Harry C. Blaney III

 The advent of the most  recent agreement between Russia and the United States on dealing with poison gas highlights the unpredictability of the Syrian crisis and also the continued uncertainty of its final ending. The poison gas deal remains highly unpredictable in terms of its goals and whether it will either work in the end or do much to change the horrific killing that continues. This is a time for some deeper thought and new creative efforts to end not just dangerous banned gas but the brutal killing and putting in place some semblance of security for the Syrian people.


It is a plus for both President Obama and especially for Secretary John Kerry if the gas is controlled and destroyed according to the outline of the still vague agreement in Geneva. Unfortunately or fortunately it is a plus even for President Putin if he gets to keep Assad in power and prevent American intervention. Both sides say they want the Syrian gas that is dangerous to all at least destroyed.


This game has so many levels and complexity that trying to see the path towards a resolution of the conflict itself seems still dim and chancy.


The “postponement” or “ceasing” of an attack on Syria’s military capabilities means essentially going from one uncertainty into another. Sadly, no path to a resolution of the fundamental conflict is in sight let alone in hand. The problem of support for any meaningful action remains weak and citizens, political parties, and experts remain highly divided on which action or inaction should be America’s choice. The right word is that the U.S. and our NATO allies are conflicted on what to do. Bad news for effective action, perhaps good for careful decision-making.


Obama has gotten also blame for both trying to act and for not doing what is need to stop the killing and get Assad out. Frankly, my sympathy is with him on the difficult options he has if not my agreement with some of his tactics and lack of clarity and frankness on his long-term strategy and goals. But I also know that a boxer does not telegraph his punches.


This is a field of battle and acts of diplomacy each filled with un-intended consequences. Attacking only Assad’s poison gas and delivery and making capabilities, had one set of problems. And the forced hiatus of the Geneva Agreement between he U.S. and Russia creates another set of conditions which greatly limits the immediate range of kinetic and even diplomatic options on the realistic table to Obama and our allies. There are so many “conditions’ in the agreement that tie the hands of America and its allies for a inordinate period of time. One element of this “accord” is helping Assad continued at even higher levels the killing of more civilians which reportedly, in the last 7 days reached the horrific highs of 1,000. This leaves the opposition forces hanging and angry at us as well as many of our allies in the region. But the pressue on Obama by his critics and from  Congress put him frankly in a box too small to act with strength.


Diplomacy should aim primarily at stopping mass killing and finding a set of agreements which will create a durable peace and security for the people in Syria and those countries that are now on the front lines. This goal seems to have been lost in the focus on the poisoned gas question which, by itself, is laudable but solves little for the people on the ground or for reconciliation and security for Syria and the clash in the region between the Shia and Sunni which has been exacerbated by the Syria conflict. We should not be blaming Obama for taking up this option as it would have been irresponsible to try, but in the process it puts our best “stick” away when it is still needed to gain a comprehensive settlement and it gave impetus to the Syrian regime to increase its mass killing.


It would have been better to have demanded a cease fire until the end of the year while inspectors carried out their tasks of securing the poison gas and also provided for humanitarian assistance freed of the danger of attack by any side. Perhaps this was discussed but if the Russian refused, it would have proved either their malicious intentions or limited leverage over Assad and his cronies. That last is dangerous to any progress.  

Further, and importantly, the insertion of inspectors and perhaps necessary international security forces to protect them, might lead to a wider insertion of international peacekeeping/peace enforcement troops aimed at the goal of establishing some “peace space” and at least a cease fire. If the agreement goes to the UN Security Council one wild hope would be to also authorize a U.N. protection force to both safeguard the inspectors and also to secure the poison gas sites from attack including from radical jihadists and creating wide “safe-zones” around the sites. But that is perhaps too much to ask given the fragility of the agreement already. However, who is going to protect the people going into a war zone?


Here are the harsh realities, while everyone wants the killing to stop, but if we do nothing it will not stop and the killing will continue. That is a decision. The issue is not to either act or not act, in either case our choice will impact on the lives of the Syrian people. If we and others do not act, we will be implicated in the horrors that follow. If the killing continues it will likely spread throughout the Middle East in sectarian conflict which will have few bounds and destabilize many nations in the region which is already experiencing increased violence.


The real question is what action can we take NOW to not only halt the use of poison gas but of the mass killing we are seeing AND help put in place a new government representing all groups and able, with the help of robust multilateral peacekeepers and monitors, to help create room for negotiations and reconciliation.


The imperative is to act, and the lessen of the recent Geneva Agreement which even Obama and Kerry said was due to the threat of force, may require again the threat or use of international force to make all sides see the wisdom of peace with security. President Obama does need an end game of a path towards both getting rid of Assad and of creating a new broad and responsible governance. Even Russia one day might think this is in its interests.


That will take a lot of diplomacy, and both carrots and sticks. It will take also time and real resources. It must be done in a way to minimize deaths but we are seeing now a maximum level of cruel butchery which the international community must stop. Frankly, we are de facto the only actor that can lead such an effort, but we are tied down by our corrosive politics and recent war history and a recession hit and war weary citizenry.


  1. Harry Blaney September 19, 2013 / 12:37 PM

    First, I appreciate the comments from Paul, Chuck and Robert, each comes to this difficult issue with different perspectives.

    Paul, wishes we could bring Assad to the ICC but his fallback is a drone attack. My thought is that the largely powerless ICC is a road Assad will not willingly go. The drone option is more straightforward and does not risk immediately American lives and is discrete. We have, I believe, a probation on killing heads of state. We do not have any restraints in bombing military command headquarters.

    The choice that Obama and some of our close allies have is what instrument and to what degree do we use it if the “poison gas initiative” falters and we are left with the status quo ante. Destroy gas stocks and just the means of delivery or a more serious destruction of Assad’s air force, defensive and offensive missiles, and command and control capabilities. Then what? I have asked how can the international community shape the outcome for a better future than perpetual war and fratricide?

    Bob’s comments reflect the majority view that keeping out is the best option but he assumes that doing nothing is better than trying to make things better since we have been not good in past efforts. He is right that Iraq was a bad war done badly. But look at the people who made those decisions! I do not think letting the situation “run its course” is wise, as the result is near genocide for the Syrian people and Sunni and Shia brutality throughout the region. I have tried to note that our interventions have been mixed experience….but we have done very well in former Yugoslavia and extraordinarily well after World war II. Also stopping the killing is not a short term solution, especially for the people in Syria being killed by the thousand each week ….it can also pave the way for a long term diplomatic solution.

    Chuck’s perspective is one that I believe is where we should be going in terms of developing a better global governance to deal with the major challenges we are facing globally today and will likely face in the future. My partial answer is the use of international peacemaking /peacekeeping forces for both dealing with the gas stocks and also for creating safe havens and security zones to protect Syrian internal displaced populations and to stop internecine killings. This likely can’t be done by the UN Security Council with the Russian and Chinese holding a veto, so alternatives need to be examined but here the cost will be greater than Paul’s “drone” option. If we ask other nation’s troops to act as a peacekeeping force they will want our participation as the strongest nation and having unique capabilities that are required for a successful mission and outcome. But that may not need US “boots” on the ground inside Syria.

    Again, there is a need for a better definition of our objectives and to apply the least cost yet most effective tools especially diplomacy to achieve our goals. I am saddened that those that argue either doing nothing or going full tilt with a military option, do not suggest their “real world” alternative to solving this most anguished and complex problem. See the September 19th op-eds of David Ignatius in the Washington Post “Obama’s uncredited win,” and Nicholas Kristof’s New York Times of the same day “”Fawzia’s Choice” if anyone wishes to better understand the cost of this war and doing nothing, or just criticizing Obama’s position.

