US-Russian tensions over Ukraine threaten cooperation on Syria, Iran

(By Deutsche Welle) US-Russian relations have reached one of their lowest points since the end of the Cold War. The question is, as Moscow and Washington face off over Ukraine, can they continue to cooperate on Syria and Iran?

Barack Obama was going to be the president who salvaged Washington’s deteriorating relationship with Russia. Ties between the two countries had frayed during the Bush administration over Moscow’s intervention in Georgia and US plans to deploy a missile-defense shield in Eastern Europe.

In 2009, then-US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presented Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov with a red “reset” button. The gesture symbolized the Obama White House’s desire to clear the slate and build a more cooperative relationship with the Kremlin.

Fast forward five years and Washington is now threatening Moscow with economic sanctions over the crisis in Ukraine. It’s the most serious confrontation between the two powers in the past two decades, according to Jeffrey Mankoff, an expert on Russian foreign policy with the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington D.C.

“There’s not going to be a walking back from the confrontation that’s been unleashed by this crisis, at least as long as Russia is what it is, which is to say an increasingly authoritarian and revisionist power,” Mankoff told DW.

But from the Syrian civil war to Iran’s nuclear program, the US needs Russian cooperation to resolve a host of international problems. In Washington, the Republican opposition believes that President Obama’s unwillingness to adopt a more aggressive posture has only emboldened Damascus, Moscow, and Tehran.

“We are almost rudderless as far as our foreign policy is concerned,” Senator John McCain told DW at the Munich Security Conference in February.

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‘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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Haunted by Halabja, US seeks Syrian solution

(By Deutsche Welle) In 1988, the US turned a blind eye to the gassing of Iraqi Kurds by Saddam Hussein. Decades after the attack at Halabja, Washington now seeks to enforce the global prohibition on chemical weapons in Syria’s civil war.

UN chemical weapons inspectors have confirmed that the nerve agent sarin was used “on a relatively large scale” in the eastern Damascus suburb of Ghouta last month, in what UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called the worst attack of its kind since Iraq deployed poison gas against the Kurds in the late 1980s.

“This is a war crime and a grave violation of the 1925 Protocol and other rules of customary international law,” Ban told reporters in New York on Monday. “It is the most significant confirmed use of chemical weapons against civilians since Saddam Hussein used them in Halabja in 1988 – and the worst use of weapons of mass destruction in the 21st century.”

But a quarter century ago, Washington turned a blind eye to what happened at Halabja. On March 16, 1988, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein unleashed poison gas against the Kurdish city, killing more than 3,200 people, according to a 1993 Human Rights Watch report.

“The lesson of Halabja is unfortunately that the condemnation came to late – two months later – but also it came six years too late,” Joost Hiltermann, the author of Poisonous Affair: America, Iraq and the Gassing of Halabja, told DW.

“Because Halabja was the culmination, the climax of a steady increase in the use of chemical weapons in quantity and in quality, meaning more lethal agents over time,” said Hiltermann, also the chief operating officer at the International Crisis Group in Brussels.

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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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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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