Fouad Ajami

Syria and the Decline of the West


“Obama is a coward,” said Shifa, 29 years of age, in a government-held suburb of Damascus.  She saw through the American leader: he hadn’t wanted to launch a military campaign to begin with and had taken the exit offered him by Vladimir Putin.  “The Russians are great and very smart,” she said.

Not since the calamities of 1978-79 – the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the triumph of Ayatollah Khomeini, the storming of our embassy in Tehran – has American policy abroad been so rudderless.  Syria has put on cruel display all the inadequacies of the Obama administration.  Mr. Obama averted his gaze from thirty months of slaughter.  Then he put his fate in the hands of Bashar al-Assad by drawing a “red line” he had not really meant to enforce.  He will strike, he will not, he will take the case to Congress but seeks a delay of that vote, he had wearied of the Russians, he will turn to them for help – all this under the eyes of the world.  This was no war leader with an air of command: the scent of irresolution exceeded the worst of what Jimmy Carter had conveyed in his time of crisis.

The Caravan had taken up the matter of Syria in early 2012, when so many good options were possible.  We return at a time of American uncertainty and drift, with Syria in ruins, when all the good options have been exhausted.  There will be contributions from Charles Hill, Russell Berman, Itamar Rabinovich, Tunku Varadarajan, Reuel Marc Gerecht, and Asli Aydintasbas. As usual, we will post our contributions every two days.  There is, admittedly, a risk of writing amid the political and diplomatic confusion.  But we have faith in our team, and in their ability to make their way through the fog.

–Fouad Ajami

Senior Fellow, Co-chairman of the Herbert and Jane Dwight Working Group on Islamism and the International Order

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Charles Hill

On the Syria Crisis


Edward Snowden, now in Moscow as special assistant to President Putin, has given us a highly classified telegram, drafted by Russia’s chief diplomat for the Middle East Georgi Kennankov to President Putin, “eyes only.” The telegram was sent from the Russian embassy in Tehran, Iran.

It is a long telegram; I can only read to you the main points.


BEGIN TEXT: The situation is unprecedentedly excellent. Let us review it.

President Obama four and a half years ago launched his major plan to “fundamentally transform the United States of America.” To achieve this, he would have to take the US out of its leadership role in international security, a role it has carried out for nearly a hundred years.

He has succeeded in doing so to a remarkable degree making him potentially the most consequential president in American history.

Of course we are delighted with this American abdication of its leadership.

At this moment the situation is exceptionally favorable to us. When chemical weapons – nerve gas – was used in Syria to devastating, horrifying effect, it violated a fundamental principle of the international state system, a system which had relied upon American resolve. It also crossed a “red line” that President Obama himself had set, probably inadvertently.

So Obama declared that the US would take military action. But the success of his own strategy for transforming America meant that the country was unprepared psychologically, morally, politically, and militarily for such a military operation.

This led Obama to explain, for several days, what he was not going to do. (We found this amusing, because the first rule of strategy is “never tell your opponent what you are not going to do”). All the while, Secretary of State Kerry was delivering powerful speeches on the need for immediate, forceful armed intervention.

Suddenly President Obama added another “not”; he was not going to decide to act. Instead, he would put the decision in the hands of Congress. Congress quickly read the opinion polls, which reflected the success of President Obama’s approach: the American people saw no reason to get involved. So the Congress, it appeared, was not going to authorize the President to take action.

Click to read more.

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Russell Berman

Not the Right Leader


US diplomacy has lost the latest round in the Syria showdown. Just as the Assad regime embraced the proposal to place its chemical weapons under international control, it restarted its bombing campaign against rebel positions in Damascus. The negotiations over the WMDs allow Syria to stave off American missiles, while providing cover for its war against the rebels. Assad notoriously succeeded in dragging out the investigation into the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri for years, and he will now be able to play the same waiting game over the weapons.

There are numerous reasons for the US to take a firm stand in Syria, and even President Obama has articulated some of them clearly. The use of chemical warfare threatens national security because, if unpunished, it becomes normalized, and gas may eventually be used against American soldiers. The turmoil in Syria threatens important allies: NATO member Turkey, Jordan that is buckling under a wave of Syrian refugees, and Israel. Furthermore Assad’s gains will amplify Iranian influence: it is surely in the US national interest to degrade the power of an enemy such as the regime in Tehran.

