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Media Call on Syria with Richard N. Haass

Speakers: Richard N. Haass, Council on Foreign Relations, and Jonathan Tepperman, Foreign Affairs
August 26, 2013
Council on Foreign Relations

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OPERATOR: It is now my pleasure to introduce today's moderator, Mr. Jonathan Tepperman.

TEPPERMAN: Thank you very much, Operator. Hi, everyone. This is Jonathan Tepperman. I'm the managing editor of Foreign Affairs magazine. This is a CFR media conference call, and I'm on the line with Richard Haass, who, as you all know, is the president of the Council on Foreign Relations and the author most recently of "Foreign Policy Begins at Home: The Case for Putting America's House in Order."

This is a relatively short call, so I'm going to ask a couple quick questions myself and then open the floor.

Richard, let's start with Kerry's speech. What did you hear? And what does it say about what's likely to come next?

HAASS: What I heard the secretary of state say is that it is undeniable that the Iraqi -- sorry, that the Syrian government used chemical weapons and that they will be held accountable and that the question is not whether the United States will respond, but how it will respond.

TEPPERMAN: So that's then the next question. The signs certainly seem to be pointing to some kind of a military response. A lot of people are predicting a cruise missile strikes, but nothing more. My question for you is, is that likely? Is that what you expect? And would that be the right response?

HAASS: Well, to paraphrase Yogi Berra, you know, predictions are always tough, especially about the future. But my sense is that you're most likely to see cruise missile strikes or some variation of them, i.e., standoff weapons being used, so U.S. aircraft don't need to fly within range of Syrian anti-aircraft systems. So my guess is it will either be sea-launched cruise missiles or something air-launched, but something largely of that sort.

The exact target set isn't clear. I would think the preferred targets, if they are known, would be anything associated with Syrian chemical weapons capabilities, storage depots or potentially the troops that are believed to have been associated with their use. And then there's a whole potential menu of other options related to command and control, military capabilities, political leadership, what have you, so there's -- again, there's a large potential range of military responses that the administration could choose.

TEPPERMAN: If you were advising the president, how hard would you recommend that he hit the Assad regime?

HAASS: Well, I'm not quite sure, you know, what the word hard means, other than to say I think the United States should do something that is both meaningful and visible.

TEPPERMAN: Well...

HAASS: So I would be -- I would be -- I would favor a fairly heavy use of cruise missiles against some, again, targets that -- so it would be seen from within Syria that, again, would hopefully reduce the ability of the Syrians to use chemical weapons again if they were so inclined or certainly to discourage the use of chemical weapons.

So, again -- so part of it, then, is an assessment on our part, our being the United States government. As to what -- it has to be large enough, if you will, any strike to inflict enough pain and cost upon the Syrians, so they would be discouraged from resorting to chemical weapons again.

I also think, though, this is about a lot more than Syria, so any strike should also be sufficiently large that it would underscore the message that chemical weapons, as a weapon of mass destruction, simply cannot be used with impunity, that these in no way can enter into the space, if you will, of normal weaponry.

So the audience here is not simply the Syrian government to get them to recalculate in the future, but it's any would-be user of chemical, biological, or nuclear materials, underscore the fact that any potential use of these would bring tremendous pain upon the party responsible.

TEPPERMAN: And you see the objective here as being primarily to deter both this government and other governments from using such weapons, rather than to go further, say, and actually start to degrade the capabilities of the regime?

HAASS: I believe the principal reason would be, as we both just said, to affect this regime's future behavior in the chemical realm and to underscore or reinforce the global norm. I think a second rationale is to back up the so-called red line to underscore that when the United States says something, it crosses a red line, that if someone nonetheless goes ahead, that it would -- it would prove to be a costly decision.

It's possible that there would also be a desire to degrade Syrian military capability. I'm not going to rule it out, but I think that would be secondary. And by that, I mean I don't believe the administration is going to use this as a way to get involved as a protagonist in the conflict within Syria. Indeed, my sense is that the administration is trying to find something of a halfway house, something that is large enough to accomplish what we've been discussing, something that's large enough to reinforce the norm against WMD -- WMD use, something that is large enough to make the statement about red lines credible, at the same time, not so large or so open-ended in any way that it makes the United States a de facto protagonist in the civil war.

So my guess is, the administration is looking to thread that needle, if you will, and that's one of the advantages, I should make clear, of punitive military attacks. This would be a punitive attack, and punitive attacks leave the decision, if you will, about how much is enough with the side that is meting out the damage. And I distinguish that, say, from coercive attacks, the sort of thing that was done in Kosovo, where the initiative is often left with those on the receiving end.

