The pivot and the red line: the Syrian Civil War and US credibility in the Asia-Pacific

By Andrew Kwon

Called a ‘War Speech’ by the Washington Post’s Max Fisher, Secretary of State John Kerry dispelled all doubt at his Monday evening press conference over the Obama administration’s consideration of military action against Syria’s Bashar Al-Assad regime. Almost a year to the day since President Obama made his ‘Red line’ comment regarding the use of chemical weapons in Syria, its most recent (and visible) use on the outskirts of the Syrian Capital of Damascus has forced the President and his administration into the awkward position of preparing for another Middle Eastern conflict at a time they’d promised to be thinking about the Asia-Pacific.

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Despite the words of key administration officials  and even its unveiling as the Administration’s foreign policy blueprint by President Obama before the Australian Parliament in 2011, doubt over the US ‘Rebalance to Asia’ formed unsurprisingly quickly. At the core of these doubts, even prior to current issues related to sequestration, stood the tall order of US disengagement from combat operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Due in part to the considerable investment of the Administration’s early energy into reducing the visible presence of the US in the Middle East, it seemed inevitable to some that the region would reemerge as the primary focus of the Administration as unaddressed issues would build critical mass and become too large to ignore.

This view seemed to pick up steam as major architects and proponents (such as Hillary Clinton and Kurt Campbell) of the ‘Rebalance to Asia’ in the administration began to depart from their respective positions and became all but certain with the nomination and appointment of then-Senator John Kerry to Secretary of State. Perhaps to best summarise the view of these observers is Randy Schriver, a Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs for the G.W. Bush Administration who at a recent event hosted by the Atlantic Council in Washington, noted his inability to call to mind an official as the Obama Administration’s current ‘Asia point man.’

To a certain extent, most states in the Asia-Pacific seemed unfazed by the re-shifting in focus. Beyond a change in key personnel as well as doubts and confusion related to the strategic coherency of the ‘Rebalance to Asia’, the general difficulty of the Obama Administration (such as sequestration) from the start of its second term made efforts to preserve political capital understandable. However, what’s potentially unacceptable is the possibility that the US will be unable to act both decisively and clearly during its upcoming recommitment to the Middle East despite having again freed up its focus in the Asia-Pacific to do so.

As such, the question related to Syria for many observers in and around major US partners and allies throughout the Asia-Pacific is not related to the actual use of chemical weapons, rather the potential US response to their use. Faced with the prospect of being damned by ‘owning’ the conflict if the response is too ‘heavy handed’ or faced with being damned through questions over its ‘reliability’ if the response is too ‘light’, states in the Asia-Pacific are no doubt watching closely as to how the Obama administration will act—no doubt, a source of unwanted additional pressure.

Overall, whatever the response, strategic thinking in the Asia-Pacific will undoubtedly be affected as factors (like the credibility of US security assurances) are reassessed. A particularly depressing thought lies in the potential repercussions of the ‘what if’ scenario where the Obama administration bungles both management and messaging of the crisis. Side effects could range from a frustrated legislative agenda due to reluctant participation of allies and partners in ongoing efforts such as Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations and even a more confident and aggressive North Korea. The question really boils down to a simple metaphor; would you dance again with a partner who couldn’t get his left and right foot right?

Andrew Kwon is a Joseph S. Nye Jr. Research Intern at the Center for a New American Security in Washington DC, USA. This post originally appeared on the ASPI Strategist and can be found here. The views expressed are his own.

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Red Line Follies

Mohsin Zeb

Barack Obama came into power carrying with him the aspirations of an expectant nation and the good will of the wider world. He was many things – handsome, articulate, intelligent and charismatic and above all else he was not George W Bush. Indeed not being Bush appeared to be such an achievement for the Chicago man that he was promptly awarded the coveted Nobel Peace Prize despite not having done anything of note to merit it at the time.

In the years that have followed since his historic win and inauguration in 2008, Obama has had his foreign policy successes that the world should not forget – he ended the war in Iraq, he brought to book Osama Bin Laden in the most dramatic of ways and he is on course to wind down US involvement in Afghanistan starting in 2014. However, history may record all of those achievements as mere footnotes in his presidency. All of them were issues he inherited from his predecessor – and highlighting the differences between himself and President GW Bush was the crux of his presidential campaign – he promised ‘change’ from the status quo as it then stood.

