Is Obama Trying to Resolve or Prolong the Conflict in Syria?


Suppose a great power declares that it supports a peace process aimed at finding a political solution to a terrible, ongoing conflict.  Then suppose that this great power makes such declarations after it has already proclaimed its strong interest in the defeat of one of the main parties to said conflict.  And then suppose that this great power insists on preconditions for a peace process—preconditions effectively boiling down to a demand for pre-emptive surrender by the party whose defeat the great power has already identified as its major goal—which render such a process impossible.  Is it not reasonable to conclude that the great power in question is (how to put this gently) lying about its purported support for peace?

That, in a nutshell, is the Obama administration’s posture toward the ongoing conflict in Syria.

Earlier this week, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon began sending out invitations for the Geneva II conference on Syria scheduled for January 22.  And, as Ban’s spokesperson acknowledged, the Islamic Republic of Iran was not among the “first round” of nations asked to take part.

According to the spokesperson, invitations to the talks are subject to the approval—or veto—of the two “initiating states,” Russia and the United States.  The Islamic Republic has said repeatedly that it is prepared to attend and to contribute constructively to the search for a political settlement.  Of course, Russia supportsIran’s participation in Geneva II—as does China, Germany, Turkey, every other state seriously interested in resolving the conflict in Syria, and the United Nations itself.  (Ban’s spokesperson publicly stated this week, “The secretary-general is in favor of inviting Iran.”)

It is the United States—whose leader, President Obama has demanded for more than two years that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad relinquish his position—that is blocking Iranian participation in Geneva II.  And it is attempting to justify this position by continuing to insist on Assad’s pre-emptive surrender as part of the Geneva II agenda.  Moreover, Washington is couching its demand for Assad’s pre-emptive surrender in a shamelessly dishonest reading of the 2012 Geneva I communique, which is supposed to set the terms of reference for Geneva II.

On this last point, Secretary of State John Kerry earlier this week (before Ban started sending out invitations) reiterated the Obama administration’s opposition to Iran’s participation in Geneva II as a “ministerial partner.”  In the administration’s view, Iran can’t come to the meeting because it has not signed on to the Geneva I document—in particular, the passage positing that a “transitional governing body” for Syria “shall be formed on the basis of mutual consent” among “the present government and the opposition and other groups.”

Since Iran (at Washington’s insistence) was not invited to Geneva I, it is not clear exactly how or why Tehran should sign up to a communique it had no part in producing.  But the most shamelessly dishonest aspect of the Obama administration’s posturing on the matter is its insistence that Iran accept the administration’s warped reading of the passage from Geneva I just cited, which Team Obama (including Kerry) interprets as a requirement that Assad leave office and play no future political role—whether as part of a transitional government or as Syria’s first president elected after a settlement is negotiated.

We suspect that Assad would, in all likelihood, win another national mandate—even in the “free and fair multi-party elections” envisioned in Geneva I.  But Washington doesn’t want Syrians to have the chance to make that choice.  And so Washington continues to block Iranian participation in Geneva II—save perhaps, as Kerry pompously suggested earlier this week, “from the sidelines” (a proposition that Iran has roundly rejected).

What is so appallingly arrogant about the Obama administration’s position is that it was explicitly rejected at Geneva I.  Then-UN envoy Kofi Annan’s draft communique originally contained U.S.-backed language barring figures from the  conflict resolution process whose participation would block creation of a national unity government—language that the United States, Britain, and France crafted to exclude Assad.  Russia and China insisted that this language be removed from the final communique.  But the Obama administration has disingenuously continued asserting that the language in Geneva I bans Assad from any future political role—even though it is as clear as day that Geneva I, as actually adopted, does not do any such thing.

Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov are supposed to discuss the question of Iranian participation in Geneva II on January 13.  Let’s see if the Obama administration can actually decide that it wants to resolve the conflict in Syria, rather than prolonging it further.

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett


Iran, the United States, and the Middle East in 2014

First of all, our very best wishes for the New Year!

2013 was, for many reasons, an important year for the Islamic Republic of Iran, for U.S.-Iranian relations, and for the Middle East more generally.  Looking back, one thing which strikes us as especially important is that, during 2013, the failures of U.S. grand strategy in the Middle East (and the gradual implosion of America’s position in the region) became evident even to some who were too analytically obtuse or ideologically reluctant to notice it earlier.

