Professor Bart Kerremans on the Syrian conflict

The whole story of Syria shows us how both superpowers Russia and the United States are once more diametrically opposed in their foreign policies. We had an interview with Bart Kerremans, professor in International Relations and American Politics, and  therefore the perfect person to clarify  the game of the superpowers concerning Syria.


© KU Leuven – Rob Stevens

When the Arab Spring started in Libya and Gaddafi started fighting his own people, quite quickly the UN adopted a resolution to enforce a non-fly zone on Libya. In Syria the conflict has been going on for more than two years now, civilian death toll is lots worse, but the world doesn’t agree on what to do and so nothing is being done about this cruelties. Why is that, what’s the difference with Libya?

Because the situation in Syria is much more complex. The dimension that plays a role in Syria is the relationship between important kindscurrents within Islam. The Sunnites on the one hand, the Shia on the other hand, the Alawites; so the dimension is completely different. The consequence being that Al-Qaeda is a player in the whole story or groups that are affiliated with Al-Qaeda or that defend similar kinds of positions as Al-Qaeda and that there is also a stronger risk of spreading of the crisis to neighbouring countries. In the first place Iraq, but also to countries where a large number of refugees have been fleeing to, like Jordan. Of course there’s also the Israeli situation because of the consequences for Lebanon. So it’s much more complicated, and the consequence is that the question that is being raised, specifically in the United States but also in other places, is: what kind of regime will be established in case we destroy the Assad regime? There has been an emotional kind of reaction of: “We want to get rid of Assad”, specifically because of the extreme violent nature in which he has been dealing with what ultimately became a civil war. But the thing is that apart from this emotional reaction, because of the human rights violations and the sheer violence that is being used, the more rational reaction is: we just don’t know what kind of regime would replace Assad. In case it would be a regime that sympathises with Al-Qaeda or in case the country becomes dominated by Al-Qaeda related groups, then it could become a serious security problem for the West, and in the first place not the West even but Israel, and then the West is going to be involved anyway. That’s certainly a very important dimension.
A second dimension that has started to increasingly play a role is the fact that the Syrian question, specifically the escalation and the big question about what the international community would do, came after the intervention in Libya. The interpretation of Russia and China is, that what happened in Libya has been the consequence of a too extensive interpretation of the United Nations Security Council Resolution on the non-fly zone. The attitude that is being taken by Russia and China is: “This is not going to happen a second time.” That makes working through the United Nations extremely difficult, if not almost impossible. That is of course also a dimension that matters here, because ultimately what happened in the Libyan case is that they got a resolution from the Security Council, so there was kind of an international legitimation. There was never a chance that that would happen in the case of Syria.

Is that the only reason why Russia and China are still siding with the Assad regime?

There’s a distinction between the position of Russia and China. I think the position that Russia has is more outspoken, specifically with the Syrian case. I guess that the Chinese attitude is much more influenced by this idea of “intervention/non-intervention” and the fact that what happened in Libya was basically abusing the abilities of the United Nations Security Council by the US, France and the UK. For Russia the story is similar, as far as these arguments are concerned, with the position of the Chinese, but there’s an important difference as well. Specifically Putin is looking at the Syrian case as a case where it is about the influence of Russia versus the influence of the West. Basically losing Syria is considered to be losing Syria to the West. That plays a very important role in the policy of assertiveness that Russia is consequently following. It’s using all kinds of tools that are available to Russia – this is not an normative assessment but an observation. What happens in the Security Council fits nicely into that approach. That’s one of the reasons why Russia makes it extremely difficult for the United States to follow the path that it had been following in the case of Libya.

Could we say that the US and the UN also learned from the Egyptian case, where a revolutionary government was formed under Mursi. But violence didn’t end and Mursi was overthrown by the army and other institutions. In the sense that when Assad would be overthrown there would come another regime that’s probably as violent as the one before but doesn’t solve any of the questions that it is supposed to solve?

