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As Congress was considering whether the United States should take military action in Syria against the regime of President Bashar Assad for allegedly using chemical weapons against civilians, Harvard Gazette staff writer Christina Pazzanese spoke with R. Nicholas Burns, the Sultan of Oman Professor of International Relations at Harvard Kennedy School (HKS), about the unsettled situation and the military, political, and humanitarian actions that the United States and some allies might undertake in a Mideast nation torn by civil war.
Q: What’s at stake for Syria in this civil war? And what’s at stake for the world community if tactics such as civilian gassing are allowed?
Burns: Well, it’s of vital interest to the United States to see that chemical weapons are not used in the world. We have adhered to chemical weapons treaties since just after the First World War, and there’s been a prohibition for nearly a century on the use of chemical weapons in peacetime or in war. If Assad has now used chemical weapons — and the evidence is very strong that he has, the administration has mounted a very convincing case of that — then the chemical weapons genie will be out of the bottle. What’s to stop other dictators from using chemical weapons if there’s no effective international response? So, in effect, what President [Barack] Obama is proposing is to enforce international law, the chemical weapons convention, by striking at Syria’s military assets, its airfields, its air force, its command and control, its artillery, to intimidate him and to deter him from ever using chemical weapons again, and warning that should he use chemical weapons, there will be another response. I think that’s the heart of the issue now that President Obama has put before the country.
Q: Why would Assad and his military use poison gas when it’s the one weapon that might bring down the wrath of the world on him, particularly since he seems to be winning the civil war at this point?
Burns: I was shocked when I first saw the reports in August, the third week of August, of a chemical weapons attack, because actually U.N. weapons inspectors were in Syria that week, so it did not stand to reason, it didn’t seem to me, to be in his interest to use chemical weapons. And yet the evidence that the Obama administration has put forward is, I think, convincing that in fact they did. This might have been a decision by military commanders who are outside the political chain of command. It could have been a local commander who ordered the use. We know that Assad has used chemical weapons in the past against civilian populations. So he may think or they may think they can get away with it. They may think the United States and Europe are paper tigers and aren’t going to respond. And that’s why President Obama and Sen. John McCain have both said the credibility of the United States is on the line because we said, as a country — President Obama said a year ago — that if Assad used chemical weapons, we’d respond. Well, he’s used chemical weapons, so we now have to respond.
Q: Is there good reason for Assad to be worried about losing power, or are the rebel factions too fractured to unseat him on their own?
Burns: There’s a standoff right now, and part of the tragedy of this civil war is that it’s gone on so long because the two sides are evenly matched, evenly balanced. The victim of that paralysis and balance has been the civilian population of Syria. One hundred thousand people dead, several million people now homeless. This is a humanitarian crisis that is approaching what we saw in the Balkans in the 1990s, in Bosnia and Kosovo. So it doesn’t seem right now that there’s any way for the rebels to win. They’re not quite strong enough or united enough to win. Assad is just strong enough to survive. Something has to happen to change that balance.
Q: What is the U.S. interest in this conflict?
Burns: I think we have a combination of moral and strategic interests. Syria really matters to the United States because of where it is. It is in many ways the keystone state of the Levant. Its neighbors are our friends: Israel, Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq. So a widening of the war, which many people fear, would have a direct impact on countries that are very, very important to the United States. So strategically, it’s important.
It’s also important strategically because the main backers of the Assad regime are Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia, all adversaries of the United States. And so it wouldn’t be in the interest of the United States or Israel or the Arab countries to see an increase in Iranian or Hezbollah power, for instance, in that key part of the Arab world. So that’s one interest.
Q: What might be the best- and worst-case outcomes?
Burns: It’s hard to make a case for a best, positive outcome in Syria because all the signs are bad. A best-case outcome would be limited airstrikes targeted against the military in Syria that don’t have an impact on civilians, that would intimidate and deter the Syrian government from using these weapons again. Another best-case outcome was that somehow a show of force by the United States might lead the Syrian government and the Russian government and the Iranian government to conclude that they do need a cease-fire. That’s a best-case outcome. I think the objective probability, however, is that we’re going to see a continuation of the worst case: that the war will continue, the two sides will not be able to gain victory, thus the fighting continues, civilians suffer, the U.S. and Russia remain opposed to each other, and the war goes on. That’s the worst case, and, unfortunately, that’s the likelier outcome, I think. read more