CNN: zakaria-obama-has-salvaged-syria-situation

Zakaria: Obama has salvaged Syria situation
September 13th, 2013
12:05 PM ET

Zakaria: Obama has salvaged Syria situation

“Fareed Zakaria GPS,” Sundays at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. ET on CNN

CNN speaks with Fareed about Vladimir Putin’s opinion piece in the New York Times, Syria’s announcement on accepting the U.N. chemical weapons ban, and how President Obama has salvaged the situation.

Vladimir Putin’s op-ed on Syria – it’s pretty extraordinary when you think about it that Putin is directly anxious to speak to the American people. What’s your take on what’s going on?

We’ve always known that Putin has wanted to set himself up in some way in opposition to the idea of a kind of benign American leadership of the world. He’s always viewed that as being part of his role – to revive and restore Russia to its position of power, but also as a kind of another pole. It’s not the opposite pole, because Russia isn’t powerful enough to be the other super power, but he wants it to be another voice and another center of power in the world. And this is very much in keeping with that. You see, it’s very smart. It’s well-argued. But it is relentless in its opposition to the United States. The dig about American exceptionalism, was just one part of it.

Syria says it has now accepted the 1993 U.N. chemical weapons ban. What do you make of this?

I think it’s a fairly important shift, because once they do that, it entails a whole set of legal obligations that they are taking on. They do have to destroy. They have to identify what they have; I think it’s within a few months. They have 10 years to destroy everything that they have. They are required to let U.N. inspectors in.

So they are buying into a whole set of legal obligations and constraints. And, of course, they can violate them. And, of course, they can cheat. But in that situation, they are then violating international law. They are, you know, running afoul of treaties and things like that.

And think about that Putin op-ed. The entire defense of the sort of Syrian case, if you will, has been about international law, has been about the fact that the U.S. shouldn’t be doing things that are outside of international law. Well, this means that Syria, in order to play its part, has to abide by this treaty. That’s a very tall set of obligations. And we’ll have to see whether they do it, but it is an encouraging sign.

More from GPS: Putin moves about being important

For Assad, clearly, it is some kind of an exit strategy that might allow him to stay in power. I wouldn’t say it’s the best case for him, of course, because he built up this enormous chemical weapons arsenal. And it’s a huge arsenal, largely because [the regime] was aware of threatening people, scaring people, of keeping people in line. In part, it was always meant to be a deterrent against Israel. The feeling was Israel has nuclear weapons. Israel has a much stronger military force. The Syrians always wanted to have something that they thought the Israelis would be scared of.

So, he’s giving up all of that. But it seems to be a way of somehow getting the international community to view him as a negotiating partner because, after all, he would have to guarantee the safety of inspectors. He would have to be the guarantor of these agreements, and as such he becomes more clearly recognized as the sovereign authority in Syria.

There may have been some zigs and zags, some sloppy diplomacy, some sloppy statements over the past couple of weeks, but you’re ready to give the president some credit now for where the situation stands right now?

I think he salvaged the situation. Look, the whole year has been much too much ad hoc improvisation. There’s been a lot of muddling. But what he has said, what he has done in the last few days, I think, has been smart – where he has taken the Russian proposal seriously and he has clarified what exactly it is he wants to do in Syria. It’s never been entirely clear. And he now, in that speech, made clear we want to deal with chemical weapons. We want to deter their further use. We’re not going for regime change. We’re not trying to solve this problem.

More from GPS: Don’t let Syria distract from Iran

And if you focus in on that, he has already achieved some success, right? You already have international public opinion mobilized on this issue. He’s raised awareness on it. And the Syrian government is now saying it will sign the chemical weapons treaty. The Russians are encouraging them to do so…So, they may not do all of it. But you are already much further than you would have been even with strikes. Remember, air strikes don’t destroy chemical weapons. You never try to hit the chemical weapon sites because that would release toxins in the atmosphere. So, the air strikes are purely punitive. This strategy has the possibility within it of actually getting rid of the weapons.

The U.S. is now confirming basically that they’ve started providing weapons to at least some of those rebels, and the great fear is that who knows where they’re going to wind up.

Who knows indeed. The thing to remember about Syria is, people say well, there are good rebels and bad rebels. The most important thing as far as I can tell having studied this fairly carefully is nobody knows. There are hundreds of different rebel groups in Syria. It appears that this rebellion against the al-Assad government has been quite decentralized, in many cases spontaneous, in some cases organized.

For two years, the Turkish government has been trying to in some way organize these rebel groups, create a government in exile, create a unified command structure. That has been difficult. The CIA has been trying to do it. It has proved difficult. So, the real truth is we don’t know. Some of these rebel groups are clearly very nasty Islamist types. Others may be more democratically minded.

The one thing I think is important to keep in mind is that there has always been a sectarian dimension to this conflict, because there is a sectarian dimension to the regime. It is a minority Alawite regime. And the regime has always been very tough on the Muslim Brotherhood Islamist groups, things like that. Remember in 1982, they had the Hama massacre. So, the regime has been sectarian. The opposition has been sectarian for two decades now.

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Topics: Syria



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