I don’t think they needed the Egyptian case to realise that, because there were different kinds of scenarios possible apart from the Egyptian case. I think what is to be expected more in the case of Syria is not an Egyptian scenario where there is a revolution and you really get a new stable regime, because ultimately there clearly was a new and more or less stable regime in Egypt. I don’t know whether Mursi was as violent as the Egyptian militaries were at the end of the Mubarak era; I’m not inclined to conclude that. Anyhow it is clear that there were big problems with the Mursi regime as well that the Muslim Brotherhood were doing things in terms of corruption and trying to dominate completely local and provincial governments. That made it extremely problematic.
I think that the situation that is expected in Syria resembles much more the situation in Libya. You have a collapse of a regime and then there is the continuation of a power vacuum instability. Therefore you get closer to a kind of a failed state. Look at what Afghanistan has been, at least from the American perception, what Somalia is, what Yemen has been at a particular point in time. The interpretation is that failed states are extremely dangerous. Specifically failed states where Al-Qaeda has been playing a role. That’s the situation in Syria; I mean Al-Qaeda groups or Al-Qaeda affiliated groups are playing a role in Syria. So in case you really get into a failed state situation, the risk that goes out from that is extremely high. So the source of inspiration is not Egypt. Libya gets closer to that picture and other examples as well.

The US relations with Iran seem to be a lot better these days. Does this have something to do with the Syrian story? Maybe the US want more stability in the region, to prevent other conflicts in there? Or is it just because Rouhani, the new Iranian president, is more moderate?

Yes, it’s a window of opportunity for Obama. Of course it’s not completely independent from what’s happening in Syria or in the region. But if you look at what’s happening in the region, the pressures that exist for Obama point in different directions. You could say the Syrian case and specifically the policy that he conducted, and the fact that when there was a run up in the whole framing of a military action against Assad in retaliation for the use of chemical weapons Obama suddenly decided to consult the US Congress. The fact that he decided to consult the Congress in itself is not a problem. Problematic is the fact that he decided it at a moment when there was an escalating rhetoric towards an imminent intervention, and thus the expectation had emerged that air attacks could take place any moment; that is in itself almost unbelievable basically. This sudden change of heart was a major mistake for a US president to make. I think that Obama sees in the Iranian case an opportunity to escape from the stigma that is now on him that he’s an indecisive political leader that you cannot trust. That he says A today but tomorrow suddenly could say B or C. So a big success with respect to a problem that’s already existing for quite some time would be for him a major escape from the kind of reputation damage that he still suffers from as a consequence of the Syrian case.

I think that Obama sees in the Iranian case an opportunity to escape from the stigma that is now on him that he’s an indecisive political leader that you cannot trust.

Something that points in the opposite direction is of course Israel. Israel is really a difficult issue for the Americans in this particular case. At the end of the day, it’s clear that for the Netanyahu government the continuation of the enrichment of uranium is unacceptable. So the outcome has to be that there is no possibility for Iran anymore to enrich it’s uranium. Obviously if we look at the Iranian position, even with Rouhani, the new president, that’s not going to happen. The question then is: How do you control Israel in this whole story? So it’s pretty complicated and the election of Rouhani is the decisive factor here. He’s a moderate politician with a more moderate rhetoric, and he seems to have had a certain impact on Khamenei (the Iranian Ayatollah Ed.). That opens a window of opportunity and it is through that window that Obama is jumping now.

Why was the use of chemical weapons so determinative for Obama, while there have been so many casualties? Why did he pose the use of chemical weapons as a red line Syria couldn’t cross without further consequences?

