The United States, Russia, China, France and Britain reached a UN Security Council resolution this week to compel Syria to relinquish its chemical weapons stock after government forces reportedly used sarin gas on civilians in an August 21 strike. Still, international tensions remain high as uncertainty lingers over how the U.S. and Russia, the central brokers of the agreement, will enforce the resolution.
Aaron David Miller, vice president for new initiatives at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, has been writing and thinking about the Middle East since the late 1970s. The author of four books, Miller has served as an advisor to six Secretaries of State in Arab-Israeli peace negotiations.
He joined the Washington, D.C.-based Wilson Center in 2006 and talked to Moment editor Nadine Epstein recently about what the diplomatic struggle between Russia and the United States over the Syrian civil war means for neighboring Israel’s security.
Q: Russian President Vladimir Putin proposal that President Bashar al-Assad hand over Syria’s chemical weapons seemed to give Putin the moral high ground over U.S. President Barack Obama, who had been calling for a limited military strike against the regime. But was there a clear winner in this diplomatic standoff? What about Israel?
A: Common sense and rationality was the biggest winner of all because however imperfect this deal is it is much better than the limited military strike, which would make the U.S. a combatant in a civil war it can’t possibly end.
Obama was a winner, with an asterisk, because he understood that and – backed up by public opinion and Congress and much of the international community – he had zero support for a limited strike. Putin was the biggest winner of all because he inserted himself at just the right moment. Woody Allen said, “Ninety percent of life is just showing up.” He is wrong because ninety percent of life is showing up at the right time. And Putin showed up at the right time. So he’s a winner.
I think the Israelis have won because if, in fact, the bulk of chemical assets were put beyond al-Assad’s use and the use of the jihadis and [Iran- and Syria-backed] Hezbollah, one of the several problems they fear in Lebanon will go away. The Israelis don’t think they’re winners because they believe that what they perceive to be American weakness sent an unmistakable signal to Iran and that what was witnessed here in Congress sends the signal to Tehran that the American public will not take military action against anybody anymore.
Q: Do you really think Israelis treat the Syria question the same as they do Iran?
A: I think they’re different questions, different contexts. And I think the debate in Congress would have been much different had we been debating Iran having crossed the nuclear threshold. But Jews worry for a living because their history impels them to do so and I don’t trivialize these concerns at all.
Read more of this interview in Moment‘s upcoming November-December issue.