Obama Should Put Strategy Ahead of Tactics on Syria

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As President Obama’s foreign policy team considers the Russian diplomatic initiative on putting Syria’s chemical weapons under international control, they should be cognizant that such a limited brief is unlikely to facilitate the prerequisite cooperation designed to solve the Syria crisis.

syria-obama-russiaIt is simply the least bad idea on the negotiating table at the moment but is unlikely to endure – the US and France already disagree over the terms of a new UN Resolution. Neither are limited military strikes against Syria an adequate response to deter Syria and other US adversaries (Iran and North Korea) from any further belligerent behavior or use of WMD.

The move will empower rather than isolate extremist elements in Syrian opposition groups which, along with the government forces, are able to continue using conventional weapons to claim more than 100,000 lives.

It will have no effect on Iran which suffered 30 chemical attacks on residential areas during the Iran – Iraq War in the 1980s and is a signatory of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). It will exacerbate the sense of insecurity which Iran has long felt from the West and could be used as another reason to facilitate its nuclear program. The People’s Army of North Korea is also unlikely to feel the heat from US or allied action taken against Syria and suddenly decide roll back its artillery and long-range rockets that target Seoul.

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Therefore, the solution to the Syrian conflict lies not in a narrow diplomatic track that focuses on command and control of chemical weapons, but in a series of open and robust talks at the bilateral and multilateral levels that addresses the root causes of the conflict.

At the bilateral level, both the US and Iran could easily conclude an agreement on Iran’s nuclear program which would lay the foundations for more cooperation on post-conflict planning in Syria which would also stabilize Lebanon by calming sectarian tensions.

At the multilateral level, active US diplomatic engagement of Russia could address Russia’s main national security interests such as clarifying and agreeing on the principles of the R2P doctrine and developing meaningful measures to counter violent Islamists spilling into southern Russia. The pay-off for the US would be facilitating a UN Security Council endorsed blueprint on humanitarian intervention, a necessary confidence building measure to the UN Security Council Resolution that the US wants and Syria so desperately needs.

Dr. Robert Mason is Lecturer in International Relations at the British University in Egypt and author of the forthcoming book Foreign Policy in Iran and Saudi Arabia: Economics and Diplomacy in the Middle East (I B Tauris). Twitter: @Dr_Robert_Mason.

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