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Council on Foreign Relations Media Guide
Crisis in Syria

September 11, 2013

Following an address to the nation by President Obama on military intervention into Syria, the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) offers the following resources to provide analysis and background.


President Obama's Dilemma on Syria

Richard N. Haass

President Obama expressed a contradiction in his address to the nation on Syria. On the one hand, he tried to reassure the Congress and the American people about what U.S. intervention will not lead to. On the other, he wanted to send the message to the Syrian government that any use of chemical weapons is an incredibly costly thing for it to do. Listen here »

The Wrong Way to Be Right

Micah Zenko

Punishing and deterring transgressions of the international norm against the repeated and indiscriminate use of chemical weapons is something the United States should endorse. Unfortunately, with regard to Syria, it has chosen the wrong style, process, and military-first approach to do so.  Read more »

Russia's Absurd Proposal on Syria's Weapons

Max Boot

If Assad were serious about turning over his entire chemical weapons stockpile—not to mention destroying all capacity to manufacture more such weapons in the future—this might conceivably be a deal worth taking even at the risk of Assad rebuilding his chemical weapons capacity sometime in the future. But the odds of Assad assenting to such a deal are slight: Why should he when he knows that, worst case, he faces an "unbelievably small" American airstrike, as Kerry himself has said? Read more »

Syria Needs Peacekeepers, Not Missile Strikes

Ed Husain

No amount of American bombings will end the war in Syria. Missiles won't prevent further use of chemical weapons, either. Instead, American diplomatic muscle should be brought to bear on our allies to work with Russia and Iran. The U.S. Congress can help America gain more respect and credibility by bringing peace, not bombing another Muslim nation. Read more »

Four Reasons Why Syria Is Not Like Iraq

Gayle Tzemach Lemmon

Iraq is not Syria. While Americans are exhausted after twelve years of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, in which nearly seven thousand U.S. service members have been killed, the differences between the conflicts are worth noting if the case for Syria is to be judged on its own merits. Read more »

In Trying to Help Syria, an Intervention Would Destroy It

Steven A. Cook

In an astonishing irony that only the conflict in Syria could produce, American and allied cruise missiles would be degrading the capability of the regime's military units to the benefit of the al-Qaeda-linked militants fighting Assad—the same militants whom U.S. drones are attacking regularly in places such as Yemen. Military strikes would also complicate Washington's longer-term desire to bring stability to a country that borders Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, and Israel. Read more »

Send Assad a Message He Will Understand

Robert M. Danin

If the Obama administration wants to send a message to Assad that he accurately understands, it must provide not only a credible response to his recent use of chemical weapons but also make him believe that response is part of a larger strategy to compel him to stop slaughtering his own people—by any means. Read more »

America Must Stick to a Course on Syria

Richard N. Haass

The United States needs a strategy that it is prepared to implement and live with. Such an approach will not oust the regime or end the war any time soon, but it does provide a trajectory that protects some of its immediate interests and can be squared with larger American national security concerns both abroad and at home. Read more »

Is President Obama Serious About Chemical Weapons?

Laurie Garrett

Before American cruise missiles reach their targets, several diplomatic steps must be taken in order to stop the further use of nerve gases by the Syrian regime against its own people and prevent the use of chemical weapons from becoming the region's "new normal." Read more »

Syria & U.S.-Russian Relations: Three Things to Know

Stephen Sestanovich

U.S.-Russian disagreement over how to respond to the conflict in Syria is spurring further deterioration in the relationship between Moscow and Washington. Watch the video »

Your Move, Putin

Fred Kaplan

Obama's speech may not have sounded novel, but the president may have helped his cause in unexpected ways. Read more »

War Powers Debate Revived

James M. Lindsay

President Obama's determination that the United States should take military action to punish the Syrian government for using chemical weapons has revived the perennial debate over how the Constitution allocates the war power between Congress and the White House. Read more »

Legitimacy of Intervention in Syria: Three Things to Know

Matthew C. Waxman

Even without a clear legal basis, the United States and its allies could use the goal of averting a humanitarian catastrophe to justify intervention. Watch the video »

