.  The intervention by Russia may address the administration’s dilemma of obtaining congressional support for a military strike, but it won’t solve the underlying problem of outrageous repression in Syria.

There are, of course, legitimate arguments that we can’t be the world’s 911 line whenever horrific events occur around the world.  We certainly have to pick our spots carefully, and we need to garner as much support from our allies as we can.  The last five years, however, have demonstrated that the free world doesn’t do very well in dealing with egregious conduct and crisis without American leadership.  We need to do a better job of figuring out and articulating our view of what constitute acceptable outcomes in troubled spots where we and our key allies have important vested interests.  We then need to say what we mean and mean what we say.  If we draw a red line, there must be meaningful consequences to crossing that red line.  It is very difficult in today’s world to conduct effective diplomacy in the world’s hot spots without a credible military threat.  In many respects the more important audience for our conduct in Syria is not the Assad regime, but Iran and North Korea.  Our failure to do what we said we’d do in Syria delivers the exact wrong message to Iran and North Korea with regard to their development and use of nuclear weapons.  What we should have done in Syria many months ago was figure out who the non jihadist rebels were and arm and train them.  Consideration of a no fly zone was an additional possibility that could have swung the balance in favor of the rebels without requiring U.S. or allied boots on the ground.  We said Assad must go, but we did almost nothing to help achieve that objective.  With Russia now in control, our options to achieve an acceptable outcome in Syria seem close to nonexistent.


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