‘The US has come around to Russian thinking’

(By Deutsche Welle) After years of gridlock, the US and Russia are pushing for a joint UN resolution to scrap Syria’s chemical arsenal. Expert Joshua Landis, webmaster of syriacomment.com, tells DW that diplomacy is the best option.

DW: Can the US-Russian backed UN draft resolution achieve its goal of destroying the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons arsenal?

Dr. Joshua Landis: It’s much more likely to achieve it than American bombing. An American strike on Syria would have blown up some buildings and killed some Syrian soldiers and others, but it wouldn’t have done anything to destroy chemical weapons. It might have deterred Assad for sometime.

But this process deters Assad for at least one year, one would assume, from using his weapons. And it holds out the promise of Russian pressure on Assad to cough up the weapons. Now, Russia may have to pay Assad with more conventional weapons to get the things out.

But it’s a net positive over what the alternatives were. Otherwise, Obama was going to do this all by himself with no support from the international community or from his own people, which was a very precarious political position to be in. At least now, he has international support to root out these weapons.

Where does that leave the Syrian rebels? It leaves them in a better position because Assad is less likely to use chemical weapons for the next year at least, and probably forever, which means they don’t get killed by chemical weapons, which is better than before. It neutralizes a big element of his arsenal.

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America’s top general warns of day after Syria intervention

(By Deutsche Welle) America’s top military officer has laid out the options for a US military intervention in Syria, with the financial costs. The general has warned that the US should be wary of what happens after military action.

General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has clearly outlined to US congressional leaders the risks associated with a fourth major military intervention in a Muslim country, warning that using lethal force in Syria’s sectarian conflict would be “no less than an act of war” and Washington “should be prepared for what happens next.”

In a tense exchange last week, US Senator John McCain – one of the most prominent hawks in Congress – had asked General Dempsey whether or not the US should launch a military intervention in Syria. Dempsey demurred, saying that only America’s elected leaders could answer such a question. In response, McCain moved to block Dempsey’s nomination for a second term as America’s top military officer.

On Monday, Dempsey answered McCain’s question in a letter submitted to the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Carl Levin. Dempsey laid out an array of military options for the US in Syria, ranging from training the opposition to securing buffer zones with ground troops along the Turkish and Jordanian borders.

“This is in many ways on the one hand the by-product of pressures from Congress and interests groups in Washington and abroad to at least get some visibility on what the US interagency environment is thinking, especially the Department of Defense, on military issues,” Aram Nerguizian, an expert on Mideast strategy with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told DW.

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Escalating Iraq violence tied to Syria civil war

(By Deutsche Welle) Iraq has been shaken by its worst wave of violence in the last five years. The United Nations has warned that the sectarian bloodshed in Iraq and the civil war in neighboring Syria are merging into one conflict.

The outgoing UN envoy to Iraq has warned the Security Council that Syria’s civil war has spilled over into Iraq, saying that “the battlefields are merging” into one conflict, which could destabilize the broader Middle East.

“These countries are interrelated,” UN Iraq envoy Martin Kobler said. “Iraq is the fault line between the Shia and the Sunni world and everything which happens in Syria, of course, has repercussions on the political landscape in Iraq.”

According to UN figures, nearly 3,000 Iraqis have died in sectarian bloodshed in the past four months, the highest death toll since 2008. Another 7,000 have been injured. And increasingly, Iraqi jihadists and weapons are moving across the border to fight against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, UN envoy Kobler said.

“You have the Islamic State of Iraq, that’s launching most of the attacks, now operating on both sides of the border and getting stronger and stronger in Syria,” Patrick Cockburn, a veteran Iraq reporter for Britain’s The Independent, told DW.

“It has bases in eastern Syria right over to the Mediterranean, so that has made the organization much stronger – given it strength and depth,” Cockburn said. “It has access to arms depots that it’s captured in Syria.”

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Despite protests, Turkey remains ‘indispensable’ to West

(By Deutsche Welle) Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s crackdown on protests in Turkey has sparked condemnation in the EU and US. But as the West moves to up its involvement in Syria, it’s unlikely to risk a break with Ankara.

Long heralded in the West as a democratic example to the broader Muslim world, Turkey has elicited harsh condemnations from its allies in the European Union and the United States in recent weeks. Reacting to Erdogan’s crackdown on protests, both powers have called on Ankara to respect the rights to freedom of speech and assembly.

In Washington, the Obama administration has – at least rhetorically – positioned itself on the side of the protesters. Presidential spokesman Jay Carney has said that the White House believes most of the demonstrators are law-abiding citizens. Prime Minister Erdogan had labeled the protesters as “looters” and “extremists.”

“We believe that Turkey’s long-term stability, security and prosperity is best guaranteed by upholding the fundamental freedoms of expression, assembly, association and a free and independent media,” Carney told reporters over the weekend.

But the protests in Turkey come during a critical juncture in Middle East, with the Western powers moving to become more deeply involved in Syria’s civil war. Last week, the Obama administration announced that it would begin supplying the Syrian rebels with weapons, saying that the Assad government had crossed a “red line” by allegedly deploying sarin gas.

Turkey – which shares a 822-kilometer border with Syria – has played a critical role in the conflict in Syria, hosting more than 380,000 Syrian refugees and the Free Syrian Army (FSA) on its territory. Western arms shipments are likely to be delivered to the FSA, which is considered to be more liberal and secular than Islamist rebel groups fighting to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad’s government in Damascus.