President Obama’s largely self-inflicted debacle over his declared intention to attack Syria after chemical weapons were used there in August was particularly crucial in this regard.  It is no accident that the Obama administration became at least superficially more interested in diplomacy after this episode.  For Obama’s flailing over Syria underscored that, after strategically failed military interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, the United States cannot now credibly threaten the effective use of force for hegemonic purposes in the Middle East.

If 2013 was a year in which the profound deficiencies of America’s Middle East strategy were on extended display, we expect that 2014 will be a year in which the effectiveness of Iranian strategy comes to the fore.  We are not optimistic that Obama and his team will get diplomacy with Iran “right.”  Fundamentally, official Washington remains unwilling to accept the Islamic Republic as an enduring political entity representing legitimate national interests, and to incorporate such acceptance into U.S. policy on the nuclear issue, the Syrian conflict, and other Middle Eastern challenges.

But Iran’s strategy does not depend on Washington getting things right.  Indeed, Iranian strategy takes seriously the very real (even likely) prospect that Washington is not capable of negotiating a nuclear settlement grounded in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and respectful of the Islamic Republic’s nuclear rights.  Likewise, Iranian strategy takes seriously the very real (even likely) prospect that Washington cannot disenthrall itself from Obama’s extremely foolish declaration in August 2011 that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad must go—and therefore that the United States will not contribute constructively to the quest for a political settlement to the Syrian conflict.

If the United States can truly reform its approach to the Middle East, certainly Iran can work with that.  But if Washington continues down its counter-productive path in the region, Tehran can play off America’s accumulating policy failures and the deepening illegitimacy of its regional posture to advance the Islamic Republic’s strategic position.  We look forward to charting and analyzing the course of events in the Middle East, along with all of you, during 2014.

To round off our retrospective look at last year, we recall that, back in February 2013, our newly published book, Going to Tehran, served as the launch point for a Penn State Journal of Law and International Affairs symposium on “The U.S.-Iranian Relationship and the Future of International Order.”  As a final gift from 2013, we want to share (see here) the issue of the Penn State Journal of Law and International Affairs, published in November 2013, presenting the penetrating papers that grew out of this symposium—by Dan Joyner, Richard Butler, Mary Ellen O’Connell, and Jim Houck, along with the two of us.

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett


Going to Tehran’s Person of the Year for 2013

This is the season when a number of internationally prominent media outlets select a “Person of the Year.”

TIME did better than usual this year with its selection of Pope Francis, one of the most interesting religious leaders of our day.

The Guardian, Huffington Post, and the Washington Post’s “The Switch” blog all chose Edward Snowden, whose disclosure of documents related to National Security Agency eavesdropping activities has rocked much of the world.

–The Washington Post’s “World View” blog chose Russian President Vladimir Putin.  (With all due respect to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, we think that Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping should have received this year’s Nobel Peace Prize for their governments’ use of international law and international organizations like the United Nations Security Council to constrain an outlaw superpower—the United States.  But that’s another matter.)

While these are all worthy choices, as 2013 draws to a close we want to offer our own selection for “Person of the Year.”  Our pick is…Glenn Greenwald, who had the courage to take on a personally risky battle with the American national security state by reporting on and writing about the Snowden documents, enabling them to have their extraordinary impact.

We have long admired Glenn’s work as a columnist and author.  As we wrote in April 2013 (before the Snowden story broke), when we posted a podcastinterview about our book, Going to Tehran, that Glenn did with us for The Guardian, “We admire Glenn deeply for all he has done and continues to do to bring reality and principle back into America’s ongoing debates about national security and about civil liberties…If our children inherit a republic still even marginally worthy of the name, it will be, in no small part, because enough people were motivated by Glenn to demand that American elites stop eviscerating our country’s international position through a counter-productive quest for imperial dominance, and stop shredding the Constitution in pursuit of an illusory notion of ‘security.’”

But Glenn’s reporting and commentary on the Snowden documents took Glenn’s contributions to a new level.  As we wrote to him directly in June 2013, after the Snowden story broke, “As two former U.S. government officials who once swore to defend the Constitution, we simply want to say thank you—for it is increasingly difficult to discern that Constitution in the way our government operates.”

Internationally and in the United States, the Snowden revelations have prompted a more fundamental debate about the nature of the American state and its role in the world than we’ve seen before.  We do not know how far the consequences of this debate will extend—but there already are some consequences.

