The tone of American relations with its Mideast foes has shifted over the past month. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have arguably moved US policy from one of confrontation to engagement, even cooperation.
Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, universally viewed as a pariah and mass murderer, is now receiving cautious praise from Washington for surrendering his chemical weapons arsenal to international inspectors. Russian President Vladimir Putin, who during the Edward Snowden affair was criticized by Obama for clinging to a “Cold War mentality,” is now begrudgingly conceded as a key facilitator in bringing the United States and Syria together on the chemical weapons issue.
And in Iran, US rhetoric has transitioned from outright antagonism directed toward former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to a conciliatory phone conversation between Obama and new Iranian President Hasan Rouhani on Sept. 28, marking the first conversation between the presidents of Iran and the United States in over three decades.
While this change in tone may be welcome, the near-term implications are less than sanguine. In Syria, Assad’s initial cooperation on chemical weapons disarmament, while hopeful, has provided an effective smoke screen for his continued assault on civilian opponents. In effect, Assad’s acceptance of Kerry’s “rhetorical” demand to turn over his chemical weapons has bolstered a regime that continues to slaughter civilians. Realizing this, rebel groups fighting Assad immediately rejected the plan put forth by Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov as misguided and counterproductive.
Likewise, Russia’s uncommonly altruistic role in leading negotiations on the chemical weapons agreement upgraded its stature as Assad’s isolated ally to manager in chief of the Syrian conflict.
And Assad’s Iranian sponsors have jumped on the goodwill bandwagon. Rouhani’s charm offensive has been well received by US officials and was met with relaxed pronouncements against Iran’s commitment to develop nuclear weapons. Despite Obama’s assurances to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that new talks with Iran will be “clear eyed” with all options on the table, it’s evident US rhetoric toward Iran has softened.
Does the trending optimism in Washington regarding relations with Syria, Russia and Iran bode well for the future, or should we be wary of a Chamberlain-style “peace in our time” that could nudge the United States toward a flawed appeasement strategy?
Though that answer may be uncertain, recent US actions have certainly strengthened the hands of Assad, Putin and Rouhani. Assad’s new position as a key cooperating partner with the US and Russia to eliminate chemical weapons has squelched, to the dictator’s delight, lingering talk of regime change and weakened the rebels fighting against him. Similarly, Putin’s prominent role in the chemical weapons negotiations has elevated Russia’s image from troublemaker to peacemaker. Moscow is even applauded in some quarters for preventing a US military strike and potential expansion of the conflict.
Finally, American fawning over Rouhani’s progressive outreach has led US negotiators to be uncharacteristically optimistic during the first round of talks with the new regime. Arguably, the softening of American rhetoric and stance has reinforced the malicious intent of these regimes while eroding US influence.
American policymakers would be wise to avoid a dangerous slide from engagement to appeasement. While ensuring that as much of Syria’s chemical weapons as possible are destroyed, it must continue to insist Assad step down and that diplomatic and arms support to the moderate rebel factions be reinvigorated. With respect to Russia, Obama must not relinquish America’s leadership role but continue to challenge Putin’s irresponsible support for Assad.
Finally, while hoping for a diplomatic breakthrough with Rouhani, US negotiators must be under no illusions that the mullahs who hold real power in Iran have moderated their positions. Obama and Kerry should be unyielding when it comes to the Iranian nuclear weapons program and demonstrate a firm willingness to back up their rhetoric with increasingly tough sanctions, and if necessary, a debilitating military strike.
When dealing with Syria, Russia or Iran, the US should remain resolute and perhaps take a cue from our Israeli friends who have not wavered in pursuit of our shared goal: an Iran without a nuclear capability. Netanyahu exemplified this attitude, saying, “We all want to give diplomacy with Iran a chance to succeed, but when it comes to Iran, the greater the pressure, the greater the chance.”
Rick Devereaux is a member of the SPECTRUM Group, retired USAF major general and former director of operational planning, policy and strategy. He was in Israel for recent military briefings with the US-based Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs.