Disagreement on the Road to Damascus

BY P.J. Tobia  June 15, 2012 at 1:15 PM EST


On Wednesday’s NewsHour, Jeffrey Brown hosted a discussion about Syria’s bloody uprising, specifically, Russia’s attempts to block international intervention in the conflict.

The discussion featured former State Department and National Security Council official Michele Dunne and Dimitri Simes, president of the Center for the National Interest, a Washington, D.C., foreign policy think tank. Part of their discussion included the likelihood of the United States acting, without Russian consent, against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces.

“As one official in Moscow put it to me,” said Simes, “if the United States feels very strongly that force has to be used and is determined to act, let the United States and NATO do it without U.N. Security Council blessing, the way it has happened in the case of Kosovo, the way it has happened in Iraq.”

One viewer, Daniel Serwer, a professor at Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies, didn’t like what he saw.

In a blog post titled, “The Road to Damascus Still Runs Through Moscow“, Serwer wrote:

Michelle Dunne and Dimitri Simes got it wrong in yesterday’s discussion on the PBS NewsHour of Russia’s role in Syria.

If only Syria were at stake and the Russians were tacitly on board, it would be foolish, as Simes suggested, for the Americans to hesitate to act without U.N. Security Council (UNSC) approval. They acted without approval in Kosovo without any serious backlash from Russia, which in 1999 was in no position to offer much resistance.

But that is not the current situation. Iran is also on the chess board.

We reached out to Simes and Dunne for their response to Serwer’s rejoinder. Dunne said that Serwer actually agrees with her when he writes “Diplomatic persuasion, not military action, is what is needed.” Simes, however, had a bit more to say on the matter:

Daniel Serwer appears to think that I was calling for a U.S.-led military intervention in Syria without the U.N. Security Council’s support during my appearance on the PBS NewsHour on June 13. I did nothing of the sort.

Instead, I said that the Obama administration has a choice between intervening without the legitimacy provided by a U.N. Security Council resolution or, alternatively, making an arrangement with Vladimir Putin’s government to support a Security Council resolution reflecting both governments’ perspectives and preferences. I referred to Kosovo strictly to illustrate that the United States has gone around the UN in the past, not to suggest that it should be a model.

Moreover, while tough rhetoric toward Russia by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and America’s U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice may be good politics in the United States, it is likely only to antagonize President Putin, who is not known for yielding to public foreign pressure. Russia increasingly views President Assad as a liability and accordingly has an interest in preventing the Syrian crisis from interfering with its wider foreign policy objectives, including relations with the United States, the European Union, Israel and the Arab League. With this in mind, a negotiated settlement including Assad’s departure is a distinct possibility during the next several months — but grandstanding and megaphone diplomacy won’t make it happen.

U.S. officials would do well to remember that the United States regularly employs combat aircraft including helicopters against insurgent groups in Afghanistan and elsewhere. America also supplies others with these weapons for this purpose. As the Afghan government frequently reminds us, this often produces civilian causalities. Assad’s regime is clearly qualitatively more brutal than the United States and its post-Cold War clients. On the other hand, however, some groups among the Syrian rebels appear prepared to target civilians and engage in terrorism.

Unfortunately, civil wars rarely evoke the common sense and human decency that Mr. Serwer seeks — and the Obama administration’s moral outrage is far less likely to succeed in ending Syria’s war than quiet, tough-minded and, most important, result oriented negotiations with Putin.

Watch this space for future developments in the discussion as well as the latest from Syria. View all of our World coverage and follow us on Twitter.