Nation & World

The Syria saga, explained

long read

Burns sees a vexing puzzle, with tough challenges ahead

As Congress was considering whether the United States should take military action in Syria against the regime of President Bashar Assad for allegedly using chemical weapons against civilians, Gazette staff writer Christina Pazzanese spoke with R. Nicholas Burns, the Sultan of Oman Professor of International Relations at the Harvard Kennedy School, about the unsettled situation and the military, political, and humanitarian actions that the United States and some allies might undertake in a Mideast nation torn by civil war.

A former U.S. ambassador to NATO and a career Foreign Service officer, Burns is also director of the Future of Diplomacy Project and faculty chair for the Programs on the Middle East and on India and South Asia, and he serves on the board of directors of the Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. In addition, he is a faculty associate at Harvard’s Weatherhead Center for International Affairs.

GAZETTE: What’s at stake for Syria in this civil war? And what’s at stake for the world community if tactics such as civilian gassing are allowed?

BURNS: Well, it’s of vital interest to the United States to see that chemical weapons are not used in the world. We have adhered to chemical weapons treaties since just after the First World War, and there’s been a prohibition for nearly a century on the use of chemical weapons in peacetime or in war. If Assad has now used chemical weapons — and the evidence is very strong that he has, the administration has mounted a very convincing case of that — then the chemical weapons genie will be out of the bottle. What’s to stop other dictators from using chemical weapons if there’s no effective international response? So, in effect, what President [Barack] Obama is proposing is to enforce international law, the chemical weapons convention, by striking at Syria’s military assets, its airfields, its air force, its command and control, its artillery, to intimidate him and to deter him from ever using chemical weapons again, and warning that should he use chemical weapons, there will be another response. I think that’s the heart of the issue now that President Obama has put before the country. He’s designing this as a very limited series of strikes on a limited issue. He is not proposing an American invasion of Syria. He is not proposing — in fact, he’s said he will not put American ground troops into Syria. Any congressional authorization that’s likely to emerge in the next two weeks will prohibit the use of American ground troops. So we’re looking at a campaign on this very targeted issue: Can we deter future use of chemical weapons against a civilian population? When Secretary [of State John] Kerry made his speech last week, he made the case for the administration that Assad used chemical weapons. He said of the 1,429 people killed on Aug. 21, over 400 were children. So the stakes are very high.

The last thing I’d say is that international law is normally enforced by international institutions, in this case, say, the United Nations. But the United Nations is divided. The Russians and Chinese are vetoing action. So it really is left to the United States to enforce international law and to make this prohibition against chemical weapons work.

GAZETTE: Why would Assad and his military use poison gas when it’s the one weapon that might bring down the wrath of the world on him, particularly since he seems to be winning the civil war at this point?

BURNS: I was shocked when I first saw the reports in August, the third week of August, of a chemical weapons attack, because actually U.N. weapons inspectors were in Syria that week, so it did not stand to reason, it didn’t seem to me, to be in his interest to use chemical weapons. And yet the evidence that the Obama administration has put forward is, I think, convincing that in fact they did. This might have been a decision by military commanders who are outside the political chain of command. It could have been a local commander who ordered the use. We know that Assad has used chemical weapons in the past against civilian populations. So he may think or they may think they can get away with it. They may think the United States and Europe are paper tigers and aren’t going to respond. And that’s why President Obama and Sen. John McCain have both said the credibility of the United States is on the line because we said, as a country — President Obama said a year ago — that if Assad used chemical weapons, we’d respond. Well, he’s used chemical weapons, so we now have to respond.

GAZETTE: Is there good reason for Assad to be worried about losing power, or are the rebel factions too fractured to unseat him on their own?

BURNS: There’s a standoff right now, and part of the tragedy of this civil war is that it’s gone on so long because the two sides are evenly matched, evenly balanced. The victim of that paralysis and balance has been the civilian population of Syria. One hundred thousand people dead, several million people now homeless. This is a humanitarian crisis that is approaching what we saw in the Balkans in the 1990s, in Bosnia and Kosovo. So it doesn’t seem right now that there’s any way for the rebels to win. They’re not quite strong enough or united enough to win. Assad is just strong enough to survive. Something has to happen to change that balance. It looked earlier in the summer like Assad was on the march. He was gaining ground, but the rebels have struck back and regained some territory, particularly near Aleppo, over the last several weeks. One factor in this is if the United States uses air power, will it affect the balance of power on the ground? The Senate Foreign Relations Committee bill that came out of committee [on Sept. 4] actually has language in it put in by Sen. McCain that hopes the United States’ strike would be significant enough to change the balance of forces on the ground in favor of the rebels.

GAZETTE: What is the U.S. interest in this conflict?

BURNS: I think we have a combination of moral and strategic interests. Syria really matters to the United States because of where it is. It is in many ways the keystone state of the Levant. Its neighbors are our friends: Israel, Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq. So a widening of the war, which many people fear, would have a direct impact on countries that are very, very important to the United States. So strategically, it’s important.

