Center for Strategic and International Studies Hosts Discussion on Iran, Turkey, and Russia

by Ryan Sanford Smith

This past week the Center of Strategic and International Studies, a public policy research institute headquartered in D.C., hosted an in-depth discussion on the state of affairs surrounding the United States, Turkey, Iran, and Russia. The eminently knowledgable panel consisted of two former presidential national security advisors: Brent Snowcraft, who served under both Gerald Ford as well as George H. W. Bush and Zbigniew Brzezinski, who served under the Carter administration.

The men more or less shared common ground on most of the discussion points, and the escalating tensions with Iran and Syria came into the conversation often, as one might have expected. There was some bit of discussion on the often mysterious and always strange Putin’s Russia, but most of the compelling facets of Russia’s geopolitical place seemed to consist of Russia’s seemingly unflinching alignment with  China in resistance to essentially anything the US attempts to rouse NATO to do, particularly in regards to especially harsh sanctions and humanitarian intervention measures (see: Libya et al).

Both men agreed that Turkey’s growing confidence in their own independence is generally a good thing for the West, because while such an increasing degree of independent separation might make the West a bit uneasy, it’s all a direct result of qualities we’ve been pushing in Turkey for so long, namely democratization and a more intense pursuit of modernity. Turkey’s alignment, for lack of a better term, is still much in our favor–riled in no small part by recent firings across its border by pro-government Syrian forces aiming at a refugee camp–the Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has joined his voice with those that call for nothing less than for al-Assad to step down immediately. Brzezinski emphasized that further troubles in Syria as well as the potential for violent conflict in Iran are the most severe threats Turkey’s increasingly modern, Western-friendly government faces.

Brzezinski proceeded at length to distill the palpable contrast as he saw it between the Libyan uprising and the bursts of Syrian violence seen throughout the last year, citing the thinly spread and fractured nature of the Syrian opposition as the biggest obstacle to the relatively easy and clean intervention that was effected in Libya, where the metaphorical battle lines were more clearly delineated and the rebel forces more numerous, organized, and armed from the beginning.

Despite continually alarming reports of civilian massacres and other human-rights violations being perpetrated daily, even now as the country labors under a feebly held ceasefire, both men urged caution in more direct intervention in Syria as they viewed it as a quagmire in the making that would clearly further destabilize the region.

They took much the same tact in regards to Iran, and it was clear to your faithful correspondent that whatever the humanitarian climate in Syria or perceived threat of a nuclear Iran may be, that the US in particular would be best served by a softer hand in dealing with them. Snowcraft made the obvious point that China and Russia continue to be resistant to UN votes that implicitly or otherwise set a path in such troubled states toward regime change because regime change as an abstract is a threat to both of them at home, if only slightly so by comparison. He wondered aloud what the situation would look like if they supported such measures and then at some point China were to face a genuine uprising in Tibet, an uprising it would no doubt put down swiftly and harshly.

Both men again agreed that the Chinese ‘hands-off’ approach to Syria in particular is the more prudent model amidst these tensions, and while I do think they are astute to contrast situations like those of Libya and Syria, they’re engaging in a kind of moral and political calculus and are quitting the whole process just because the Syrian equations is notably more difficult than what Libya presented. Syria is already a quagmire, and regime change seems rather inevitable at this point. I understand the scope of the risks involved–that encouraging instability as an unavoidable byproduct of intervention could cause other situations to escalate dramatically and cause untold numbers of civilian casualties–but that only suggests tremendous discretion, planning, transparency, and basically everything that went missing in so many other recent US interventions. The Syrian people still need help that only the West can feasibly provide, and one couldn’t ask for a more just cause. President Barack Obama has stated in moving terms that wherever innocent people  cry out for help and support in moving their country away from violent autocrats like Assad, that the US stands with them. We should stand more firmly with Syria, but we absolutely should do it as intelligently as possible. There may be no way to effectively intervene with any kind of military presence in Syria, but it seems a bit early to make that judgment–these two men want to brush it away without due consideration. Snowcraft seems to sidestep the obvious point that China’s hands-off approach is seemingly inspired far less by some more sophisticated statecraft than it is by its own troubles at home with human-rights violations and unrest, however quietly it is wrangled from within.

Brzezinski takes more or less the same line in regards to Iran, seeming a bit sympathetic in saying that while it’s fair to hold Iran accountable along the lines of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, that the US is strangling Iran towards an end that is needlessly humiliating, ‘putting Iran in a cage’, to use his phrase. He emphasizes Iran’s long and prideful political history in this regard, but I didn’t feel he gave adequate acknowledgement to just how responsible Iran has been in bringing such harsh dealings on their own shoulders with the kind of rhetoric and action they’ve been flaunting in front of the UN’s face for years now.

Overall, these two men hold a great deal of experience and expertise between them–it feels difficult to critique their suggestions too harshly, but I simply couldn’t shake the feeling that they had relaxed too far away from the kind of urgent action needed, particularly in Syria. Like the US citizenry, they seem dogged by the mere mention of intervention, having grown tired and wounded as we all have by more than a decade now of military engagement in the Middle East. The American public has become as weary and cynical toward such measures as any time in contemporary politics that I can recall. But having made mistakes, wouldn’t it be better to learn from where we’ve made such grave errors, also acknowledging the success of the Libyan project? Watch the brutal videos recorded by immensely brave citizen journalists in Syrian funeral crowds being fired upon by pro-Assad forces; read the dispatches of the journalists that have been killed there, often almost explicitly with intention. We shouldn’t rush a single step of the process of intervention, but the UN should be ashamed as it continues to duck what is a necessary, justified engagement. We might be tired of such fights, but  those on the other side are absolutely not done with us and we can’t let them off so easily.