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A Fresh Look at U.S. National Interests in the Middle East

The sudden rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) should force the United States (U.S.), Iran, Iraq, Israel and Syria - and probably most Middle Eastern nations - to begin a dramatic reassessment of where their national interests reside. Or to put it simply, is the enemy of my enemy, now my friend? Until now, the concern of many U.S. political pundits and leaders has focused on the same old shibboleths: President Barak Obama should arm the resistance trying to overthrow the cruel regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Iran and Hezbollah are the implacable enemies of the U.S. and Israel, more so than an al-Qaeda. But now reconsideration of such conventional wisdoms cries out for discussion.

The U.S. should determine what represents the greatest threat to its and other nations' interests in the Middle East. The dramatic advance of ISIS in northern and central Iraq throws the conventional wisdom about our interests out the window, requiring a rethinking of who are our allies and who are real enemies. It should be obvious now that the advance of radical Sunni forces in Iraq with the apparent ability to create their "Caliphate" in Iraq and in parts of Syria poses an imminent threat to the U.S., moderate Sunni governments and every Shiite government or force in the region. Moreover, the rise of ISIS also poses a challenge to Israel, as well as to the Palestinians, to rethink their interests, including the potential dangers that following their current policies could create. A look at the new configuration of interests for each country or force may cause some geopolitical talking heads to have severe headaches.

The U.S. now confronts a geopolitical challenge to consider reconfiguring who are its friends and who are its enemies. An answer to this question starts with an honest assessment about who wants to hurt us the most and who does not like us, but who have no interest or ability to attack the Homeland. Obviously, al-Qaeda represent the most serious and immediate threat. While some Shiite groups have a deep antagonism to the U.S., the re is no evidence they are prepared to attack the U.S. homeland. Sunni groups seem more likely to focus much energy on the far enemy - that is, the U.S. - while struggling to create what some may consider this fantasy theocracy, the Caliphate. While groups like ISIS will now confront the fantasy-shattering reality of attempting to govern the slices of Iraq and Syria that they control, the threat they present to the U.S. both in the short and long term emerges as deeply problematic. So how should the U.S. reconfigure its foreign policy positions in light of this new world order?

Looking at the situation from an unusual position for a leftist, maybe "realpolitik" suddenly assumes both the most realistic response and lesser of the proverbial one, two or three of lesser evils. The U.S and Israel, now find that they have a de facto set of interests with governments and forces that oppose the Sunni forces comprising al-Qaeda. The U.S.finds that its interests are now aligned closely with the government in Iran, the much derided government in Syria and the militias battling Sunni fighters in Syria. Of course, there are also the ne'er-do-well moderates in Syria, but they seem like bit players in this drama. So, can the U.S. escape this glaring reality requiring a rethinking of its national interest? In the short term, probably not, but if ISIS consolidates its power base in the areas its blitzkrieg has occupied, more of the thinking class may start to ask questions.

If ISIS consolidates its power, then the U.S. will inevitably be drawn toward an alliance with ISIS' enemies. Among the now defunct "axis of evil" are likely Iran, Bashar al-Assad's Syria, Iran's ally Hezbollah and whatever is left of southern Iraq. The now effectively independent Kurdistan in Iraq also opposes ISIS, as does Jordan. Whether these forces can manage such a reorientation of interests, or to what degree they can, remains an open question because of ideological and political dogma on all sides about who are the U.S.' friends and enemies, and who are Israel's friends and enemies. The extent of this reorientation will depend in part on how well ISIS can consolidate its position in Iraq. Because many Sunnis who welcome them now may soon be fighting them if ISIS attempts to impose a rigid version of Islam, ISIS's threat may not be as strong as the current news cycle projects. But ISIS will most likely be a growing threat. We are now entering a topsy-turvy world.

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President Obama’s Statement on Framework for Removing Chemical Weapons Out of Syria

In a statement issued September 14, 2013, U.S. President Barack Obama said, “I welcome the progress made between the United States and Russia through our talks in Geneva, which represents an important, concrete step toward the goal of moving Syria's chemical weapons under international control so that they may ultimately be destroyed.” Mr. Obama added:

This framework provides the opportunity for the elimination of Syrian chemical weapons in a transparent, expeditious, and verifiable manner, which could end the threat these weapons pose not only to the Syrian people but to the region and the world. The international community expects the Assad regime to live up to its public commitments.

president_official_portrait_hiresWhile we have made important progress, much more work remains to be done. The United States will continue working with Russia, the United Kingdom, France, the United Nations and others to ensure that this process is verifiable, and that there are consequences should the Assad regime not comply with the framework agreed today. And, if diplomacy fails, the United States remains prepared to act.

Following the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons to kill more than 1,000 men, women, and children on August 21, I decided that the United States must take action to deter the Syrian regime from using chemical weapons, degrade their ability to use them, and make clear to the world that we will not tolerate their use. In part because of the credible threat of U.S. military force, we now have the opportunity to achieve our objectives through diplomacy. I spoke to Secretary Kerry earlier today and thanked him for his tireless and effective efforts on behalf of our nation. I also spoke to Ambassador Samantha Power who will ably lead our follow-on negotiations at the UN Security Council in New York.

Mr. Obama reiterated his oft-repeated statement that, “The use of chemical weapons anywhere in the world is an affront to human dignity and a threat to the security of people everywhere. We have a duty to preserve a world free from the fear of chemical weapons for our children,” he said. “Today marks an important step towards achieving this goal.”

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U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced in Geneva, Switzerland, on September 14, 2013, that a framework for the elimination of Syrian chemical weapons had been agreed on. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad agreed to give up all chemical weapons in an effort prevent a U.S. attack on Syria for what Mr. Kerry on August 30, 2013, called "the chemical weapons attack the Assad regime inflicted on the opposition and on opposition-controlled or contested neighborhoods in the Damascus suburbs on the early morning of August 21st."    See "

Bashar al-Assad: Syria will give up control of chemical weapons ...

According to Mr. Kerry, "The United States Government now knows that at least 1,429 Syrians were killed in this attack, including at least 426 children." The Syrian government denies using chemical weapons against forces trying to overthrow

For more background on the Obama Administration's position on Syria, see President Barack Obama's September 10, 2013, address to the Nation on Syria.


Taking into account the decision of the Syrian Arab Republic to accede to the Chemical
Weapons Convention and the commitment of the Syrian authorities to provisionally apply the Convention prior to its entry into force, the United States and the Russian Federation express their joint determination to ensure the destruction of the Syrian chemical weapons program (CW) in the soonest and safest manner.

For this purpose, the United States and the Russian Federation have committed to prepare and submit in the next few days to the Executive Council of the OPCW a draft decision setting down special procedures for expeditious destruction of the Syrian chemical weapons program and stringent verification thereof. The principles on which this decision should be based, in the view of both sides, are set forth in Annex A. The United States and the Russian Federation believe that these extraordinary procedures are necessitated by the prior use of these weapons in Syria and the volatility of the Syrian civil war.

The United States and the Russian Federation commit to work together towards prompt adoption of a UN Security Council resolution that reinforces the decision of the OPCW Executive Council. This resolution will also contain steps to ensure its verification and effective implementation and will request that the UN Secretary-General, in consultation with the OPCW, submit recommendations to the UN Security Council on an expedited basis regarding the UN's role in eliminating the Syrian chemical weapons program.

The United States and the Russian Federation concur that this UN Security Council resolution should provide for review on a regular basis the implementation in Syria of the decision of the Executive Council of the OPCW, and in the event of non-compliance, including unauthorized transfer, or any use of chemical weapons by anyone in Syria, the UN Security Council should impose measures under Chapter VII of the UN Charter.

The proposed joint US-Russian OPCW draft decision supports the application of Article VIII of the Chemical Weapons Convention, which provides for the referral of any cases of noncompliance to the United Nations General Assembly and the United Nations Security Council.

In furtherance of the objective to eliminate the Syrian chemical weapons program, the United States and the Russian Federation have reached a shared assessment of the amount and type of chemical weapons involved, and are committed to the immediate international control over chemical weapons and their components in Syria. The United States and the Russian Federation expect Syria to submit, within a week, a comprehensive listing, including names, types, and quantities of its chemical weapons agents, types of munitions, and location and form of storage, production, and research and development facilities.

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