It’s also important strategically because the main backers of the Assad regime are Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia, all adversaries of the United States. And so it wouldn’t be in the interest of the United States or Israel or the Arab countries to see an increase in Iranian or Hezbollah power, for instance, in that key part of the Arab world. So that’s one interest.

We certainly have a moral imperative at work here. When you have such a significant portion of the Syrian population homeless, living under shelling and artillery barrages, living in tent cities, families separated, a significant number of civilians, women and children killed, we do have to think about the moral imperative. The responsibility to protect doctrine — that was confirmed by the United Nations in 2005 — says that world powers have an obligation sometimes, on a selected basis, to intervene in the affairs of another country if the government of that country is mistreating its civilian population. That was really the doctrine, had it been in place in Rwanda in 1994, that might have saved the nearly 1 million people who died in the holocaust in Rwanda. It might have saved more of the Bosnians and Kosovars who died in those brutal wars.

And so, part of the moral imperative is to try to decide, on a national and international basis, what obligations do we have to protect the civilian populations. President Obama has made it very clear: He’s not going to launch a ground invasion; we’re not going to occupy Syria. But if, by limited airstrikes, we can take away the greatest power the Assad government has, and that is air power, that affects the civilian population, that might end up helping some of the civilians who are now subject to these merciless barrages by their own government.

GAZETTE: What steps have the U.S. and its allies taken so far, and why haven’t they worked?

BURNS:  I think the United States government has been ambivalent, both Congress and the executive branch. There was an opportunity for us to intervene much more effectively at the beginning of this civil war, say, if we had armed the rebel factions back in 2011 or even 2012. Now many of the rebel groups have become radicalized. I think also, and this is understandable, as I participate in the debate in my own family and talk to my neighbors and my students here at Harvard, people are really tired of war.

Since 9/11, we’ve invaded two Muslim countries, we’ve occupied them for significant periods of time, we’ve lost a lot of soldiers, we’ve made some mistakes. Certainly, we made some big mistakes in Iraq. People are understandably and wisely wary of intervening, like a bull in a china shop, in the affairs of a third Muslim country. And as we debate Syria, you can hear the echoes of 10 years ago from our debate in 2003 on Iraq and what went wrong there. And part of the danger of this debate is that we may be fighting the last war. I think, looking back at it, there’s no question that we made a series of fundamental mistakes and assumptions and mistakes of judgment on Iraq. Syria is very different. And the policy that President Obama is championing is very different than what [President] George W. Bush suggested in 2003. And I think we need to make that distinction, because while we have to be very careful and ask tough questions any time we use force, we can’t be prisoners of inaction. I guess the way I would look at it if I would describe this in the classroom, I would say our responsibility is to look at this objectively and assess the risks of action and be very clear that there are going to be risks if we take military action, but there are also risks of inaction. And those risks are moral, they’re humanitarian, and they’re strategic. And as I look at it, and this is a very tough call, I think the risks of inaction are greater, and that’s why I support what the president is trying to do.

GAZETTE: What’s the least that the U.S. might do here and still be effective in trying to change the Assad regime’s course?

BURNS: I think the most important thing we can and should do is direct humanitarian support to the population of Syria. The U.S. has taken the lead — and here President Obama and Secretary Kerry deserve a lot of credit — from the start. We’ve put a lot of money and effort into helping the refugees who are now in Jordan and in Iraq and in Turkey, the three countries where most of the refugees have gone. The big battle is to try and get effective humanitarian support — tents, food — to the refugees within Syria. They’re the people who’ve lost their homes. They’ve fled these cities that have been destroyed by the fighting. They’re literally on the run, and these are vulnerable people, these are kids, these are women in a war zone. And the really difficult task is how do you get support to them? So there have been various ideas. Can you create humanitarian exclusion zones just inside the Syrian border along the Turkish or Jordanian borders? I think our most important imperative is to use American financial power and our political influence to try and get the world to respond to this humanitarian crisis first.

Second, is there a way to stop the civil war? Because the civil war is destroying Syria. I was in Morocco in the spring, and I met with Lakhdar Brahimi, who is the United Nations’ representative for Syria, trying to end the war, and he said something that I’ve never forgotten. He said, “Syria is melting away as a country.” And so what the United States also has to do is try to figure out: Is there a way for a cease-fire and some kind of political settlement between President Assad and the rebel factions that would allow for either a temporary or complete stop to the fighting to protect the civilian population and to arrange some kind of political compromise so they don’t fight each other to the death? I think if the Obama administration uses force with these selective airstrikes, the next step after that would be to go back to the diplomatic table and to see if there’s a political solution to try and achieve a cease-fire. That would be the humane thing to do because the country’s being torn apart.

GAZETTE: Do you think that’s likely to be the plan of action?

BURNS: I think that’s what the United States will try to do. I don’t know if that’s achievable because the Russians and Chinese on one side fundamentally disagree with the Americans, British, and French on the other. These are the five permanent members of the Security Council, and they’re vetoing each other right now. So President Obama this week is in St. Petersburg at the G-20 summit, and all those principals are around the table. One would hope that there’s some talk about reviving this diplomatic process for a cease-fire.

