VOA Correspondent Scott Stearns has one of the most coveted positions in Washington – covering the State Department and the complex yet intriguing realm of international diplomacy. Scott shares his observations about the Arab Spring and broader Middle East issues in his DIPLOMATIC NOTES blog. Click here for his February 2012 posts.
Republican Senator Richard Lugar says the outcome of Syria’s uprising has deep implications for the United States, Israel, and neighboring states as terrorist groups look to expand influence and settle old scores.
“In the midst of this upheaval, we know that Syria has substantial stockpiles of chemical and conventional weapons that could directly threaten peace and stability throughout the region,” Lugar told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Thursday. “Our government should be focusing intelligence and counter-proliferation assets on containing this threat.”
Democratic Senator John Kerry says he is deeply concerned about those biological and chemical weapons, and has received assurances from the Obama administration that it is “fully seized with the challenge of ensuring these stockpiles not fall into the wrong hands.”
Testifying before the Senate committee, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeff Feltman said Washington is closely monitoring those weapons and has no indication at this point that any of those stockpiles have fallen out of the control of the government of Bashar al-Assad.
Feltman says the threat posed by Syria’s chemical and biological weapons further underscores the urgency of an organized end to the Assad government, rather than a chaotic collapse of power in which control over those weapons could be lost.
Kerry says the longer the endgame in Syria, the messier the aftermath.
“The prospect of a full-fledged sectarian civil war is a stark reminder that a terrible situation could become still much worse, with potentially devastating consequences for neighbors like Israel, Lebanon, and Jordan and adverse implications for the broader Middle East,” Kerry says.
Recognizing that Washington has little direct leverage, Kerry says it is critical that the United States “proceed with extreme caution and with our eyes wide open” about supporting the Free Syrian Army.
Feltman says the Obama administration “has been very hesitant about pouring fuel onto a conflagration that Assad himself has set.” He told the committee that it is not clear at this point that further arming government opponents will save lives or lead to Assad’s fall.
“Right now the Syrian regime is using tanks and artillery against entire neighborhoods in Homs. I don’t think when you hear the Saudis and Qataris talking about arming the opposition they are talking about somehow getting tanks into the opposition,” Feltman says. “And how would the opposition know how to use them anyway?”
With limited options, Lugar says Washington should not overestimate its ability to influence what happens next.
“Further attempts by the United States or the West to closely manage the opposition could backfire in an environment where the government blames outside influences for Syria’s troubles,” Lugar says. “While not taking any options off the table, we should be extremely skeptical about actions that could commit the United States to a military intervention in Syria.”
So far, Lugar says, Assad’s opponents have not shown the organization, cohesion, or defined political agenda to offer a sustainable democratic alternative.
Deep sectarian divisions, outside influences from Iran and elsewhere, and the lack of a democratic political culture weigh heavily against the short-term emergence of a unified opposition on which to base a tolerant democracy,” he says.
Feltman says Iran’s long-standing influence in Damascus is one of the reasons members of the Arab League have taken unprecedented action against President Assad following the upheaval of the Arab Spring.
“I think Arab leaders want to show their own populations that they get it,” Feltman says. “They understand that they need to be in tune with Arab popular opinion. Part of this has to do with the competition with Iran. People know that Bashar al-Assad has made Syria a proxy for Iran.”
In the competition for future influence, Republican Senator Marco Rubio says the United States must be seen to be on the right side of history in Syria, much as it was in Libya.
“Who is going to influence the direction that Syria goes in the future?” Rubio asks. “Islamists, al-Qaeda, and others see this chaos and say that we can go in there and take advantage of this chaos and create an even better place for us to operate in.”
Appearing before the committee, U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says it is a conflict being played out in the streets of Syria.
“Every week in Syria they burn Russian flags. They burn Chinese flags. They burn Hezbollah flags. That tells you what they think,” Ford says. “We want Syria in the future to not be the malignant actor that is has been supporting terrorist groups and being the cause of a great deal of regional instability.”
The Russian and Chinese vetoes of a United Nations Security Council resolution against President Assad is what drove his opponents to last week’s Friends of Syria meeting in Tunisia
After meeting with Russian counterparts in Moscow, Feltman says he believes they share the analysis that the Assad government is not sustainable but have not yet figured out how to benefit from a change in Damascus.
Russia has had interests and influence in Syria for a long time,” Feltman says. “And it seems to us that Russia is not going to preserve those interests that Russia deems to be important if it rides the Assad/Maalouf Titanic all way to the bottom of the Mediterranean.”
Scott Stearns is VOA's State Department correspondent. He has worked as the Dakar Bureau Chief, White House correspondent, and Nairobi Bureau Chief since beginning his career as a freelance reporter in the Liberian civil war. He has written for the BBC, UPI, the Associated Press, The Jerusalem Post, and The Economist. Scott has a Bachelors and Masters in Journalism from Northwestern University.