Conversation: The Consequences of a Syrian Intervention
Reva: Hello my name is Reva Bhalla, and today I'm here with Rodger Baker to discuss the latest developments in Syria and how this conflict just playing out well beyond Syria's borders. So Rodger, we have a very interesting editorial from Russian President Vladimir Putin, which made its way into The New York Times. He basically makes a case that the United States needs to not make a mockery of the U.N. Security Council, and he undermined the U.S. president's message on American exceptionalism. What were your thoughts?
Rodger: I think that if the Op-ed had been written by anybody in America, it probably would have matched the way in which many Americans are talking about what's going on. It fits right into the debate. I think though that coming from the Russian president — coming from this particular Russian president, with his history, with the history of Russia and Georgia — this may backfire. We're already seeing coming out of Congress some very strong opposition to his statement. So even though there's been a lot of complaints about the way in which President Obama has handled the situation, I think that Putin may have overstepped just a little bit with this Op-ed.
Reva: Yeah I agree with that, and it stood up to me how much Russia is trying to make itself out to be the pragmatic alternative to the United States, making it appears as if the U.S. is the bull in the china shop, that Russia is the very calm, collected statesman to handle this affair. But there is some limit to that perception, that bluff that Russia is trying to create.
Rodger: Well I think in the end, the biggest limiter is: Anybody can talk, anybody can say we need to have negotiations; can you back up the negotiations in case there's an error or a failure, or can you enforce whatever you negotiate? In the end, Russia has very limited power, very limited reach in the world enforcement, and the United States, whether it wants to or not, whether it intends to be or not, remains the strongest global power out there. And it keeps being put upon the United States, or the United States takes it on itself, to become the enforcer.
Reva: Well let's drill into the Russian proposal then. This is the big test for Russia to actually be this grand mediator in this conflict so, the devil in the details, right?. The logistics of actually going in, securing chemical weapons stockpiles in the middle of a civil, we're talking about at least 1,000 metric tons of chemical weapons stockpiles spread across at least 50 sites across the country, many in active battle zones. Is there any precedent for this kind of operation?
Rodger: For this type of operation there's nothing. We've never seen anything like this, not on this scale in an active war zone. So how do you send in the inspectors? You may be able to gather inspectors. Can you put them into an active war zone, or do you have to have some sort of cease-fire before you can even put the inspectors in? Once they're in, how do you ensure their security? What types of forces do you put in to protect them, to secure the facilities? How are you sure that those are all the facilities? So in some ways, one of the things I think that's being overlooked is that, yes, there's a lot of discussion now about the details — how many forces do you need and things like that — but do you have to stop the civil war to make this happen? Can you? And then, who are these peacekeepers, or forces that are going to be securing the chemical weapons facilities, going to be fighting now, or going to be protecting them from? They apparently are not protecting them from the Syrian government and the Syrian forces. That means they're protecting them from the rebel forces, who the U.S. is supplying weapons to.
Reva: Right. And, when we're talking about ground troops, that is the sensitive topic to this whole conflict. I mean, the ideaof ground troops for the American public, of course, that's the American public's red line. We've seen that with France, skittishness with the U.K., the Germans. Even Russia I don't think is prepared to actually send in ground troops to protect these inspectors. We'll have to see what comes out of that proposal. In the end, Obama may be backed into a unilateral strike and may not even have Congressional backing to do it.
Rodger: It may be, but we'll have to see how Putin's Op-ed plays out and see whether or not, for example, that if the Russians put this proposal out there and they push it forward and for the next month and two months, there's all of these efforts to try to make it work, and it becomes very clear that there really was no concrete plan, and that it's an untenable solution, it may be that the Russians lose the credibility in this, and the French and even the British come back to the United States, and the United States may be able to rebuild some of that coalition it seems to have lost.
Reva: Although, I'd argue that the European leaders in this conflict do not have the same level of support that the U.S. is probably anticipating. And the effects of the European crisis, we have very unpopular leaders right now in Europe, so it'll be very difficult for them to bypass their own parliaments and go ahead with it.
Rodger: I think for all sides, this is one of these situations where there's absolutely no good solution.
Reva: Right. So in the no-good solutions, when we look at how the rest of the world is looking at this, let's start with U.S. allies and the credibility of the U.S. ultimatum. So everywhere from, let's say in the meet immediate region, of course Israel, Saudi Arabia, they're trying to force the U.S. to make good on its threat, that there is a red line when it comes to Syria, when he comes to Iran. But even beyond that, we're looking at countries like Poland, like Azerbaijan, like South Korea, who need to know that U.S. threats actually mean something.
Rodger: Yeah I mean, I think the president, the secretary of state, have framed this discussion less as a discussion about Syria and more as a discussion about the credibility of the United States. And in doing so, it already was in some sense that way, but now they've made it very public. You go back to something like the Korean War in 1950. And the U.S., depending on how you want read what the statements said, the U.S. basically said South Korea's not within our sphere of interest. There was the invasion by the North Koreans. The U.S. said, well we actually have to act to be able to reinforce to our European allies, to be able to reinforce to the Japanese, that we truly are going to be there, that we're going to give that sense of security. I think what these countries are looking for is, is the U.S. willing to take the risks necessary to back these issues that it says is going to back. And so for South Korea, they've seen the U.S. be very weak, for example, on North Korea over the past several years — to back down in the face of just verbal opposition from China.
Reva: Yea, but then there's another side to it, right? Because while they do want the U.S. to deliver that message, they don’t want the US to involve itself in a war that threatens to pull the U.S. further into another Middle East imbroglio after a decade of wars in the Islamic world, because that is exactly what has distracted the U.S. from other priorities in these other areas of the world, where the U.S. has been trying to turn it attention. So, no good answer either way there, but what about U.S. adversaries? What do you think, for example, North Korea is thinking in watching all this?
Rodger: Well I think when the North Koreans see this, there's two things that they're looking at right now. They're looking at Syria, and they're looking at Libya. And the North Koreans see Libya as a very clear case: that the Libyans effectively gave up all of their weapons of mass destruction type programs, they were welcomed into the international community, and then when there was a little bit of a stir up in the social situation, the international community bombed them, them killed and kicked them out. Syria now has the potential to give up its chemical weapons. But that doesn't guarantee that this isn't going later to turn into something that's going to be a war where the U.S. is going to end up attacking the Syrian government and attacking their troops. And so as the North Koreans look at this, I think for them it's reinforcing the importance actually of maintaining their WMD program rather than eliminating it. They don't see that the West is trustworthy in allowing a country, once it's given those up, to truly enter the international community.
Reva: That's interesting lesson for Iran. Obviously it's further behind North Korea in its nuclear development, but they're trying to use this intervention as a platform for the negotiation it's been seeking with the United States. The problem is that timing is never right for that negotiation. The U.S. does not want to negotiate with an Iran or a North Korea when he feels cornered. So even while Iran may attempt, through the new president, to start up a new dialogue, I think you're right. They have to question whether they can really go that far in concessions on the nuclear program and whether it's more in their interest to build a credible deterrent — if the concessions don't actually guarantee that you won't be bombed sooner or later. So I think everybody at this point is going to be recalculating their intentions toward these nuclear programs. But I think that's all we have time for today. Thank you, Rodger, for your time, and thank you all for joining us today. We'll wbe watching developments closely, which you can find in our analysis on Stratfor.com. And we'll see next time.