There are different elements that play a role. First of all it sets a precedent, in terms of: you allow a country to use chemical weapons, and you don’t do anything against it, that makes it pretty difficult to stop (or even dissuade) such use in the future. Secondly, if you allow Syria to do that and there is no reaction whatsoever, you’re going to get a reaction from Israel. You have to remind what happened in the Gulf War; the Scud missiles that were fired by Saddam Hussein on Israel, and the fear that existed for chemical attacks. People were wearing gas masks at that time (in Israel Ed.). It would have made Israel much more nervous, even more than it already is. That is certainly a very important factor that plays a role, and it brings us also into the wider story of weapons of mass destruction.
Basically at the end of the day it is about these kind of issues and not about the number of casualties in the streets. If you get into that story, then you have to accept another role in the civil war. If you do it because of the number of casualties, then you have to define what you are going to do. Are you going to deliver weapons, and what is the purpose of doing this? The fall of the Assad regime and what regime is going to replace it? If it is about  sending troops, how many troops, what is the mission of these troops? Is there an exit strategy? And once again, what is the ultimate objective? Is it jeopardising Assad and is it regime change knowing that regime change as objective is unthinkable in the post Iraq War United States.
When it is a reaction against the use of chemical weapons, it’s a clearly defined objective that you have. It is a retaliation against the use of weapons that such a regime, or any regime, is not allowed to use. That’s a clear-cut kind of definition of what you want to do here.  Eventually you can change the strategic situation on the ground as a consequence. But even that is an open question, because ultimately the Americans don’t know exactly what kind of situation they would prefer on the ground, because they are not naïve. They know that more moderate Syrian opposition groups are not going to be able – it’s certainly not sure – to replace an Assad regime.

It still isn’t completely clear who used these chemical weapons, but everything points in the direction of the Syrian regime. But why would they have done that, knowing how severely the western world would react?

That’s the elephant in the room. I don’t think anybody knows it. I’ve been for quite some time sceptical about the argumentation that the regime would have done it, exactly for that reason. Why would they do this, knowing that there was a red line established by Obama? You could say Obama was saying things and he probably never would do that really, but in this particular case drawing the red line, was … He suddenly did it in August 2012. He did it after there had been meetings about what the United States would do in case chemical weapons would have been used in Syria, and he did it quite unexpectedly. In a press conference he was referring to the red line. Even his advisors were surprised. The theory that exists is that he did so because he wanted to calm down the nervousness in Israel. There was no alternative for him but to react when chemical weapons would be used by the Assad regime.
So for me it remains a mystery why Assad would have used chemical weapons. When the situation on the ground was evolving to the advantage of Assad, slowly and maybe not steadily, but at that time it was evolving to his advantage, why then would he at that point use those chemical weapons and risk an international reaction? The only explanation that I have is that it was not his decision. That it was a rogue unit or whatever, but somebody that decided to do that without clear clearance from the centre of the regime. I don’t have any other explanation. I don’t think that the opposition did it because they probably didn’t have the capacity to do it, but it’s so difficult to understand the rationality of Assad to decide to use those weapons. So the only explanation that I could think of – but of course the intelligence do not call me and give me that secret information – is that a rogue unit has been doing this and that it was not covered or cleared by the president or his immediate advisors.

Why would Assad use those chemical weapons and risk an international reaction? The only explanation that I have is that it was not his decision. That it was a rogue unit or whatever, without clear clearance from the centre of the regime

Sometimes the US is called the policeman of the world. Could we say that Obama’s choice for an agreement on chemical weapons instead of military action, changes the role of the US in this area? Is it more of a mediator instead of a policemen?

The US never has been consistently a policeman in the region, and it has never been consistently a mediator in the region, and that’s still the case. I don’t think that the negotiation with Russia ultimately changed anything to that. It was a reaction to the political parameters as they shifted to the disadvantage of Obama. The decision that he took with respect to the Congress created for him an almost impossible situation. There was only one way out: to get into an arrangement with the Russians, and that’s what happened. Sergey Lavrov (Russian minister of foreign affairs, Ed.) realised it immediately. The Russians immediately saw what the opportunities were for them, and that’s what they went for. Indeed they got out of it what they wanted to get out of it. My answer remains, the US has never been consistently the policeman in the region and it has never been consistently the mediator, and that is still the case.

Now there’s a UN resolution about destroying Syria’s chemical weapons. Assad seems to be very co-operative, do you think that will continue? Will the regime eventually disarm all its chemical weapons?