–European governments (with, undoubtedly, no small measure of hypocrisy) are beginning to question publicly their long-standing intelligence cooperation with the United States—not because these governments have suddenly decided to have truly independent foreign policies, but because the outrage among European publics over Snowden’s revelations is so great.

–In the United States, we suspect that the Snowden revelations have contributed to President Obama’s plummeting poll numbers.  More significantly, it is doubtful that, absent the Snowden revelations, the American public would have reacted so decisively against Obama’s call for U.S. military strikes in Syria following the use of chemical weapons there in August 2013This episode is important—for it underscored that, after strategically failed military interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, the United States cannot now credibly threaten the effective use of force for hegemonic purposes in the Middle East.  And that has potentially profound ramifications for American policy toward the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Just a few days ago, a Federal judge appointed by President George W. Bush declared from the bench that the NSA wiretapping programs disclosed by Snowden are probably unconstitutional.  This statement is far from the last legal word on the subject—but it is notable all the same.  See here and here to watch interviews that Glenn Greenwald gave (to BBC Newsnight and Al Jazeera America, respectively) about it.

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett


You Can’t Make Sound Policy by Disregarding Reality—Flynt Leverett on the Syria Conflict

The U.S. posture toward the conflict in Syria exemplifies some of the worst aspects of America’s Middle East policy.  In recent years, the limits on America’s ability to shape important outcomes in the region unilaterally have been dramatically underscored by strategically failed military interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya.  Just this year, President Obama’s largely self-inflicted debacle over his publicly declared intention to attack Syria after chemical weapons were used there on August 21 made it abundantly clear that the United States can no longer credibly threaten the effective use of military force in the Middle East.  Nevertheless, American foreign policy elites persist in thinking that it is up to them to dictate Syria’s future—and with it the future of the Middle East.

This outlook is epitomized by Obama’s August 2011 declaration that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad “must go”—even though the Obama administration’s preferred strategy of working with the Syrian “opposition” to effect Assad’s departure was, from the outset, doomed to fail, as we have predicted for more than two and a half years.  While intended primarily to undermine Iran’s regional position, it has done nothing of the sort.  All that this strategy has accomplished or can accomplish is to prolong bloodshed in Syria and to bolster the strength of al-Qa’ida-like jihadi elements across the Middle East.  Moreover, by staking out a maximalist demand for Assad’s removal, Obama fundamentally undercut the prospects for seriously pursuing a negotiated settlement in Syria.  Even by recent American standards, this sets a new standard for destructively dysfunctional policymaking toward the Middle East.

Of course, neoconservatives and liberal imperialist champions of the “responsibility to protect” continue to advocate more direct forms of U.S. intervention in the conflict—notwithstanding the utter illegality of such a course absent UN Security Council authorization and the utterly lousy track record of such interventions (see the references to the Afghan, Iraqi, and Libyan interventions above—all three of which were strongly championed by liberal imperialists as well as by neoconservatives).  But perennially mistaken advocates of ever more American intervention in the Middle East keep running into the same problem that Obama, in his own hapless way, has encountered:  you can’t make sound and effective policy by disregarding on-the-ground reality.

In a recent interview with Syria Chronicle, see here, Flynt sought to describe some relevant aspects of on-the-ground reality in Syria.  (Syria Chronicle is a relatively new online site run by students at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.)  We append the interview below.

The Syrian Conflict:  No End in Sight?  An Interview with

Prof. Flynt Leverett of Penn State

The historical perspective:  I would think about it not in terms so much of specific historical events that got us here but of some very important, historically grounded dynamics in Syria.  Two strike me as really important to understanding how this conflict is shaped.  The first is that, while Syria is obviously a society with multiple divisions along ethnic and sectarian lines, the really fundamental divide in Syrian politics, since the country became independent, is between those constituencies that think their interests are best served by living in an at least, nominally secular state, and those that aspire to live in some version of a Sunni Islamist state.

If you look at who is on which side of this divide, the constituencies that want to live in a secular state are obviously non-Sunni Muslims—most importantly the Alawis—and other religious minorities, especially Christians.  You also have those Sunnis who don’t want to live in an Islamist order.  These constituencies provided the social base for the government of Hafez al-Assad, and they provide as well the social base for his son, Bashar al-Assad.  If you look at the demographics, these constituencies have amounted to at least a narrow majority of Syrian society for decades.