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However, in dealing with issues that have either emerged or matured under his watch, it is a sad reality that Barack Obama has failed to live up to expectations. Few were more enthusiastic then I at the sight of Obama taking the Presidency – it embodied for me the progress America has made as a society, a man who would once not have been served in countless eateries, who would not have been allowed to use particular washrooms or who would have had to face countless daily humiliations of account of his colour had taken occupancy of the world’s most noteworthy and powerful position – he, a black man – the son of a Kenyan student- was President of the United States. Making history by becoming President is not however an achievement of his Presidency, it is a social and cultural landmark that has assured him a place in history for eternity, but we must not let the magnitude of his holding Office cloud our judgement of him as President as relates to foreign policy decisions.

For me, two things will define Obama’s Presidency as relates to foreign policy – Syria and Iran. The two are inextricably linked and weakness over one is sure to magnify the challenges posed by the other. In setting a red line over chemical weapons for the Assad regime Obama placed his credibility and the credibility of the US on the line. By not acting in a forceful and decisive manner, as now seems sure to be the case, Obama has sent a terrible signal to the world. The redlines of this US President mean nothing, free to be ignored by any dictator in the world without fear of ramifications. It seems if you have powerful friends you are free to flaunt Washington’s warnings at this time as the political will is lacking to back his words with actions. I was shamed and appalled when the British parliament decided not to hold Assad to account for his criminal actions – the UK failed in its obligations to the global community. If the great democracies of this world do not stand tall for human rights and human dignity, who will? I had hoped that the US would still act as the protective arm of the powerless, as a friend to the friendless – but under this President that now seems too much to ask. Being champions of freedom can never be about vocal support alone, it means much more then that – it means action to protect the sanctity of human life. Clinton showed the true meaning of the mantle when he brought Serbia’s genocidal war machine to a screeching halt in 1999 – and for all the opposition, President GW Bush also backed his verbal warnings to Saddam Hussein with the use of force. Obama’s indecisive nature and flip-flopping almost makes one yearn for the days of George W Bush! At least with the Texan you knew if he said it, he meant it. He bit his tongue for no one. Some called him evil or unbelievable, but rest assured had he issues the red line and saw it ignored; Assad would be hiding in a rabbit hole somewhere as pain rained down on his illegitimate regime.

Not only has Obama’s inaction let Syria off the hook – it sends a dangerous message to weakness globally. If Obama dares not strike Syria, where is the assurance that he will stop the theocratic, Shia expansionist regime in Tehran from acquiring even more dangerous arms? If his red line on Syria is a faint mark in sand, why should the world believe his statements on Iran? Iran has seen the inaction over Syria and become emboldened. It will push the nuclear envelope in the coming years and assume its cordial ties with Moscow will too prevent it from being stopped by force. Imagine the dangers of a nuclear Iran! Not only will regional states feel threatened, some like Saudi Arabia will surely seek to counter Iran’s arsenal by developing their own nuclear weapons. In a blink, the entire Non-Proliferation Regime will collapse like a house of cards! Further threats to allied nations and energy supplies mean a nuclear and belligerent Iran is not an acceptable option for anyone – on this issue countries normally far removed from consensus are united. But I like many others and many allied nations, will not take the assurances of the current US President to be credible any more.

There is a fix – Obama should authorize the use of lethal force to break Assad’s war machine and bring down his regime. Further, Iran needs to know that any further disregard for global norms will mean war. Iran does not have great options in terms of retaliation – it cannot choose all out war as the power disparity is too great in favour of Allied nations. It will not block the Strait of Hormuz as that would force further punishment. It will utilize its proxies but this present only tactical nuisance and not any strategic threat owing to overwhelming power disparities in favour of any threatened nation states.

Ultimately, inaction only emboldens aggressors – history has taught us this – and Obama does not want to be the President who allowed his inaction to enable continued untold humanitarian horrors in Syria on his watch – or the nuclearization of Iran and the subsequent complete collapse of the Non-Proliferation Regime. The credibility of the man – and the Office of President of the United States – and by extension the free world at large – is at stake and that is too much to gamble.