I can only answer that question in probabilities, but I think there is a relatively high probability. The reason is that ultimately if he doesn’t cooperate, the situation may change. Even the attitude of the Russians may change, that’s one factor. A second factor may be that Assad learned of course from the Saddam Hussein story. You can’t play a game with your weapons of mass destruction, or even with the perception that the weapons of mass destruction are over there; it may be very risky. Let me elaborate a little bit on this particular point. The whole blame on the United States that they invaded Iraq, that there were no weapons of mass destruction and that the US had made it up, that’s one side of the story. Saddam Hussein also played his game, of putting a little sign on his door: ‘beware of the dangerous dog’, but there was no dangerous dog. Hans Blix who was involved in the UNSCOM, the Control Commission of the United Nations, indicated that later in his book, that part of the story is about the US and the way in which they dealt with intelligence. Part of the story was with Saddam Hussein because he believed that ultimately he could avoid an invasion by putting this little sign on his door ‘beware of the very dangerous dog’. Because of that they believed there indeed was a dangerous dog and that the only way to deal with it was to kill the dangerous dog, and that’s what they did. Whereas Saddam Hussein hoped they would be afraid of the dangerous dog and would not enter Iraq. I think that in the case of Assad that plays a role. If you’re playing with the game of weapons of mass destruction, that’s risky, because there the probability of ultimately a decision to intervene may be higher than when it is just a civil war, as the last few years have learned them.

But will it change anything on the field for the Syrian people?

I don’t think so. It’s very strange why those chemical weapons suddenly popped up in the whole story or in the war. Anyway, I don’t think it’s going to change… It would have changed if it would have led to U.S. or NATO bombings. That would have changed the situation, but there were no such bombings. That means that the current stalemate will continue, shifting once in the direction of the benefit of the Assad regime and then again in the direction of the opposition. But the problem for the opposition over time, and that’s a factor that really plays a role in the reasoning of Assad as well, is that the longer the war lasts, the more divided the opposition becomes. So why would he risk any kind of escalation in the relationship with the US? As far as he can see it now, time is playing to his advantage, why would he throw that away?

The longer the war lasts, the more divided the opposition becomes.

Relations between the US and Russia are not very well these days because of Syria and other cases like Snowden and Russia’s anti-gay laws. Could this have consequences for the future?

Yes. I think that after the end of the Bush era, just like after the immediate end of the cold war, we could see that better cooperation between the Soviet Union, the Russian federation or after its collapse, Russia; and the US, made many things possible in the United Nations. Not that there were no limits anymore, but still. That’s over now. I think that it is something that makes it much more difficult for the US to operate through the United Nations – I think Obama is really the personification of this. Because at the end of the day, if there is a big issue with the Russians, the Security Council is not able to play the role that, at least on paper, it should be playing. That means that you have to get into a story where if it’s not possible with the UN, then it’s going to be without the UN. But of course there you have to take into account that we are living in the post Iraq War United States, where public opinion and politicians are not eager to involve the US in another military adventure.

Does this mean the end of the possibility for a military intervention in Syria, or do you think this might still happen in the future?

I would be tremendously surprised if that would happen. I don’t think that Obama has any political capital to do that. He had some political capital specifically when the chemical weapons were used, but after what we’ve seen in terms of his change of position, there is no political capital whatsoever that he has on this question.

How do you think the story of Syria will continue?

That’s difficult. I expect that it will last for quite some time and that there will be many casualties and that the story of the massive refugee camps and all the dramas that are related to that, is going to continue. The only question that remains open, is what effect it will have on the neighbourhood. Specifically on Lebanon, because that is the most directly affected in this case, and Jordan in terms of the refugee camps. In case Lebanon is affected, of course then we get into Hezbollah and Israel. But my expectation is that it is going to last for quite some time.

America’s wars in the Middle East are coming to a close, and a military intervention in Syria is prevented, so one could think the US would lower their huge defence budget. Still, that doesn’t seem to happen, even in times of huge budget problems. Why is that, does the military industrial complex really exists?