So I see this as punitive, where the United States is simply trying to exact a cost for what was done. Hopefully, though, in the process, it will have a deterrent capability, as well.

TEPPERMAN: On this question of just how involved the United States should be, let me ask you one last question, which will get to it in a -- from a slightly different angle. You wrote a column for the Financial Times last week strongly arguing in favor of intervention. But in June, in the New York Times and in pieces that you wrote elsewhere, you argued that the United States should be taking advantage of the relative respite from international engagements right now by focusing on domestic renewal, rather than international engagement.

So what's changed, if anything?

HAASS: Well, I don't think anything has changed. You know, my argument in my book is that foreign policy begins at home. My argument is not that foreign policy ends at home. It's not a roadmap or an argument for disengagement from the world; it's an argument for rebalancing the two sides of the national security coin, the foreign side and the domestic.

In this case, I think our continued interest in global order, our continued interest that the taboo or norm against any use of weapons of mass destruction argues for a military response, a robust military response, but at the same time, a desire not to become enmeshed in what I believe could be an extraordinarily messy and costly intervention, if it were designed in an open-ended way in the Syrian civil conflict, argues for this being a limited strike, both in ends and in -- and in means. So this is my way of suggesting a balance between these -- these various considerations.

TEPPERMAN: Well, let me now try and open up the conversation by asking for questions from our callers.

QUESTION: Hi, Richard. It seems to me that, in addition to what you spoke about, the Iranians are watching what we're doing. And part of the message here, I think, is what the Iranians are going to infer about we -- what we do when certain things are breached, like red lines. So I'd like you to, number one, address that and then also address the notion of -- what you touched on a little bit -- how much what we do now is really part of a larger Syria strategy, because as you said, this could just sort of punish Assad for violating international norm. We could also use it to alter the balance of power between rebel groups and this Syrian-Iranian-Hezbollah alliance, and we could also use it to bring about the president's 2011 declaration that Assad should go.

So how do you see this as part of what we do now, enabling us to use different parts or to take -- use different aspects of a Syria strategy?

HAASS: Well, again, to say the obvious, I can't speak for the administration and I can't predict what it will do. On the first point about Iran, I think that one of the powerful arguments for the administration responding militarily is to reinforce the credibility of American diplomacy and red lines. In the case of Iran, the United States has said that our goal is not to contain an Iran with nuclear weapons, but our goal is to prevent an Iran -- Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

So it seems to me, the president erred by not acting in June against Syria. This is a rare second chance, and I think he has the opportunity to get it right, which I think will be salutary in Syria, it'll be salutary vis-a-vis Iran, and I think it'll be salutary globally now and down the road.

I don't, however, believe that this ought to be used to heavily influence the outcome within Syria. I think that would be -- that would get us going down the road of become enmeshed in the civil conflict there. Instead, what I would argue is that the United States, in addition to launching whatever cruise missile or related strikes we do, this ought to be a moment to make good on what the president said he would do several weeks back or months back now, which is to provide significant arms to those elements of the Syrian opposition that espouse agendas the United States can live with.

For the most part, the United States has not translated that policy position into actual policy. As best as I can tell, the arms (ph) have not gone in (inaudible) certainly not significantly (inaudible) or any anti-aircraft capabilities, so I would do that. I would argue that that ought to be the best way to (inaudible) shape of the battlefield within Syria and that a physical response or the direct military response by the United States, again, ought to be more limited and largely -- I'm not arguing entirely -- but largely confined to the issue of C.W. use and its unacceptability.

QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: Hi. I was wondering if -- what your views are on -- if Obama does decide to carry out some kind of retaliatory action, however limited, how would it be justified under international law? Or would this be an issue that is simply bypassed, given the fact that the Security Council at the U.N. is hopelessly deadlocked and there's no way you could get the Security Council green light.

HAASS: Well, as you will quickly discover, I am not a lawyer. But I think it's always useful to distinguish between process and the content of the law. The U.N. Security Council is not the sole or unique custodian about what is legal and what is legitimate. And as many have pointed out, it was bypassed at the time of Kosovo.

I would say here that it's clear that the Russians and probably the Chinese are not prepared certainly anytime soon to green-light or authorize in any way a military response to what the United States and other countries are asserting the Syrian government did. So I would argue that legitimacy would rest both in the substance and in an alternative process, and by that I mean that the substance ought to be that any use of chemical weapons or any weapon of mass destruction is a violation of international law. It's certainly inconsistent with the chemical weapons convention, which if I'm right Syria is not even a party to.

Syria has also already violated other aspects of international law in the course of the conflict over the last year or two, and the United States can, I believe, a demonstrate a degree of multilateralism, whether it's through NATO, potentially various Arab countries or even others. You could put together some kind of a coalition of the willing, perhaps with a degree of formal backing through various organizations, but I just think, in a -- there's a larger argument here where -- to basically say only the U.N. Security Council can make something legitimate seems to me to be a -- a position that cannot be supported, because it would allow in this case a country like Russia to be the arbiter of international law and, more broadly, international relations. And I, for one, would not be willing to do that. And I don't think the United States should be willing to do it, and I don't think the United States will do it.

So I think, again, there will be an argument that what is being done is inherently legal and legitimate, and there will be a degree of international support that will be -- that will be demonstrated. I would hope that any military action might not simply be one carried out by the United States alone, but I would think countries like France, Britain, Turkey would certainly be quite robust in their support and hopefully would find some ways to participate.

QUESTION: Yeah, hello, thanks for -- thanks for taking my question. You just sort of touched on -- on a bit of what my question was. I'm wondering if maybe you can get into some more detail about this coalition of the willing. What do you think that would look like? Do you think the U.S. would be willing to go it alone, if they can't get anyone to -- to help them out, as it were? I know the British have a sub in the Mediterranean near -- near some of our own ships.

What do you think a coalition of the willing would look like? And how would that work?

HAASS: Well, historically, coalitions of the willing have had -- have been -- how would I put it -- large, but also people have taken on different roles or tasks. So the coalition of the willing in the diplomatic sense, I would predict, would be the largest. And I would think that could be several dozen countries.

And it's possible there could be formal resolutions within regional bodies, and the two most obvious would be the -- would be NATO and conceivably something in the Arab world, though obviously there -- depending upon who participate, there could be a veto or a blocking, or it could be just more informal. There's any number of examples or precedents for, again, you know, coalitions of essentially like-minded states coming together.

I would think that would be the broadest coalition. And I can imagine easily several dozen or more countries supporting that. But I would think any -- at this point, given the nature of the military action, is there's only a handful of countries, if that, that would have the capacity to get involved in the kind of action that is being called for. This is not, if you will, the Gulf War coalition, where there was a large number of military tasks that could be assigned, but because this is both narrower and more limited, I would think the actual military participation would need to be limited to the United States or perhaps one or two other countries, though there's another possibility that there could be some basing access or some other sort of access for American aircraft that would be used, so there could be that kind of military support.

QUESTION: Hi, along those lines, I wanted to ask, what does it say about the conflict in Syria that so many of the international institutions -- even including the European Union, the U.N. Security Council, the Arab League, NATO -- are divided on what to do in Syria and whether to get involved?

HAASS: The first thing it tells you, I believe, is that the phrase "international community" should not normally be used. There isn't an international community. There's not consensus on these issues, and even if there's a consensus in principle -- say, that weapons of mass destruction ought not to be used -- that consensus breaks down in practice because various governments have what they see as overriding short-term considerations. And I would think that Russia would fall into that category.

Most of these organizations that require consensus are hamstrung by just that. And that's why, in some ways, the coalition of the willing idea evolved historically, is that otherwise you create situations where nothing can be done. And it's important to recognize in all these situations that doing nothing is just as consequential, if not more consequential, than doing something.

So not to respond in the face, say, of the use of chemical weapons would set all sorts of precedents and potentially have all sorts of -- of near- and long-term repercussions or consequences. But it -- more broadly, it underscores some of the limits of what you might call formal multilateralism, whether it's an international organization at the global level or the regional level, to the extent you need unanimity or consensus. All it takes is one outlier to block action, and then you've got to ask yourself, as a sovereign government, whether we are prepared to live with that.

And in many instances, I think the answer is correctly no. And then you try to find other forms of legitimacy and other forms of multilateral support, where you can find it. And this -- this has been, is, and will be a fact of international life, where simply the degree of consensus or agreement we'd like to see internationally is a goal, rather than a reality.

QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: Hi, Richard. How are you? I was reading the Arabic press this morning. I don't know that these reports are correct, but Syrian officials are saying that if they are struck with any kind of punitive measures of the kind you're advocating, that they will attack Israel.

So, two questions. One, would you include Israel in your coalition of the willing? And, two, what kind of assurances do you think the United States should provide in response to such threats?