Add to these strategic rationales the humanitarian arguments regarding both the gas victims and the much larger number of other dead and displaced. Recall especially the origins of the Syrian rebellion, the aspiration for democracy—before the Islamists arrived. In his speech to the nation, President Obama himself spoke of “the Syrian opposition we work with,” and its desire “to live in peace, with dignity and freedom.

If only we were working with that opposition! In fact, the Obama administration has coldly ignored the opposition’s pleas for help. After long delays, Washington eventually promised some material support, but the amounts are insignificant if measured against the support Assad receives from Russia and Iran, and delivery has been excruciatingly late. Betrayal like that feeds the jihadist narrative that the West does not care about Muslim suffering. Obama’s temporizing will therefore result in increased terrorist recruiting among the angry youth of the Arab world as well as in the immigrant ghettoes of Europe. Obama long ago called for Assad to go, and Obama drew a red line: the chasm between the soaring rhetoric and American indecision undermines the credibility of the president and the stature of the US as a great power.

None of this is a surprise.  Obama has spent his presidency arguing against the projection of military force while cutting the military budget. He has belittled the terrorist threat—Boston was the result—and he has turned a deaf ear to the cries of democracy movements overseas, most notably in Iran. He has demeaned the notion of American exceptionalism, only to return to it bizarrely at the close of his speech. He has squandered his years in office undercutting American power while pursuing a policy of retreat. No wonder he finds so little support, at home or abroad, in this moment of crisis.

Although an attack on Syria would be warranted in principle, this half-hearted President is not the right leader to wage a war, and the underfunded military should not be put in harm’s way without appropriate support, both budgetary and political. These are legitimate grounds to hold back at this point from the missile attacks on Syria which would constitute an act of war, with unpredictable consequences necessarily shrouded in fog. Once the violence of an attack begins, there is no guarantee that it will remain limited, despite presidential assurances.

Yet missile attacks in response to Assad’s deployment of chemical weapons are not the only option for American policy. Instead of focusing on the prospective negotiations over Syria’s WMDs, we should face the real violence on the ground. Instead of distractions, we need a strategy for an outcome in Damascus that is in the US national interest.  The Syrian civil war rages on because the Assad regime benefits from extensive arms shipments from Russia. In order to stay Assad’s hand, the West should provide the Free Syrian Army with a corresponding level of support. Moscow and Damascus should pay a military price for their alliance. While today’s timid Washington is unlikely to affirm the goal of regime change in Damascus, it could yet strengthen the rebels sufficiently to drive Assad to a peace conference. We need a real political goal such as this, if we are going to engage. Basing foreign policy on an abstract defense of a legal norm, the prohibition of chemical weapons, is not sufficient. A nation does not go into battle to defend a norm but rather to defeat its enemy.

Russell Berman is the Walter A. Haas Professor in the Humanities, Professor of Comparative Literature and German Studies at Stanford University, and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution

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Itamar Rabinovich

The End of Syria?


Will there be a Syrian state in 2014 or 2015? Unfortunately, it is a legitimate and pertinent question. The Syrian civil war is well into its third year and there seems to be no resolution in sight. Bashar al-Assad’s regime did register some achievements during the past few months and its foreign backers (Russia, Iran and Hezbollah) are steadfast in their support, but the opposition continues to fight on. Assad’s decision in August to authorize the use of chemical weapons against a civilian population in the outskirts of Damascus bears testimony to the threat he sensed to his seat of power.

In the absence of a major change in the current balance of power the civil war may drag on for quite some time. It is also difficult to envisage a clear cut decision, namely a total victory of either side. If the regime does well, it can consolidate its hold over the capital, the coast, the corridor between the two and other parts of the country; but it is difficult to envisage the Assad regime restoring the control it used to have over the whole of Syria, let alone its legitimacy and authority. A victory by the opposition, on the other hand, could result in de facto partition. The regime’s core, and a large portion of the Alawite community, could withdraw to their mountains in the Northwest and hold on to the coast or part of it (possibly with Russian and or Iranian naval bases) and a corridor to the Shiite parts of Lebanon. The Kurds in the country’s Northeast may well create their own autonomous area. This would be a rare case in which the regime leads a secessionist movement.