    To my mind a diplomatic outcome is better than any military answer but that at the moment depends on the unlikely cooperation of Russia and the Assad regime to create a new Syrian government. We are also now arming and training moderate elements of the Free Syrian Army, and with bombing or without, this could change the trajectory of the conflict and move both sides to some agreement on a negotiated outcome which no side fully “wins” but peace is restored, a new broad government is installed, and security provided to the civilian population.

  2. Robert Lamoree September 19, 2013 / 9:41 AM

    Do we really know what started this mess . . . Assad suddenly becoming a mass murder or some dis-enchanted group(s) wishing to seek power and becoming a threat to the regime? In his NY Times letter Putin notes (apparently correctly) that there is no one on either side clamoring for democracy. So, what is it we’re really looking at . . . a civil war, competing powers attempting to influence the outcome, two entities (political sides) that cannot be reconciled, no clear or imminent outcome, unacceptable killing, and a destroyed nation with little hope of resuscitation? How’s that for a conundrum?

    Could it be that the most logical approach to this on-going disaster is to let it run it’s course, and the winner take all? If recent history teaches us one thing, it’s that in war if one side is not totally decimated, conflict continues.

    Ideally, a unified international community would step into the conflict, achieve peace, disarm everyone except for a constabulary, send Assad someplace, establish a working government and help rebuild the country. Chances of that happening are SADLY virtually nil.

    So, what should we do? In his last sentence Mr. Blaney describes our current status quite well: Our politics are corrosive, we still suffer the malaise of recession, and the citizenry is war weary. That is the domestic situation. Relative to our international affairs, in the last number of years we’ve made some terrible mistakes and our reputation has suffered. The question is, what are the chances of us screwing up in the future? Pretty good, unfortunately! Is there any talk anywhere of totally resolving this civil war? Most of the talk is about punishing Assad and stopping the killing. That’s short-term thinking. And, I wonder what anything not all-encompassing will accomplish. For now, unless something new and drastic occurs, I think sitting on the sidelines and watching this play out is the better course.

  3. chuck woolery September 17, 2013 / 1:15 AM

    The situation in Syria is impossible to resolve unless we first recognize that the real problem is not chemical weapons. It is mass murder and the inherently flawed UN system that maintains national sovereignty as the supreme decree.

    If humanity can’t now recognize the value of enforceable international laws that put the protection of human rights above the rights of governments to mass murder … there is no sustainable solution. The promise of “never again’ will only means ‘never again…until it happens again”.

    Making the Syrian crisis about weapons of mass destruction means we learned nothing from the attacks on 9-11, anthrax, or the war in Iraq. The means and capacity to commit mass murder grows every day with the exponential advances in affordable and increasingly powerful dual-use technologies. Unprecedented technologies that can be used for curing cancer or delivering death to millions. And effectively controlling their use and abuse is impossible — and more likely to exacerbate tensions and the potential for conflict than reduce them.

    Rightfully, Syria has brought most Americans (right, left and center) to the view that ‘war is not the answer’. But without a logical and reliable alternative to deterring mass murder it appears we believe it’s OK for established regimes to murder by the score — as long as it doesn’t immediately affect us.

    But in this irreversibly interdependent world — what goes around comes around. Eventually Americans will be on the receiving end of chemical, biological, cyber or more conventional forms of WMD. And it will come as blowback from either our military involvement in other’s conflicts or our attempted isolation from their mass murdering leaders.

    In the long or short run, the only rational, sane and sensible solution is what many see as naïve – the creation of a world federation of nations. A United Nations with the force of law, a global police force and judicial system that can hold any and every mass murderer accountable for their crimes.

    This is not a new idea. Albert Einstein, President Kennedy and dozens of other wise souls have proposed such over the decades. In reality it is only naive to believe we can continue with the current system of lawless national sovereignty and avoid the health, economic, environmental and security consequences here at home.

  4. Paul Sack September 17, 2013 / 12:39 AM

    The problem is Assad himself. How many of his citizens should a dictator be allowed to kill with impunity? If Assad cannot be brought before the World Court, this is a job for the CIA and its drones.

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