Mohsin Zeb, MA Reading University

The Hard Truth about Syria

Mohsin Zeb

They are the most shocking images I have ever seen, as far removed from my life in a quiet college town suburb as is feasible. Children withering on the ground in pain, grown men wailing over the dead bodies of their children, women screaming and piles and piles of bodies – too many to count. Seas of white shrouds as the survivors bury their dead – almost all it would seem innocent people. I cannot imagine that the child shaking on the ground – aged perhaps five or six, or the little girl on a hospital bed, fighting for life as she turns blue represented any serious threat to Assad’s criminal regime.

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Each time a humanitarian catastrophe unfolds before our eyes, the world declares “never again” – never again will such actions be tolerated, never again will the world sit back and watch war crimes take place. As ever, nothing will ever happen. This is the hard truth of Syria – no one is going to save the civilians. No one will stop Assad and his backers, or his paid mercenaries from butchering civilians, from bombing innocents with chemical weapons. The moral indignation of the wider world has become meaningless- red lines come and go, now so unclear as to be invisible for all practical purposes.

Now this is not to say I support the Free Syrian Army. I recognize that both sides have unsavoury characters – but it is not the opposition that commands a complete, modern military machine that is conducting war crimes every week. It is not they who drop bombs on civilians from MiG fighters, or they who fire scud missiles into neighbourhoods. Sometime ago I wrote of the need for intervention – to bring a war that was then still quite young to a swift end – to avoid this very outcome. The passing of time has resulted in untold horrors, scores of thousands of extra deaths and now once again the use of chemical weapons. However it seems moral outrage is meaningless – the political powers that be in the Middle East and the West and within those states such as China and Russia that back Assad care not for any personal loss or about the conduct of war. All that matters is the bottom line – the strategic outcome of a proxy war being fought within Syria between the various states involved. That the tab for this conflict and strategic tussle is being paid by little girls and boys, old women and the like is immaterial.

It is doubtable that Syria as a state can be saved now. Should the guns fall silent, who amongst the masses will forgive and forget the horrors perpetrated against them by the faceless ‘other’? Who will accept the status quo when so much blood has been spilled to change just that? How can the people accept Assad in power when much of the state has been physically destroyed and an endless stream of Syrians seek refuges abroad all as a result of his unwillingness to loosen his grip on power?

I cannot imagine a post conflict Syria will be stable. This civil war is to a large degree shaped along sectarian lines. Assad is a Shia, Iran and Hezbollah – his key backers are Shia. The opposition is overwhelmingly Sunni – as are those who provide them with materials, recognition and support – Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. This war has exacerbated the delicate fault lines within Syrian society – and the Muslim world more broadly. The likes of Russia have geopolitical reasons to prop up Assad and the West too has reasons to oppose him – all of it amounting to a complex web of factors that keeps anything from bringing this conflict to a swift end. Perhaps a stable country under a tyrant is better than the current situation – undoubtedly to any sane person it would be, but who will accept this tyrant again? Is a new strongman the solution? Or perhaps it is better for all if the Alawite community simply secede from the Syrian republic into a new state? Assad and his father before him have perpetuated Alawite dominance over the masses of Sunni Syrians and will never willingly allow natural demographic pressures to shape Syrian politics and such a situation would see his Alawite community forever outnumbered.

Perhaps then a swift partition is better than endless war. The Alawites would have their own state – a land where they can feel empowered, whilst the rest of Syria can get on without them. The issues of disempowerment and discrimination they as the minority fear should their grip of power weaken would become mute. Syria – then free from its sectarian division could proceed to rebuild as a democratic state representing the will of the majority of its peoples.

I am not calling for partition, just opining that it may be better then constant war. Whatever they decide, the sad truth is that the people of Syria will have to reach their own solution. No one is going to step in and save them from the horrors of war; no one takes more than a customary note of war crimes. For their own sake, the people of Syria need to fix or they will continue to bury their future one shrouded child at a time.

Mohsin ZebPhD candidate University College London.