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July 30, 2013

Chemical weapons or not, more arms in Syria fan the flames
Posted by Homa Hassan

Russia and the U.S. need to take first conflict resolution steps—then Syria can

Exactly one year froSyria weaponsm now will mark the 100th anniversary of World War I. A war of firsts in many respects, it was also the advent of modern chemical warfare, when canisters of chlorine and phosgene gases dispersed by the wind into the notorious trenches wiped out swaths of soldiers, and survivors faced a lifetime of suffering. The subsequent uses of chemical weapons in the 1980s and 90s by Saddam Hussein in Iraq and the Aum Shinrikyu doomsday cult in Japan horrified the international community, so one might understand why chemical weapons use could lend itself to the basis of pinning down “red line” criteria for heightened U.S. involvement in Syria.  However, despite the impulse to react to Syria’s abuses with action such as arming the rebels, sending more arms into the conflict will undoubtedly end poorly.

The two year anniversary of the Syrian conflict coincided with the arrival of two United Nations officials in Syria this past week to begin outlining the scope of inquiry with Syrian officials on allegations of sarin use in Aleppo.  However, the official verification of chemical weapons should not be the determinant of the United States’ next step. While the Obama administration is not tied to committing arms to the rebels in light of the allegations, as is with most U.S. foreign policy decisions, you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t.  So in as unpredictable a conflict as Syria’s civil war, common reason has to supercede political standing in vital decision making.

As UN-Arab League special envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi remarked, there is no military solution in this explosive civil war, and sending in more weapons will only “fan the flames indefinitely.”  With Russia still brokering arms contracts with Assad’s government and the United States discussing arming the Syrian opposition, these two powers’ foreign affairs leaders are looking for a way to break the impasse contributing to the status quo.

At the beginning of this month, Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov reinvigorated the initiative of a Syrian peace conference discussed in May that got steamrolled by Assad’s battle gains. But as Kerry stated, “‘Whether the regime is doing better or the opposition is doing better is frankly not determinative of that outcome because the outcome requires a transition government,’ referring to efforts to negotiate a political settlement.”

While U.S.-Russian cooperation is an optimistic sign and both are committed to having the peace conference, as is to be expected, there are multiple hang-ups: The Russians want Iran, which backs Assad in the talks, but the U.S. wants them out. The rebels want additional arms supplies as a precondition to involvement, but the fear that more arms will fall into the wrong hands is looming heavily.  The make-up of who on the Syrian side should be involved in the talks vary.

Brahimi suggests what might be the crucial precondition to the conference, but not for either faction of the Syrians.  He says “the flow of arms has to stop to both sides, stressing its importance to a political arrangement. Considering the stalemate in the Security Council preventing intervention, the divided public opinion on the level or lack of international involvement, and perhaps most significantly the unpredictable consequences of adding more weapons to the mix, it oddly appears that the most controllable aspect is first getting the U.S. and the Russians (and the Iranians and the Europeans) to lay down their arms, at least for the duration of the talks and until a political settlement can be reached.

The U.S., while not walking back on its “red line” commitment, can still strengthen its line of credibility, role in the conflict, and legitimacy as the world’s indispensible superpower.  The Russians find a new outlet of global leadership in an unlikely footing.          

Since getting on the same page has been impossible in rounds of the Security Council, the death toll in Syria is disconcertingly high and escalating, and discussions of the responsibility to protect are failing to mix with volatile regional power struggles, it’s time to expand the alternate tracks of piecing together the foundations of a diplomatic solution. 

Ms. Hassan is a Herbert Scoville Peace Fellow at the National Security Network and has a Master of International Affairs from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.