Such a scenario would have deep roots in Syria’s history. The Syrian state rests on weak foundations. There is a discrepancy between the territory designated by the historic term Syria (sham in Arabic) and the state that emerged in 1945. The French took their time in forming one Syrian state; they chose to encourage sectarianism as a tool against the Arab nationalist establishment in Damascus and Syria’s other large cities. In French eyes, Arab nationalism was a British tool designed to rob France of its historic role in the Levant.

This French policy was facilitated and given greater power by two other elements. One was an Arab Nationalism-Sunni tincture. In theory, all speakers of Arabic who saw themselves as Arabs were equal members of the Arab nation. But in practice, the minorities, Christians and heterodox Muslims, were treated as less than equal. This drove many of them to invest their ultimate allegiance elsewhere, in their own communities, not in the Sunni dominated post-1945 Syrian state. It was in the nature of things for the “compact communities” to join radical parties that sought to transform the political and ideological landscape.

Further, several of Syria’s minorities, the heterodox Alawites and Druze and the non-Arab Kurds were territorially concentrated. This enabled the French to create statelets for them and to encumber the young and weak Syrian state with a legacy of regionalism and particularism. In 1958 the weak Syrian state collapsed under its own weight and for three and a half years merged itself with Egypt.

Through a long and complex process (that cannot be fully described in this space) members of the Alawite minority, through their massive presence in the Syrian officer corps and the Ba’ath Party, were catapulted to power in 1963.One of them, Hafez al-Assad, seized full power in 1970 and managed to build a powerful regime and a powerful state. But even the great Hafez al-Assad had feet of clay. Between 1979 and 1982, the Muslim Brotherhood galvanized the Sunni population to rebel against what they saw as an illegitimate rule by a non Muslim minority. The rebellion was put down brutally and the regime seemed well entrenched for nearly three decades until the events of March 2011 developed into a full-fledged civil war.

The prospect of de facto partition or failed statehood in Syria should also be seen in a larger context. Its two neighbors, Iraq and Lebanon, two other products of the same post WWI order in the Middle East, are in fact failed states. Any policy planners who would like to address such a scenario in Syria will have to examine it within that larger context.

Itamar Rabinovich, noted historian and former president of Tel Aviv University, served as Israeli Ambassador to Washington, D.C. and Chief Negotiator with Syria.

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Tunku Varadarajan

Syria and the New World (Dis)order


Not since the early years of the Second World War has Planet Earth been as bereft of American leadership as it is now. What the killings fields of Syria have brought most sharply into focus is a new world “disorder,” to use that last word in its two principal senses: that of chaos, disarray, and unchecked lawlessness; and that of ailment, malady, or sickness.

The present situation would lend itself to comedy were the cost of this disorder—and of this American decline—not so very astronomical. America’s foreign policy, it would appear, is in the hands of John Kerry and Dennis Rodman. And American strategic policy has been outsourced to Vladimir Putin: The Leader of the Free World (yes, we can still call President Obama that, as his title ex officio if for no other reason) has gifted the resolution of the Syrian tragedy to the Leader of the Unfree World. The Syrian regime’s protectors and enablers in Moscow are now to be its investigators and monitors. Welcome to the Global Theater of the Absurd.

What is the new disorder? It is the utter rudderlessness of the “decent world,” by which I mean the comity of nations that believes in partnership with other nations, not zero-sum relations; co-existence based on mutual respect; the resolution of disputes by resort to law and morality; the settling of land and maritime borders by negotiation, not force; and the belief that the United States, for all its overwhelming military and economic heft, is a force for global good.

This world has lost its bearings, thanks to an America that has volunteered itself for strategic vasectomy. Morally tormented, it is led by a Jesuitical president who believes in no “red lines,” and whose very essence recoils from the notion of American pre-eminence (so much so that he stated not once but twice, in his speech on Syria to the nation last Tuesday, that this country is not the “world’s policeman”). His administration makes foreign policy seemingly off the cuff. Witness John Kerry’s suggestion—described by his own spokeswoman as “rhetorical” and “hypothetical”—that the Assad regime could avert a punitive U.S. attack if it gave up its chemical arsenal. “Keystone” Kerry acted without White House imprimatur (if that is true, why does he still have a job?), and yet: that unmistakable moral wavering, that impromptu revelation of a chink in America’s armor, was all that Russia needed to wrest control of Syria from Washington’s limp wrist.

Click to read more.

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Reuel Marc Gerecht

Not Really About Syria


The Geneva Syrian talks, like the President’s speech on Syria, have left out many things, but most importantly several inescapable truths about this conflict:

(i)            At least 70 percent of the Syrian population is Sunni; Alawite Shiites, the power base of Bashar al-Assad, probably account for no more than 15 percent of the country.  Although regime-loyal Sunni soldiers have probably been critical to Assad’s survival, the vast majority of Sunnis surely now hate the regime and Alawites.

(ii)          The kill/casualty rates in this war favor the opposition—the regime ‘s forces are falling in larger numbers than are opposition fighters, who have a vastly larger pool of young men to draw from.   The research done by Jeffrey White, the military analyst at the Washington Institute for Near Eastern Policy, gives a casualty rate (combining killed with wounded) of 213,000 combatants for the regime, compared to 90,000 for the opposition.   Even if we assume that medical care is much better on the regime’s side, and more wounded regime soldiers retake the field, the opposition is still experiencing a significantly lower loss of men.  This conjecture is backed up by the available killed-in-action figures, which as of late June, 2013, were, according to White, 13,539 dead rebel combatants, 2,518 unidentified and non-Syrian rebel fighters, and 2,015 defected soldiers and officers.  Compare those figures the regime’s KIA:  25,407 regular soldiers, 17,311 combatants for regime-loyal popular defense committees and the irregular shabbiha  units, plus an addition 169 Lebanese Hizbollah.

(iii)         The killed/wounded rate has been rising steadily for the Alawite irregular forces, which now approaches the loss rate experienced by regular, primarily Alawite, military units.  In other words, the regime has been drawing increasingly on young male Alawite irregulars for frontline combat duty.

(iv)          This path is unsustainable for the regime unless it can significantly increase the kill/casualty rate for the opposition with much smaller losses for its forces.  A protracted conflict always favors the opponent with a greater population to draw on; the Sunnis have a decisive advantage.  The Alawites have used all of the conventional weaponry at their disposal—with the exception of napalm—as aggressively as they possibly could and the opposition has taken it and inflicted ever-higher casualty rates on the Alawites.

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Asli Aydintasbas


It is hard to even describe the sense of double-betrayal Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan must be feeling towards the man he considered a friend, Barack Obama.

First came the harsh statements from Washington early last summer criticizing Erdogan government’s ferocious response to protests against his rule. Since the Obama administration had pretty much turned a blind eye to the Turkish leader’s creeping authoritarianism over the past few years – including the imprisonment of journalists, political show trials or tax penalties on disloyal oligarchs —Washington’s support for the secular demonstrations came as a shock.

Then of course came a bigger disappointment— the administration’s about-face on Syria… Turkey had long been campaigning for a tougher international stance against the Assad regime but Ankara’s persistent lobbying for a no-fly zone and arming of the Syrian opposition met with a prolonged state of hand-wringing from Washington. With half a million refugees and a lawless southern border, Ankara sees the war in Syria as a direct national security threat. On top, there have been enough acts of aggression–such as the shooting down of a Turkish plane and three bombing incidents costing the lives of 70 Turkish citizens – to lead the Erdogan government to regard the Assad regime as more than a nuisance—an outright enemy whose survival threatened Turkey’s stability.

On at least two occasions – during Hillary Clinton’s last month as a Secretary of State, and after Erdogan’s White House rendezvous with Obama last May— the Turkish government was assured that Washington was on the verge of a momentous decision to topple the regime of Bashar Assad.

But late in August, when Bashar Assad’s army used chemical weapons against civilians, Washington finally looked poised to tackle the matter of Syria. Though suspicious that U.S. strikes would deliver a meaningful blow to the Assad regime or even “end the war,” with a sizeable NATO base in Incirlik and 900 km of a border, Ankara was willing to support military intervention in every possible way.

It should come as no surprise to anyone that Erdogan, emotive as ever, has been hammering the U.N. and “the West” over this past week, warning that an agreement to stop the use of chemical weapons would not put an end to Syrian horrors. He has already expressed skepticism that the Assad regime will abide by the Russian-US deal.

