Thinking Regionally on Syria

by Robert E. Hunter

Following the US-Russian agreement, the Syrian government’s chemical weapons must now be destroyed. To do this without putting UN employees at impossible risk, the Syrian civil war must also stop. To do that requires a plan by the Obama administration and others. To do that requires a realistic goal — not just “victory” for the rebels — but which ones?

At best, last week’s diplomacy puts the Obama administration back at Square One before the major chemical weapons attacks on August 21. Still, there are differences. Firstly, the threat of force, strongly put forth by the president in his dramatic speech to the nation last Tuesday, is in fact off the table. For this to be otherwise would require some triggering mechanism of Syrian government “non-compliance,” and Russia would have to concur. It would also return President Obama to the dilemma of trying to get Congressional and public approval for US military force. Two non-starters.

In fact, the debate on the use of force is mostly about US domestic politics. The president should draw upon the famous quotation misattributed to Vermont Senator George Aiken during the Vietnam War: “Declare victory and get out.”

Secondly, the US can no longer ignore what has been happening in Syria and must ramp up its diplomatic efforts.

Thirdly, Russia is now directly involved in Middle East diplomacy. Getting it to “butt out” now is also a non-starter. Maybe President Vladimir Putin will see advantages in genuinely working toward a broader settlement in Syria and elsewhere in the region. The price: Russia will henceforth be “in” and will have to be recognized as more than just a successor to the country whipped in the Cold War.

Both Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan knew how to change bad news to good in foreign policy: the former by “going to China” and making possible withdrawal from Vietnam; the latter by proposing to Mikhail Gorbachev at Reykjavik that the US and USSR get rid of all nuclear weapons, an ice-breaker that helped end the Cold War.

For Obama, “changing the subject” in Syria and the broader Middle East should include the following components:

  • Stop insisting that the possible use of force against Syria “remains on the table.” It has no further value and just keeps alive the debate over US “credibility.”
  • Recognize that the Syrian government will not negotiate when the outcome is predetermined (the departure of President Bashar al-Assad). If President Obama can’t for domestic political reasons back off from this second “red line,” at least the Alawite community needs cast-iron assurances that it will not be butchered following a deal and can continue to play a major political role.
  • Pursue a peace process relentlessly as an honest broker, with all other interested outside countries, co-chaired with Russia and under UN auspices.
  • Tell US Arab allies whose citizens export Islamist fundamentalism or fund weapons for terrorists in Syria and elsewhere to “cut it out.”
  • Help restrain the wider Sunni-Shia civil war in the region, in part through demonstrating that the US will remain strategically engaged, while acting as an honest broker.
  • Take advantage of Iran’s new presidency to propose direct US-Iranian talks and pursue a nuclear agenda that has a serious chance of success, as opposed to past US demands that Iran give us what we want as a precondition. Recognize publicly that we respect Iran’s legitimate security interests, as we rightly demand that Tehran reciprocate.
  • Explore possible compatible interests with Iran in Afghanistan, Iraq, freedom of shipping through the Strait of Hormuz, an Incidents at Sea Agreement (as the US and Soviet Union did in 1972) – and perhaps even over Syria.
  • Engage the Europeans more fully in both political and economic developments in the Middle East and North Africa, as part of a new Transatlantic Bargain.
  • Start shifting the US focus in the region from military to political and economic tools of power and influence. Put substance behind the spirit of Obama’s 2009 Cairo speech that did so much for US standing with the region’s people.
  • Propose a long-term security framework for the Middle East, in which all countries can take part; all will oppose terrorism (including its inspiration), all will respect the legitimate security interests of its neighbors, and all will search for confidence-building measures.
  • Engage all interested states (including Iran, Russia, China, Pakistan, and India) in developing a framework for Afghanistan after 2014.
  • Recognize that Israeli-Palestinian negotiations can only succeed when Israel’s security concerns (Egypt, Syria, and Iran) are addressed and the blockade of Gaza ends.

Other steps may be needed, but all elements in the Middle East must be considered together. The US must exercise leadership. It must primarily work for regional security, political and economic development, be the security provider of last resort, honor its commitments, act as an honest broker, and prove itself worthy of trust.

Robert E. Hunter

Robert E. Hunter served as US ambassador to NATO (1993-98) and on the National Security Council staff throughout the Carter administration, first as Director of West European Affairs and then as Director of Middle East Affairs. In the last-named role, he was the White House representative at the Autonomy Talks for the West Bank and Gaza and developer of the Carter Doctrine for the Persian Gulf. He was Senior Advisor to the RAND Corporation from 1998 to 2011, and Director of the Center for Transatlantic Security Studies at the National Defense University, 2011-2012. He served on the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board and is a member of the American Academy of Diplomacy.



  1. One can only wonder what the M.E. would look like today, if Israel wasn’t in the picture? That said, what plans if any, are in the works for eliminating the C.W. stocks in both Israel and Egypt? Of course, as others already are saying about the removal of the C.W. from Syria, how can we be sure of the same from Egypt & Israel? Does Saudi Arabia also retain stocks of C.W.’s?

    The list above that the author proposes, is quite lengthy, some of which I don’t see coming to fruition, though one can hope., can’t one. I do agree that a bloodbath is possible when the end of the civil war comes, especially if Assad leaves. Whose hands will that be on then?

  2. This is an excellent set of components or parameters.

    One question, however. You touch on the Israeli Palestinian dispute only at the end of your commentary, and place greater emphasis on Israeli security than the present military balance, or rather imbalance indicates. Right now, Israel has, or at least is believed to have, huge stockpiles of nuclear and chemical weapons as well as depleted uranium and phosphorus bombs, plus sophisticated delivery systems from land, air and sea. The fact that Syria has a poor man’s countermeasure with its chemical weapons has created some measure of balance and protection for it against Israeli aggression, at least up to the present war, and perhaps even now with Israeli presence pervasive in Syria. As for Israel’s security, the Syrian border was stable for years and the Assad government posed no aggressive threat to it, even though it supported Hamas and Hezbollah.

    Unfortunately, Israel has been intransigent on the Palestinian question and would like to take all of the Occupied Territory and expel or otherwise make the Palestinians go away, or at least has been doing everything to achieve it. Since Carter (apart from GHW Bush’s push back with Shamir, the U.S. has never been an honest broker, and with AIPAC and its affliliates so imbedded and powerful in Congress and the media, it never will be, unless the power of AIPAC is broken, e.g., by characterizing AIPAC for what it is, namely a foreign representative or agent that must be registered. That could open up the organization and its membership lists and its full panoply of actions to public scrutiny. Alternatively, the FBI and NSA might reactive their numerous investigations and follow through this time instead of shutting them down, and then prosecute where applicable and release their findings to the American public.

  3. The last paragraph, “other steps. . . . . . . “, how can the U.S. exercise “leadership”, when so far, said leadership has been of a war mongering stance? Granted, “O” has resisted the calls for outright military action in Syria so far, then onto Iran, to satisfy both the neocons & the so-called Israeli security issue. There wouldn’t be a security issue if Israeli leadership didn’t act like bullies in a sand box, respected others, regardless of the perennial P.R. of “remember the holocaust” that has been playing since the end of W.W.ll. Oh, that’s “anti-Semitic” they will howl, but it’s time to grow up. When Biden speaks “that there’s no daylight between the U.S. & Israel, which is nothing more than pandering to the choir for money, then who is going to believe that the U.S. is honestly going to be neutral and fair in dealing with the M.E.? After all, so far this century, the U.S. involvement has been-to use a military description-“a clusterfuck”, pure and simple. Expending treasure blowing up the M.E., while at home, the infrastructure is decaying, both socially as well as materially, has bought the U.S. what? One thing is evidently clear, the M.E. will continue to fester until the Israeli/Palestinian problem is solved, which is a cancer, especially effecting the inhabitants there, but potentially effecting the health of the rest of the world, especially the U.S. What good is it to have the greatest Military Might, if it’s only used to appease the paranoid delusions brought on by the actions of war criminals? Israel has shown it doesn’t intend to respect the laws, so what makes the case that they will with more military actions by the U.S.? Time to cut the umbilical cord, dragging it out will only cause more death and suffering.

Comments are closed.