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Fawaz Gerges is a longtime observer of the Middle East and fears the United States is rushing to take military action in Syria.
Gerges, a professor of international relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science, says Assad’s use of force and likely use of chemical weapons against his people should not be tolerated.
But instead of taking military action, he argues the U.S. needs to go to the United Nations Security Council, assemble an international coalition and try to broker a settlement in which Russia and China join the U.S. in finding ways to ease Syrian president Bashar al-Assad out of power.
Gerges says he is less interested in punitive measures against Assad than creating the conditions for a diplomatic settlement.
“Let me tell you what’s going to happen the morning after the United States attacks Syria: [Assad is] going to hunker down, and he’s going to emerge a few days after the Americans attack, by proclaiming to the Syrian people and the Arab people that he stood up to the might of the United States. He has survived, he has another day to fight. The civil war goes on. The killing goes on, and little would have changed,” Gerges told Here & Now
Gerges says the Syrian conflict is no longer a conflict between Assad and the opposition, rather a regional war by proxy — part of an international rivalry between the United States and Russia. He says unilateral action by President Obama is an attempt to preserve the United States’ credibility.
“But what’s more important here: is it the credibility of Barack Obama or is it basically stopping the carnage inside Syria?” Gerges asked. “You can do both, but more intelligently, more comprehensively, and also by proving to the world that the United States has learned the lessons of unilateral actions.”
Gerges said the international community views the United States’ motivations for military action in Syria through a cynical lens, as a result of the Iraq War.
“The irony is that the ‘Coalition of the Willing’ assembled by George W. Bush was wider and broader and bigger than the coalition being assembled by the Obama administration,” Gerges said. “And the tragedy is that this is a president who cares deeply about international law, who cares deeply about multilateral action, who cares deeply about the United States being a good global citizen in the international community.”
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW.
There is already plenty of vocal opposition to military action against Syria in Washington and abroad. Russia opposes a strike. So does China. And the British parliament, of course, voted against military action.
FAWAZ GERGES: Fawaz Gerges is also a dissenter. He's professor of Middle Eastern politics at the London School of Economics and author of "Obama and the Middle East: The End of America's Moment?" Fawaz Gerges, welcome.
HOBSON: Well, do you think that the United States is rushing into war with Syria?
GERGES: Yes, I do. And I'm not the only one who thinks that the United States is rushing into war. The pope thinks that the United States is rushing to war, Ban Ki-moon, the majority of Brits and French, the Arab League, Germany, Poland, Italy. And I don't see why. Why not try to convince the Russians and the Chinese that the evidence is not just compelling, it's conclusive? And there is no...
HOBSON: Well, do you really think that it would be possible to convince the Russians - who have a lot of relationships with Syria, including a very big arms trade with them - that it would make sense to attack the Assad regime for an alleged use of chemical weapons?
GERGES: President Putin yesterday made it very clear that if the evidence is deep, hard and conclusive, Russia would basically vote for war against Syria. Whether he means it or not, that's not the question. What does the Obama administration have to lose? After he gets the mandate by the U.S. Congress, why not go to the Security Council. Why not share the U.S. intelligence with the international community? Why not try to convince Americans and the international community that the United States is genuine and serious about basically defending its sacred principle against the use of chemical weapons or gas in the international system?
HOBSON: So do you think, then, that if it is proven that Assad used chemical weapons against his people, and if a number of countries around the world or the United Nations Security Council were to agree that it made sense to go in and attack Assad's regime, that then it would not be a rush to war?
GERGES: Not only that. In fact, I'm less interested in punitive measures against Assad than in finding a way out of the (unintelligible), in stopping the carnage in Syria, in forcing Assad out, in creating the conditions for a diplomatic settlement. And the reason why it's so important for the United States to go to the Security Council is to really try to broker a settlement whereby the carnage stops inside Syria.
This is no longer an internal conflict between Assad and the opposition. It's all-out civil war. It's a regional war by proxy. It's a part of an international rivalry between the United States and Russia, and that's why, of course, we must uphold the sacred principle - not just Assad, any leader, not just using gas against his own people, but using massive force against (technical difficulties) should be tolerated. But the reality is what the United States needs to do is to try to go the Security Council, assemble a genuine international coalition, try to broker a settlement whereby Russia and China join the United States in trying to find ways and means to ease Assad out of power and basically protect and preserve the state institution so that any security vacuum in Syria is not sealed either by chaos or militant elements who subscribe to al-Qaida's ideology.
HOBSON: What about the argument, though, that after setting this red line about chemical weapons, that if the United States does not act - even if that action is unilateral - that it loses credibility in the region and that it sends a message to Iran and to Hezbollah that the U.S. doesn't stand by its word?
GERGES: You know, this is really now more about the credibility of the president, the credibility of the Obama administration, the credibility basically taking action, as opposed to finding a way out of the carnage inside Syria. I understand the debate in the United States. I'm an American myself. And I appreciate the credibility of the presidency. But what's more important here? Is it the credibility of Barack Obama, or is it basically stopping the carnage inside Syria?
And, of course, we need to punish Assad for his alleged use of chemical weapons when and if the evidence is presented to the Security Council. But my first priority now is for the United States to use this particular moment of heightened tension, of the threat of war, to try create a new diplomatic effort with Russia and China in order to punish Assad, I mean comprehensively, not just by sending - of you carrying out a few missile attacks against Assad, that really exerting international pressure on Assad to see him out of power and begin the process of political transition inside Syria.
Let me tell you what's going to happen the morning after the United States attack Syria. He's going to hunker down and he's going to emerge a few days after the American attack by proclaiming to Syrian people and the Arab people he stood up to the might of the United States. He has survived. He has another day to fight. The civil war goes on. The killing goes on. And little will have changed after the morning after.
This is what we're talking about. It's not just we disagree on whether to punish Assad or not. But what's more important, is to basically preserve the credibility of the Obama administration or rather to find a way after the deadly embrace(ph) inside Syria? You can do both, but more intelligently, more comprehensively, and also by proving to the world that the United States has learned the lessons of unilateral actions over the last 60 or 70 years.
HOBSON: Obviously this conversation happens in the wake of the war in Iraq, and I wonder what you think about how this would be different - how your calculation would be different if we had never gone to war in Iraq.
GERGES: Well, you can't ignore the ghosts of the Iraq. I mean, I'm sitting here in the heart of Europe. I want you to know there's a great deal of cynicism about the intentions of the United States throughout the world because of the Iraq war. And that's why there is no reason, there is no urgent need to rush to war. Let's take our time. Let's go back to the Security Council. Let's assemble an international coalition. Let's present the U.S. evidence and let's move forward in order to end the Syrian tragedy.
The Obama administration keeps saying we're going to do it unilaterally. The Security Council is paralyzed. The Russians won't be convinced regardless of what we say. We have the international coalition. Where's the coalition? In fact, the irony is that the coalition of the willing assembled by George W. Bush was wider and broader and bigger than the coalition being assembled by the Obama administration.
And the tragedy is, this is a president who cares deeply about international law, who cares deeply about multilateral action, who cares deeply about the Unites States being a good global citizen in the international community.
HOBSON: Fawaz Gerges is a professor at the London School of Economics, also author of "Obama and the Middle East: The End of America's Moment." Fawaz Gerges, thank you so much for talking with us.
GERGES: Thank you for having me.
HOBSON: And let us know what you think. Should the military - should the U.S. military launch a strike against Syria? You can go to hereandnow.org or send us a tweet. We are @hereandnow. I am @jeremyhobson. Coming up, as the International Olympic Committee meets to pick the host city for the 2020 games, we will look back to the 1972 Olympics. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.