HAASS: Let me make three points. One is, regardless of whether the Syrians would make good on that threat -- and I have my doubts -- it's -- it reinforces the argument that before the United States does this, or anything, you've got -- you've got to think through, what are the likely responses and how you would be prepared to deal with them and whether on balance then acting is preferable to not acting? And it's just a reminder that you've got to play chess and think several moves ahead in several directions. So I think it's -- it's just simply a healthy question. Again, it's not an argument for inaction, but it is an argument for thinking things through.

It's possible the Syrians will consider war-widening, and it could take two forms. It could take, in principle, to the extent they've held back doing things within the country, I expect there are some things they might do in the country that they haven't done before. It's hard to imagine what exactly -- what that might be, since restraint is not a word I would ever use to characterize their behavior to date. But we'd have to think about what they could do.

The idea of trying to widen the crisis by bringing in Israel to change the complexion, I doubt it, simply because that would bring into the conflict another highly capable party, so it's not -- it's not obvious to me that the Syrians would actually want to do that. It might just be a threat or -- in the hopes that that would discourage the United States from -- from acting.

But I would think, whether it's Israel or Turkey or Jordan or any of the neighbors, part of the consultations the United States should be having now is to try to get all the neighbors, all those within reach of Syrian military capabilities, on board -- my sense is they probably would be -- and to talk about various contingencies. What is it they would be prepared to do? What is it they might need from the -- from the United States? And all that ought to be in place. And if that means delaying this, say, for 24 or 48 hours to have those consultations and to put those military preparations in place, then I would think it's -- it's well worth it.

QUESTION: Thanks.

QUESTION: Hi. I think I had a similar question, but, I mean, in terms of these cruise missile strikes, if they do them, being described as sort of a limited or punitive measure, as you describe it, I mean, how do you know that it stays limited, if -- if Hezbollah or Iran then wants to retaliate, as they've threatened, by striking Israel, then -- I mean, aren't we effectively in it at that point?

HAASS: Well, again, I don't take it for granted that they would do those things. If they -- if the Iranians or Hezbollah were to react in certain ways, then the United States ought to be consulting with Israel about what would be the nature of the response. We could still respond in ways, if we so chose, without becoming a protagonist in Syria's civil war.

You know, I do think there's a difference between an action designed to underscore the chemical weapons, whatnot, to be used, and possibly even some responses to retaliations that would be done in that context, if it were to come to that. I still think there are -- there are distinctions between those sorts of military actions, if it -- again, if it were to come to pass, and the United States becoming a protagonist alongside opposition forces in Syria.

It seems to me they are very different types of scenarios, if, in fact, the Syrians or the Iranians were to respond. I also think that one thing the United States is likely to do or would be wise to do is that, if and when it did act militarily against Syria, it would pass certain messages to -- to Syria and to other governments about our willingness to deal with any sorts of responses or -- military responses or retaliation on their part. And that would hopefully have the effect of getting them to think twice before they started going down that road.

TEPPERMAN: Thanks, Richard. I'm afraid we have time for just one final question.

QUESTION: Hi, Richard. Thanks for doing this. You mentioned the potential costs. Do you think that a strike would mean that talks on the Iranian nuclear weapons would likely be off, that the Iranians would give up on that? And just one other point. If we made these strikes, to send a message on chemical, but the regime continued to slaughter Syrians with conventional means, would we still be able to consider the strikes useful or successful?

HAASS: Well, on the latter question, I think the strikes are in a narrow way successful by simply occurring. It shows that you cannot use these weapons and get off scot-free.

If the Syrians continued to slaughter, as I believe they probably would, their fellow citizens as the civil war continues, the United States has other means, rather than direct military participation to help counter that. And that's where, again, I have been arguing -- and will continue to argue -- for serious arming of the Syrian opposition, at least those elements of it we can -- we're comfortable -- we're comfortable working with.

The question of whether Iran would cancel or not enter into talks, you know, that's a potential outcome. But it seems to me that Iran would be playing with fire if it canceled talks and if it continued to progress with its nuclear program.

And if I were -- you know, if I were the administration, I would continue to make the argument that the United States is not prepared for Iran to become a nuclear weapons state and that -- to put forward a serious negotiating position, including the benefits that would accrue to Iran if it were to accept meaningful limits on its nuclear program in ways that could be -- that could be verified, and that that should remain in force.

But let me put it this way. If Iran were to cancel talks, yet its centrifuges were to continue to spin, I think simply that would bring the Middle East and the United States and Iran closer to a potential confrontation.

QUESTION: Thanks.

TEPPERMAN: And on that cheerful note, I'm afraid that we have to finish this up. Richard, thank you so much for taking the time...

HAASS: Thank you all.

TEPPERMAN: ... to speak to all of us. And thanks to everyone who called in. Bye-bye.

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