Ambassador John Herbst visited the Rumi Forum for a luncheon talk on Syria on November 21, 2013. The Ambassador spoke about the future of Syria and the President’s options under the current circumstances.

The Asad regime’s heavy handed crackdown on massive peaceful protests in the early days of the Arab Spring led to civil war in Syria by the fall of 2011.  Numerous groups emerged to oppose Asad, from the moderate Free Syrian Army to many Islamic groups, including some with a Muslim Brotherhood background, and some with Salafist orientation, and Jabhat al Nusra, which is affiliated with Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia (AQI).  Foreign powers quickly engaged in the conflict, with Russia and Iran supplying arms, economic and diplomatic support for Asad, and the Lebanese Hizbollah joining the Syrian regime openly in the field as the regime’s fortunes deteriorated this past winter.  Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey provided support for many rebel factions and the West, in tandem with Turkey and Arab partners, tried to cobble together a unified, moderate opposition to lead the charge against Asad.  In this later effort, they were unsuccessful in part because of the rivalry between Saudi Arabia (backing Salafist factions) and Qatar (which has favored the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria and Egypt) Calls by politicians and foreign policy commentators in the West for military action to weaken or even overthrow the Asad regime are undercut by the disunity of the opposition and the inability of those who would be leaders to cooperate with their rivals, and the fears that most effective opposition fighters are the most extreme. It is this last fear that the regime has been able to use so effectively to rouse sectarian fears among Syria’s diverse religious and ethnic population.

The brutality of the Syrian government’s tactics – especially the apparent use of chemical weapons (CW) in August – has prompted many in the West and the broader international community to call for military action against Asad, at a minimum to make the point that CW is especially abhorrent and cannot be used without punishment.  Seeking recourse in the UN and the IAEA is problematic, however. Russian and Chinese opposition in the UN Security Council makes it highly unlikely that the UN will approve any military action against Syria.  President Obama, long under pressure from allies and from political elites at home to intervene, has tread cautiously, but he did lay down a redline against the use of CW in the summer of 2012.  Asad’s crossing of that red line increased the pressure on the President to act.  But the British parliament has taken the UK out of any coalition, the American public (both Democratic and Republican) is firmly against action, and Congress seems reluctant to approve even a modest retaliatory strike.  The President’s acceptance of the Russian proposal for placing Syrian chemical weapons under international or Russian control (and Syria’s quick acceptance) has for the short term substituted diplomacy for military action.  In the current circumstances, what should the President do, and what can we expect to happen in Syria?

Ambassador (Ret) John Herbst is currently Senior Director of the Center for Complex Operations (CCO) at National Defense University (NDU).  In this position he oversees a staff of 15 and a budget of over $2 million in collecting lessons learned from stability operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.  Under his direction CCO has begun to turn its attention to new security challenges such as Libya, Mali and transnational threats. He also teaches a course on Central Asia and lectures on stability operation, peacekeeping in Africa, and Central Asia and Ukraine at both the National War College and the Eisenhower School.

Joining Ambassador Herbst in moderating the discussion is Dr. Judith Yaphe, a distinguished Research Fellow for the Middle East in the Institute for National Strategic Studies at the National Defense University at Ft. McNair, Washington, DC. She specializes in Iraq, Iran, and Arabian/Persian Gulf history, politics, and security issues. Among Dr. Yaphe’s accomplishments was her role as senior political analyst on Iraq and the Gulf, for which she received the Intelligence Medal of Commendation and other awards. Her recent publications include Reassessing the Implications of a Nuclear-Armed Iran (NDU, 2005) and The Middle East in 2015: The Impact of Regional Trends on U.S. Strategic Planning(NDU Press: 2002). Dr. Yaphe’s current research is focused on Iraq, Iran, and the strategic environment in the Persian Gulf region. Dr. Yaphe served as an adviser to the Iraq Study Group headed by former Secretary of State James Baker and the Hon. Lee Hamilton; its report was published in 2006. She frequently briefs senior U.S. and foreign officials and has testified before Senate and Congressional committees on Iraq and regional strategic issues.

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