First of all, they do cut in it. It’s not that under the sequestration (US legal procedure in which automatic spending cuts are triggered, Ed.), the department of defence is not involved, on the contrary. Of all the departments involved the largest cuts are taking place in the department of defence. For discretionary spending we are talking about of a reduction within the fiscal year 2013 of 10%, and 7.8% for the non-defence discretionary spending in the other departments. So it is cutting its spending. Still, the question of the military industrial complex remains. But it’s more than a military industrial complex. I always disliked that term because it’s simplifies things a little bit. It is about the defence industry and it is about politicians. But the important factor is voters, they matter as well. In the sense that the defence industry provides for a lot of employment, in many electoral districts, in many US states. That makes the continuation of such a spending almost a no-brainer. I always call that the multiplication effect of certain very specific interests among the voters, and therefore on congressional behaviour.
The Jewish lobby is another example. The Jewish lobby is very powerful, but the reason why it is a significant player is because there is a tremendous multiplication effect. What the Jewish lobby is defending, is shared by the Israeli lobby in the US. And the Israeli lobby is much more than just the Jews, it’s also the more conservative Christians. And then we are talking about a significant portion of American public opinion, and therefore a significant portion of voters in a significant number of electoral districts and states. Then once again it becomes a no-brainer. The ideas that are being defended by these groups are going to be translated in decisions. In some cases they don’t even have to call somebody else or even to spend a dollar. Because it is an opinion that is widely shared, in one case because of religious factors, in another because of employment reasons, you do see that cutting defence is extremely difficult. Just like dismantling military bases in the US. If you want to cut in military spending, you will have to close down a number of military bases in the United States. That’s extremely difficult, because the presence of those military bases in specific states or specific electoral districts, has such an impact on economic welfare in those specific regions. On employment and all surrounding industries like the sandpit shops or coffee shops. The ramifications are so widespread that the opposition against closing them down is so strong. Is that then the military industrial complex? It’s a little bit more complex than the military industrial complex.

Could we then say that when the military stays very influential in the United States, and on the other hand the security council remains blocked, because of the US and Russia, and the United States can’t move outside the United Nations, aren’t we then moving to some kind of gridlock where there is a tendency to use military force, but on the other hand there is a tendency to block every use of it?

No, that’s a relatively simplified view on the military. As if because there is a military, you want to get involved in war every day again; that’s not the case. You do have military who want to be involved, but one of the questions that emerges among the military, is casualties. If they say: we want to reduce the risks – and that’s specifically the case after the Iraq war. The big complaint among the military is that what happened in Iraq is a typical example of overstretching the army, and undermining the preparedness of the American military establishment for defending the United States and its basic national security interests. So it’s far from evident that it’s always the military that are ready to intervene. The military are a significant political player, that’s certainly the case. But they are one player among many. Because of the reasons of the multiplication effect, the employment factor and so on, it’s very difficult to turn this around. We’ve been having secretaries of defence like Leon Panetta and Robert Gates, and even Rumsfeld have been trying to rationalise the US military in order to prepare it for modern warfare. Which means much more basing your defence on technology, and much less on the number of troops. Now the American defence apparatus is the most technology intensive apparatus that there is, so let there be no mistakes about that, but still there is a large amount of troops. There could be a lower amount of troops, but that is very unpopular, and very difficult to realise, because once again then we are talking about the impact it has on the local economies where those military bases that would be closed as a consequence, are located.

I think that not every American president will experience the fact that something is blocked in the UN Security Council as much as a problem.

The second issue, about the blocked United Nations Security Council; I think that not every American president will experience the fact that something is blocked in the UN Security Council as much as a problem. That really varies from president to president. I think that presidents like Clinton and Obama would have hoped that a solution could be found within the Security Council, but it’s clear that they are not always prepared to wait for that. In the case of Clinton it became clear with the Kosovo War. In the case of Obama; I don’t think that the fact that it was blocked in the Security Council was a major issue when he decided to flip-flop on the case of congressional approval. The fact that he decided to do that was basically because he knew that he hadn’t asked for any permission from the US Congress in the Libyan case; there was a lot of anger because of that. He knew that probably he would need the support of the Congress in case the negotiations with Iran wouldn’t yield any kind of result and ultimately the last option would needed to be used. And last but not least the fact that David Cameron went to the House of Commons to get an authorisation, when not all the evidence was yet made available and was defeated, made the situation for Obama much more difficult not to do that. If you combine all those factors that explains why ultimately Obama got into trouble. The United Nations Security Council was not really an issue, in that respect. 


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