GAZETTE: What considerations does the U.S. have to make in deciding on a course of action?

BURNS: It’s a very tough, tough problem for President Obama and Secretary Kerry because they’ve got to operate at multiple levels. They have to operate at the strategic level. They’ve got to make sure they deter any possibility of Assad using chemical weapons in the future. That’s the reason for the airstrikes, and for the toughness on the part of the United States, and for standing up for this very important international prohibition against chemical weapons, number one.

Number two, they also have to keep enough lines open to the Assad government, maybe working through the Russians eventually, to see if this diplomatic process can bear fruit.

And number three, most importantly, they’ve also got to operate at this humanitarian level to make sure the civilian population’s needs are taken care of.

And so, to do all that in the middle of a war is very difficult, especially in the middle of a national debate. It is betraying, in my view, a very important issue: Are we going to lead in the world and be involved in the world and engage in the world or withdraw from it? Because I certainly see the return of an isolationist sentiment to both political parties, from the Tea Party and the far right of the Republican Party and to the far left of the Democratic Party. And you see that isolationist sentiment: It’s too hard, it’s too difficult, we can’t afford it, why is it our responsibility? You see some of these arguments coming forward from both political parties. And that isolationism is a recipe for failure for us. We live in a globalized 21st century. We can’t shrink from the world’s problems. But that is what some of our political leaders are telling us.

I guess one of the only hopeful things I’ve seen this week is that the two contestants for the 2008 presidential race have come together. Barack Obama’s most important partner on Syria is Sen. John McCain. So maybe there’s some hope that moderate Democrats and Republicans can lead the way toward a sensible position and policy for the U.S.

GAZETTE: What might be the best- and worst-case outcomes?

BURNS: It’s hard to make a case for a best, positive outcome in Syria because all the signs are bad. A best-case outcome would be limited airstrikes targeted against the military in Syria that don’t have an impact on civilians, that would intimidate and deter the Syrian government from using these weapons again. Another best-case outcome was that somehow a show of force by the United States might lead the Syrian government and the Russian government and the Iranian government to conclude that they do need a cease-fire. That’s a best-case outcome. I think the objective probability, however, is that we’re going to see a continuation of the worst case: that the war will continue, the two sides will not be able to gain victory, thus the fighting continues, civilians suffer, the U.S. and Russia remain opposed to each other, and the war goes on. That’s the worst case, and, unfortunately, that’s the likelier outcome, I think.

GAZETTE: Why shouldn’t Russia take the lead here, since it’s a world power and Syria is a longtime ally?

BURNS: That’s a good question. I would ask that question of President [Vladimir] Putin. I must say, the cynicism of the Russian government over the last six months or so has been really stark. To hear President Putin just not look objectively at what happened: Assad used chemical weapons. This is not like the Iraq debate: “Does he have chemical weapons,” that’s what we were asking about Saddam Hussein. Assad used them. It’s very clear. And the Russian government is just turning blindly away from that and refusing to acknowledge it. Second, Russia has been vetoing efforts to expand and increase the humanitarian relief efforts through the Security Council. I think the Russians have not acted in good faith and have been a big part of the problem in Syria.

GAZETTE: What kind of retaliation might the Assad regime and its allies take if confronted?

BURNS:  I think the prevailing assumption is that if the United States shows toughness and resolve at striking at Assad’s military, that Assad can be intimidated. However, and you have to plan for this, there’s always the chance that they could ask Hezbollah, or one of the other terrorist groups they support, to strike at American targets in the Middle East or at Israel. It could embolden Iran to strike at Israel or the United States, but I think that’s not likely. It’s not in the interest of Iran to take on Israel or the United States right now, particularly given the fact that President Rohani is a reformist, a centrist figure, and he really wants to relieve the sanctions pressure on Iran. And he wants to get into negotiations with the U.S. and Europe on the nuclear issue, so I don’t think the Iranians are going to overreact here. And Assad’s weak and he’s isolated, so my guess is he won’t respond in any effective way. But it is possible that he could choose to embolden some of the terrorist groups to attack our targets, so we’d have to plan for that if we do undertake military action.

GAZETTE: Is there anything I haven’t asked that you think is important to consider?

BURNS: I think we have to be honest with ourselves. Any time you use military power, you have to be honest that there might be very negative consequences for us. So you have to try as a government to anticipate how the other side is going to react. So there are real risks to military force, this is not going to be easy and it’s not foolproof. But I do think the risks of inaction, of doing nothing — and this is President Obama’s case that he made in Sweden this week and also that he made in asking the Congress to authorize the use of force — if we do nothing, then we’re not upholding the international prohibition against chemical weapons use and we’re not acting to help the civilian population in Syria. In my view, the doing nothing option is far worse for the United States than acting. But these are two bad options in a tempestuous, brutal struggle for power in Syria. So whatever happens, it’s not going to be easy and it’s fraught with difficulties. That’s what makes this difficult and that’s why we’re having this national debate.