July 14, 2013

Getting Ready to Ratchet Iran Sanctions Down [UPDATED]
Posted by David Shorr

I wanted to circle back to a recent piece by Carnegie Endowment President Jessica Mathews on Obama foreign policy. Ostensibly writing from a sympathetic perspective, I see her falling into the same trap as critics who attack the president from the right. The piece doesn't really wrestle with the trade-offs, tough calls, or factors and actors beyond the administration's control.
That said, she makes a crucial point about sanctions and Iran's nuclear program:
Ultimately, the hardest step may be persuading Congress that sanctions can be effective only if one is as prepared to lift them as to impose them. Unfortunately, Congress has gotten rather drunk on sanctioning Iran at what may turn out to be the worst time.
Absolutely, if we tighten sanctions in the absence of cooperation, then we must ease them when Tehran is more forthcoming. In seeking a peaceful solution, it's vitally important for Iran to be offered a way out of enforced isolation. Unless positive moves by Iran are reciprocated, they won't have any incentive to change course. 
The aim of the negotiations should be concession and compromise, not capitulation. This is why the distinction between policy-change and regime-change is so critical. Working diplomatically to ensure the civilian nature of Iran's nuclear program entails a stark choice. If you want a non-nuclear weapon Iran, this necessarily means reaching a deal with the regime in Tehran. If the true aim is to drive Iranian leaders from power, they'll just barrelahead with the nuclear program. 
After the breakdown of talks in the fall of 2009, I supported the tightening of sanctions. Sensitive to charge of wanting "sanctions for sanctions' sake," I offereded a rationale in my review of Trita Parsi's excellent book for Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. As Rouhani assumes the presidency and a new round of talks tests his intentions, the question gains new salience. There is still the matter of how much sanctions-relief should be exchanged for what level of cooperation, but Jessica hit the nail on the head: in order to work, sanctions have to be ratcheted downward and not just ever-tightened. 
[NOTE: An earlier version of this post used a Jon Wolfsthal tweet as a point of departure. I misconstrued Jon's intent and apologize for implicating him in my own critique.]

The G-20 Agenda -- A View From the White House Sherpa
Posted by David Shorr

20130712094420002_hdThe other day I moderated a discussion of the G-20's agenda for St. Petersburg in September at a CSIS summit preview event organized by Matt Goodman's political economy program at the center. But the key point about the scope of the G-20's remit came from Caroline Atkinson, President Obama's top international economic policy adviser and his personal representative (or Sherpa) in the preparations for the G-20 and other summits. (You can watch my panel session on C-SPAN here and Atkinson's keynote presentation here.)

Fellow G-20 wonks familiar with the running debate regarding the breadth of topics on the docket -- and my own view of the matter -- will understand why I was so pleased to hear Caroline Atkinson say this:

So there are other issues that over the years have been added to the agenda, and I was just having a debate yesterday with one of my other Sherpa colleagues who was saying we should do a ‘back to basics’ and only worry about the global economy debate.  And I don’t agree with that because I think that part of the power of the G-20 also is that these countries—if we make policy commitments—they can have an important role in setting a global agenda and in affecting the global economy in a larger sense, not just the current and fiscal account deficits but other important areas.

And one of the important steps the G20 has taken in recent years--which might seem not central to the global macro debate but is of enormous importance in the world—was to agree not to put on export bans for food products in times of shortage. That helped a lot of countries to explain to their domestic audiences why they would not, in times of shortage, think of resorting to an export food ban. And we know from the work that IMF and others have done that these export bans worsened the global food crisis. Just an example of how in a global world what any country does can really have a quick and immediate impact.

The idea of the G-20 going back to basics has many proponents. They argue that the process must stay focused on its core responsibilities for macroeconomic policy and financial regulation. From this vantage, other ancillary issues distract and detract from the really important work. But like Atkinson, I take the opposite view. Far from being distractions, topics like food security, climate change, and anti-corruption are opportunities for the G-20 to do some good.

As I argued at length in an earlier post, there's some scapegoating going on here:

I've seen this many times in discourse regarding multilateral bodies; in the rush to criticize the collective entity, the policy and political divisions among member governments get overlooked. So we can debate the wisdom of tight fiscal and monetary policy, but the G-20 has clearly given its leaders ample opportunity for, as they say, a full and frank exchange of views. The November 2011 Cannes summit, for example, was pretty much consumed by the Greek political crisis.

So let's not forget that the leaders sharply disagreed on the central question of how to promote economic growth and recovery from the Great Recession. Then there is Atkinson's point about "the power of the G-20" and its unique combination of influential global players fom the developed and developing world. The G-20 actually has two identities within the broader multilateral system. Its more prominent role is collective stewardship of the global economy. The other has to do with shifts in the global power distribution and the rise of emerging economies such as China, India, and Brazil. The G-20 summits are a multilateral innovation that bring together the emerging and established powers as peer equals, and macroeconomic policy is hardly the sole sphere needing their collective attention and action. (For a fuller exposition and proposal, see Barry Carin and my "G-20 as a Lever for Progress.")

The example of food commodity markets cited by the US Sherpa is apt indeed. Besides the historic financial meltdown, 2008 also saw a food crisis and spike in prices with an even more direct impact on the world's poorest households. The underlying issue for what Atkinson described is, just like with financial regulatory reform, whether enough has been done to prevent a recurrence. And as it happens, my organization recently published a paper on this question by food security expert Sophia Murphy.

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