Click to read more.

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Fouad Ajami

Barack Houdini: Making Syria Disappear

The online publication, Politico, put it well: Barack Obama tripped over Syria and fell on Iran.  That remarkable Obama luck, the luck that saw him through his bid for the United States Senate, the obtuseness of the Hillary Clinton campaign that had her win practically all the primaries that matter only to lose the nomination, to a rival who had gamed the system by prevailing in caucuses in Montana and Idaho, the financial hurricane that erupted in September 2008 and doomed the candidacy of Senator McCain – that luck was there for him in the matter of Syria as well.

President Obama made a mockery of his authority, and of much of America’s reputation abroad, when he threatened dire consequences for the Syrian dictatorship over the use of chemical weapons only to pull back and propose a congressional vote on the use of force in Syria.  Luck again intruded: Right in the nick of time, when it was clear that he would be rebuffed by the Congress, deliverance materialized in the shape of a Russian proposal put forth by Vladimir Putin that held out the promise of ridding the Syrian regime of its chemical weapons.  The Russian proposal was defective.  The only guarantee in it was a break for the regime of Bashar al-Assad.  The dictator was suddenly off the hook.  The war crimes of three years were forgotten, it was the crimes of a single day, August 21, when Bashar al-Assad’s forces used chemical weapons in an attack on a Damascus suburb, that became the focus of the Russian-American diplomacy.  The Syrian ruler, a monster who had brutalized his own population and laid waste to ancient, proud cities, was turned into a key diplomatic player.  He was needed now to account for the chemical stockpiles and to make good on turning them over to international inspectors.  The Syrian rebellion had been waiting for mercy and help; its leaders, if only for a moment, believed that the cavalry – the American cavalry – was on its way.  These hopes were shattered, Mr. Obama had not changed his ways.  He had done his best to ignore the ordeal of Syria, and his policy had not altered.  He was grateful for the exit given him by the master of the Kremlin.

It was amid this confusion, and this display of American irresolution that Hassan Rouhani descended on the United Nations.  The Iranian had been dispatched by the Supreme Leader, and the commanders of the Revolutionary Guard, to strike a deal with an American president in need of a diplomatic breakthrough – or what could be passed off as a foreign policy achievement.  The Iranian theocracy was possessed of clarity: It wanted the economic sanctions imposed on it lifted, as it held onto its nuclear quest.  Rouhani, and the Supreme Leader who had given the agile politician his mission, believed that they were in a seller’s market.  The eagerness with which Barack Obama pursued Hassan Rouhani was destined to favor the Iranian theocrats.  They had given nothing concrete away.  They had helped Bashar al-Assad turn the tide of war in his favor but were now promised a role in the international diplomacy over Syria.  They had been steadfast in support of their client in Damascus, while the democracies had abandoned and left defenseless the forces of the opposition.  No wonder Hassan Rouhani could speak of Syria as a “civilizational jewel” as the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and Hezbollah were raining death and destruction on what remains of that tormented country.

Grant Barack Obama the advantage of his guile.  He was sure he could run out the clock on the Syrian rebellion, he had paid no heed to the devastating consequences of the Syrian war on Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Turkey.  He had bet that there would be no pressing demand at home for a mission of rescue in Syria.  He had presented the American people with a false choice: abdication or boots on the ground.  He reminded them, again and again, how weary they were of the exertions of war.

Then came the tsunami: the government shutdown.  No one recalled the name of that country by the Mediterranean where a war had been raging for nearly three years.  Hail Barack Obama, the Houdini of his time.  He had made the accumulated American influence of decades vanish before a distracted audience.

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The Caravan

What Can Be Done About Syria?

For the first Caravan symposium we take up the ordeal of Syria, now nearly a full year into a terrible struggle between a dictatorial regime and a rebellion determined to overthrow it. What can be done about Syria?  What follows is a range of opinions and preferences from Charles Hill, Itamar Rabinovich, Habib Malik, Russell Berman, Nibras Kazimi, Abbas Milani, Joel Rayburn, Josh Teitelbaum, Reuel Gerecht, Asli Aydintasbas, Camille Pecastaing, and Fouad Ajami.


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