“For the US to be able to implement that policy, it needs to work closely with the Turkish government as a conduit for those weapons,” Sinan Ülgen, an expert on Turkish foreign policy and a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Brussels, told DW.

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Risky military options for US in Syria

(By Deutsche Welle) US senators continue to pressure the Obama administration to intervene directly in Syria’s increasingly Balkanized civil war. But all the military options at Washington’s disposal carry major risks.

For more than a year now, the United States has been walking a fine line in Syria’s civil war, offering rhetorical support and non-lethal aid to the anti-Assad rebels, while publicly distancing itself from any notion of deploying American military power to topple the regime in Damascus.

In the latest push to seek a negotiated settlement to the conflict, the US and Russia have agreed to sponsor talks between the fragmented rebels and President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Geneva, possibly as early as June.

But the key differences between the two Security Council members remain. The US continues to push for Assad to step down, while Russia considers his fate an internal Syrian issue. Peace talks have also been complicated by Moscow’s call for Iran, Washington’s main rival in the region, to participate in the negotiations.

In the US Congress, key senators are putting little stock in the push for peace and are calling for direct US intervention on the ground. The scenarios range from arming the rebels, to establishing no-fly and safe zones, to intervening with ground troops to secure the Assad regime’s chemical weapons stockpiles.

“We have an obligation and responsibility to think through the consequences of direct US military action in Syria,” US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told the Senate Armed Services Committee last month.

“Military intervention at this point could hinder humanitarian relief operations. It could embroil the United States in a significant, lengthy and uncertain military commitment,” Hagel said.

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US, Russia seek to bridge divide over Syria

(By Deutsche Welle) For more than two years, Washington and Moscow have been at loggerheads over Syria, as the civil war there continued to escalate. But now, the former Cold War foes are promising to bridge the diplomatic divide.

If one were to take US Secretary of State John Kerry at his word, then the diplomatic stalemate between America and Russia over the Syrian civil war seems to have been a miscommunication. During talks in Moscow, Kerry told Russian President Vladimir Putin that the US and Russia have “very significant common interests” in pushing for a negotiated settlement to the conflict in Syria.

“The alternative is that Syria heads closer to an abyss, if not over the abyss and into chaos,” Kerry told a joint news conference with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Tuesday.

“The alternative is that the humanitarian crisis will grow,” Kerry said. “The alternative is that there may be even a break up of Syria.”

The secretary of state’s push for Russian cooperation comes as the civil war in Syria has taken on troubling new regional and international dimensions in recent days.

Israel twice bombed targets outside of Damascus last weekend, reportedly in an attempt to prevent Iranian guided missiles from falling into the hands of the Shiite Islamist militant group, Hezbollah.

The Israeli airstrikes came after the United States and its British and French allies claimed to have mounting evidence that chemical weapons had been used in Syria. The three Western powers have accused President Bashar al-Assad’s regime of deploying the chemical agent sarin against rebel forces and civilians. Damascus, on the other hand, has accused the rebels of using deadly chemical agents.

“Kerry is following up the US administration’s stated goal of leading a diplomatic effort that was to include unifying the opposition and coordinating an international response,” Waleed Hazbun, director of the Center for Arab and Middle East Studies at the American University of Beirut, told DW via email.

“But even on the humanitarian level, the US effort is viewed regionally as lacking,” Hazbun said.

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Bleak prospects for no-fly zone over Syria

(Deutsche Welle) With the UN peace plan in tatters, regional battle lines are being drawn in Syria. Calls for a no-fly zone have grown, but the West remains reluctant to intervene during an election year and an economic crisis.

As Syria enters its 18th month of bloodshed, the conflict there has increasingly become a regional proxy war, with the United States and its allies – particularly Turkey – facing the difficult question of how to proceed in the wake of the failure of diplomacy to end the violence.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Istanbul over the weekend, where she met with Turkish President Abdullah Gül, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu to discuss what she called ways to “hasten the end of the bloodshed and [President Bashar] Assad’s regime.”

When asked by a reporter whether establishing safety or no-fly zones was under consideration,she indicated that both Washington and Istanbul were actively weighing the pros and cons of a military intervention.

“It is one thing to talk about all kinds of potential actions,” Clinton told a press conference after her meeting with the Turkish foreign minister on Saturday. “But you cannot make reasoned decisions without doing intense analysis and operational planning. And we share not only the frustration, but the anger and outrage of the Syrian people at what this regime continues to do.”

As the civil war in Syria has escalated, the humanitarian situation has deteriorated and increasingly strained the resources of neighboring countries, particularly Turkey. The UN refugee agency reports that almost 150,000 Syrians have fled their homeland since the uprising began, with at least 50,000 taking refuge in Turkey alone.

According to the UN, the widespread and indiscriminate use of warplanes and helicopter gunships by the government against rebel forces in the city of Aleppo has led to a spike in the stream of refugees. Meanwhile, Western nations have expressed concern that the Assad regime could use its alleged chemical weapons in an act of desperation, or simply lose control of them as Syria slides toward collapse.

“The range of contingencies people are discussing is very much larger and there’s going to be a broader debate about responses, including a no-fly zone,” Ian Lesser, director of the Transatlantic Center with the German Marshall Fund in Brussels, told DW.

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