On the other side of this divide, you have basically Sunni Arab constituencies. Sunni Arabs make up about two-thirds of the population, but if you break out those Sunni constituencies that want to live in some version of an Islamic state, you are talking about a very significant minority in Syrian society.  This group constituted the social base for the Muslim Brotherhood’s insurgency against Hafez al-Assad in the 1970s and early 1980s, and is an important part of the social base for the opposition to Bashar al-Assad since early 2011.

The second historically conditioned dynamic important for understanding the current conflict is what I call the imperative of foreign policy independence.  If you look at the way Syria was born as an independent state in the late 1940s, what became Syria is not the territory Syrians thought they were historically entitled to have.  The historically conditioned notion of Syria is Bilad al-Sham, which covers what we now call Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Jordan.  In the wake of World War I, that area was broken up by the League of Nations into the British and French mandates.  Turkey took a little piece of it, but most of it was divided by the League of Nations and distributed to the French and British mandates.  The French then divided the Syrian mandate into Syria and Lebanon.  So, at the time of independence in 1949, most politically engaged Syrians felt that Western powers had territorially truncated Syria.

The Assad government—whether under Hafez or under Bashar—has not been out to restore Bilad al-Sham, but an important part of how the Assad government legitimates itself has been by espousing and at least appearing to practice foreign policy independence.  This was very important to Hafez al-Assad’s ability to consolidate power in the 1970s and 1980s and hold onto it through the 1990s, and it has been important for his son, Bashar, as well.

And, if you put those two dynamics together, it helps to explain why Bashar al-Assad is still in power more than two-and-a-half years into the current conflict.

How it compares to other conflicts:  In Syria, it’s not really a Sunni-Shite divide; it’s more a divide between those who want to live in a nominally secular state and those who want to live in a Sunni Islamist state.  In Libya, there was certainly an Islamist element in the opposition to Gadhafi, but you don’t really have the kind of sectarian divide in Libya or Egypt that you do in Syria.

The geopolitical context of the Syrian conflict is also different. Syria, in the end, is more geopolitically important than, say, Libya or Yemen.  That’s one reason the Assad regime has enjoyed more international support than Gadhafi did in Libya.  The United States was able to get a UN Security Council resolution authorizing an intervention in Libya in March 2011.  Russia and China abstained on that resolution, letting it go through, but both came to believe that the United States and its partners have abused this resolution.  Moscow and Beijing quickly concluded that letting the Libya resolution through had been a mistake—a mistake they were determined not to repeat where Syria is concerned. 

Where the United States stands:  It was extremely foolish for Obama to say in August 2011 that “Assad must go,” because it means that the United States cannot be serious about conflict resolution in Syria.  Likewise, it was foolish for Obama to draw his “red line” about chemical weapons use during his reelection campaign.  So when chemical weapons were used in Syria in August this year, Obama was trapped by his own rhetoric.  He said he would use force, but of course, the UN Security Council wouldn’t endorse it.  The Arab League, NATO and the British Parliament wouldn’t endorse it.  And it soon became apparent that, because of public opposition, even Congress wasn’t going to endorse it.  Since then, the US has really not had a coherent Syria policy. Supporting the opposition has failed.  Only a diplomatic resolution, which the United States can’t seriously support because of Obama’s August 2011 remarks, will work.

What Happens Next:  Assad will continue to strengthen his position on the ground.  But as long as Saudi money and weapons get to the opposition groups, they will be able to continue a campaign—and so the violence will go on.  The only way out is diplomacy aimed at a political settlement between Assad and the opposition.  Until the Obama administration is willing to walk back from some of the positions it has taken regarding Assad and is willing to push allies like Saudi Arabia to halt the flow of weapons to oppositionists, it will be difficult to get a serious political process going.  In the absence of a serious political process, the violence could go on for a very long time.

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett


Now in Paperback–”Going to Tehran: Why America Must Accept the Islamic Republic of Iran”

We are pleased to note that the paperback edition of our book, Going to Tehran:  Why America Must Accept the Islamic Republic of Iran, with a new Afterword, will be officially released on December 31.  Please click here to access the page for the paperback edition (from which one can pre-order for delivery on December 31).  We encourage everyone to get a copy—and to give copies to your friends, loved ones, and colleagues.

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett