9 December 2012, 10:51

Obama is under increasing pressure on Syria

Obama is under increasing pressure on Syria
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Dmitry Trenin, the Director of Carnegie Moscow Center, about situation in Syria and position of US, Russia on this issue.

Mr. Trenin, thank you so much for joining us. Now, we’ve been discussing the issue of Syria and the position of the US and Russia in this situation. And one of us ventured a guess that perhaps Russia might revise its position on Syria.

Well, I don’t think that Russia will fundamentally change its position. But it doesn’t mean that Russia will not be able to cooperate with the US. I think that we had a situation in late June when the US and Russia came pretty close to forging a common stand on Syria. And what we are talking about right now and what the special negotiator Ibrahim was talking about with Mr. Lavrov and Secretary Clinton late Thursday is essential for reviving this Geneva process.

And by the way, do you see any chance that China would somehow shift in its assessments of the Syrian situation?

Well, China is taking a back seat. China is not, at least publically, as contumacious as Russia is on the Syrian issue. China, if you like, is hiding behind Russia. It shares with Russia this opposition to outside military intervention and forcible regime change. But it is not in the news every day and it is not materially giving assistance to the Syrian Government as Russia does. So, China is unlikely to join in the process. I think that it will be up to the US and Russia to negotiate a deal, if a deal can be negotiated, sell that deal to the opposition and to Damascus if there are buyers there, and then oversee the implementation of the deal. As far as China is concerned, I think that China will generally support the effort towards some kind of political settlement in Syria.

Sir, talking of the prospects of the outside military intervention, it looks from the rhetoric of the US political figures that perhaps they are considering this option and they have started to consider this option even more closely after the election.

You are talking about the option of political transition.

No, I’m talking about the option of outside military intervention.

I think the US is looking at both options at the same time. The US is going to officially recognize the Syrian opposition that was newly formed in Doha as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people. When this is done, this legitimate representative would be free to receive the US military aid directly.

There is another thing – the US and its NATO allies have agreed recently to deploy Patriot air defense systems on the Turkish-Syrian border. When this is done there will be a capability in the hands of NATO to make sure that the Syrian air force does not come close to the border which would give an advantage to the Syrian opposition forces on the ground. Thus a liberated enclave can be created in the north of Syria and that enclave could become the territory quote unquote liberated from the Syrian regime and it could host a provisional government or, let’s say, the opposition would be able to have a piece of territory where they would be able to form a government.

So, that will change things on the ground pretty seriously. I would say that the US is looking at both options. Option one – forging a common stand with Russia with the aim of pushing Assad out of power and starting a political transition away from the current regime in Syria. And two, if that fails, I think the US would accelerate its efforts to aid the Syrian opposition on the ground so that they prevail militarily and oust Assad by force.

Mr. Trenin, we were trying to unwrap the riddle of the recent statements which were made by the President Obama, State Secretary Clinton over the actions which can be taken by the US if President Assad resorts to use chemical weapons. So, we are still struggling to understand to what extent we can expect a certain twist or turnaround in President Obama’s policy on Syria. Can Obama be more tough? And what can be the scenarios of US military involvement, if any?

Well, I would say that President Obama is under increasing pressure on Syria. Quite a while ago he said that Assad’s days were numbered quote unquote. Now, this was in my view a premature statement. It was made months ago. The President of the US cannot tolerate this situation, and others around the President cannot tolerate the situation in which the most powerful man in the world says something like this and then nothing happens.

I believe that the US is coming closer and closer to the resolution of the Syrian issue, either through diplomatic channels by forging an accord with Russia on transition away from Assad to the opposition or, if that fails, by the means of military force. What are the options? I think that this statement by President Obama about the red line being the use, or first he talked about on-moving chemical weapons, but now the reference is more to the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian Government against the opposition.

It would be perfectly conceivable that if the US believes that the Syrian Government is close to deciding on the use of chemical weapons, they might decide to take those weapons out by means of preemptive military strikes. I would not rule that out. And I think that there is a lot of evidence to suggest that this is being seriously studied by the US military commanders in the region.

So, at some point when the US believes that Assad is about to use weapons of mass destruction, the US would take preemptive military strikes and that would constitute direct military intervention. And I believe that President Obama has already made his choice. In case he receives reliable information that chemical weapons can be used, I don’t think he will hesitate. I think he is tough enough to take the decision.

But we still struggle to understand how credible, how reliable that information is? We know the example of Iraq when the alleged information of the weapons of mass destruction was used as a pretext for military involvement. So, don’t you think we will have a certain déjà vu in the Syrian situation?

I think the difference between Iraq and Syria is that of course intelligence information can be murky, and it can be murky under any circumstances. But a big difference I think is that whereas President Bush and the people around him, including Vice-President Cheney and the Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, were actually pretty gung-ho on Iraq. They really wanted to oust Saddam Hussein by means of military force. You may say that they were looking for a pretext to do that. They started preparing for war against it back in the summer of 2002.

Now, President Obama is personally very reluctant to become involved. He is a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, people have forgotten about that, but I don’t think Obama has. His record so far features a complete withdrawal from Iraq, determination of that war, that page of US history, of US foreign policy, of US military involvement. He is on the way out to withdraw from Afghanistan. So, is not the guy who would want to add another war his record.

Of course you may say he made a turnaround on Libya. On Libya his position changed within a couple of weeks under the strength of the arguments that some of his associates presented to him on the Libyan situation. Similarly it can happen in Syria. He is reluctant to become involved but if he gets credible information or the information that he believes is credible, and he will be watching very closely, that would leave him a very bad choice. I think he will not hesitate.

Sir, but now with something like a fiscal cliff approaching rapidly, do you think that the US could afford itself another war?

No, I don’t think that the US can afford another war, I mean they can but they would rather not. What we are talking about in this case is not a replay of Iraq, clearly. Again, if you look at the situation in Libya, the US was an offshore intervener, if you like. That is a more likely pattern in the case of Syria if President Obama decides that the situation warrants the use of direct American military force against Syrian installations.

But comparing the situation with Libya, I think that there the US, at least de jure, abstained from the ground operation. And that was a huge difference.

Right! I don’t think that the US is contemplating at this point a ground military operation in Syria. I think that the idea is to take out Syrian chemical weapons. And at least some of the options that people are discussing include ways of reducing other military assets or reducing the overall military power of the Assad regime by means of air strikes and missile strikes and giving aid to the Syrian opposition so that the Syrian opposition can finish the job.

Well, you may say that the Syrian military is a much more formidable force than the Libyan military, and that’s quite correct. But by the same token the Syrian opposition has proven itself to be deadlier, and recently more effective than the Libyan opposition. So, I think the game is still, as it has been the case in Libya, the name of the game is “air war” or “missile strikes” or both, so that the opposition forces on the ground can actually finish the job and physically oust the regime.

Sir, thank you very much. It is a very grim picture which you’ve been describing to us, by the way.

Well, it is sobering. I think we need to be disillusioned about the stakes involved in Syria.

And another bad news is that every option which you’ve been describing leaves Syria in even worse state than now.

Well, my analysis tells me that the situation in Syria is more likely to deteriorate than to improve in the foreseeable future. I’m very concerned about the Syrian people and it is a human tragedy of which I think we don’t think enough. We think in terms of policies, of options for other people, for statesmen around the world, we think in terms of diplomacy, we think in terms of military action. But we do not think enough in terms of human suffering, in terms of human lives being lost, 200 of them every day. And this is a really-really grim picture.

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