Island of Tranquility

Elliott Abrams

At the moment, Israel appears to be a lone island of tranquility in the Middle East. But to Israelis, surrounded as they are by a region in complete turmoil, and with both a regime using chemical weapons and a concentration of five to seven thousand jihadists to their north, today's smooth sailing is obviously not permanent. It is especially worrying to Israelis that American prestige and clout in the region are at a historic low. Read more »


How to Oust Assad

Michael Weiss

Obama should rearticulate his policy of regime change for Syria, something he first announced in 2011 and has quietly revised ever since, and gear any intervention toward meeting that goal and building a reliable opposition. Although that will be incredibly difficult to do, the good news is that the United States and its allies have made more progress on that front than many realize. Read more »

Weighing War, Peace, and Polls

Jonathan Tepperman

Despite low approval numbers for U.S. military intervention in Syria, there are several reasons why American public support can shift. The White House should focus on getting its policy right and fighting a successful campaign—and trust that if it does, the American people will probably come around. Read more »

Pick Your Poison

Richard K. Betts

Congress must now share responsibility for determining the least-bad way out of the situation in Syria. Indecisive use of military power emerges as the compromise between apparently unacceptable alternatives of doing nothing and doing too much. This is solving Solomon's choice by actually splitting the baby. In other words, it is politically logical but strategically unwise, and it is both understandable and tragic. Read more »

A Taboo Worth Protecting

Sohail H. Hashmi and Jon Western

Some opponents of a strike in Syria contend that the norm against chemical weapons is pointless, since they generally result in far fewer fatalities than conventional arms. But chemical weapons, like nuclear and biological ones, are distressing primarily because they make discrimination between civilians and fighters impossible. Read more »

No Strike, No Problem

Richard Price

The global horror at Syria's alleged use of chemical weapons means that, even short of a strike, it would take a peculiar leader to judge that he could follow suit without risking sanctions, military attack, or loss of legitimacy and isolation. In other words, the world has already helped to reinforce the taboo on chemical weapons, and it can continue to do so through other acts of condemnation. Read more »

Responsibility to Protect—Or to Punish

Charli Carpenter

Despite diplomatic rhetoric, the goal of punishing violations of a near-universally held norm is not the same thing as the goal of protecting civilians. If the latter were really the purpose, the West would have intervened in Syria long ago. Its strategy now, moreover, would do more to take civilians into account. Read more »


Issue Guide: The Syria Crisis

Robert McMahon

The Obama administration's call for punitive strikes on Syria following reports of chemical weapons attacks that it says killed more than fourteen hundred people has prompted the most serious debate yet in U.S. policy circles about intervention. The following articles provide background and analysis on the latest phase of Syria's civil war and the potential consequences of intervention. Read more »

Backgrounder on Sarin

Zachary Laub

Sarin is among the most toxic and fast-acting chemical weapons. Developed by German scientists seeking new pesticides in the 1930s, the colorless and odorless chemical is manufactured from dual-use precursor chemicals—that is, commercially available chemicals that serve legitimate industrial uses. Read more »

Assessing the Case for Striking Syria

Stephen Biddle

In his testimony before the House Committee on Homeland Security, Stephen Biddle acknowledges that neither the case for nor against using force in Syria is without serious costs and risks. He evaluates the five main goals an attack might be designed to achieve: deterring further chemical weapons use and upholding norms against the employment of such weapons; preserving U.S. credibility; enabling a negotiated settlement to the war; toppling Assad and his government; and ending the humanitarian crisis by saving civilian lives. Read more »

Syria's Crisis and the Global Response

Zachary Laub and Jonathan Masters

An end to Syria's conflict seems unlikely in the near term, as a number of obstacles on and off the battlefield have stymied international diplomatic efforts. Read more »

The Dilemma of Humanitarian Intervention

Jayshree Bajoria and Robert McMahon

Global support for the "responsibility to protect" doctrine weakened after the UN endorsed no-fly zone that helped topple Libya's regime, and debate continues over the threshold for mounting armed humanitarian interventions. Read more »


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