For the last 19 years, Edward P. Djerejian has been the founding director of the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University. Before that, he spent much of his life serving eight administrations as a diplomat, with most of that time spent in the Middle East. He has served as the U.S. ambassador to Syria and Israel. Late last week, as President Barack Obama tried to convince Congress of the need for a military strike against Syria, Djerejian discussed the ongoing crisis with Chronicle reporter Mike Tolson.
Q: Is (President Barack) Obama right in pushing for a military response to Syria's apparent use of chemical weapons?
A: There is no military solution to the Syrian crisis. There can only be a political solution. Any military action that the U.S., and whoever joins the effort, must be part of an overall political strategy. In other words, what happens the day after the military strikes? If the action is wedded to a coherent political strategy that could lead to a political transition in Syria toward a post-Assad era, that could be justifiable. If it's only punitive, then it's truly very limited. And I'm not too sure what that impact could have, except that it would lay down a marker that any government or group or sub-national group, like a terrorist organization, that uses chemical weapons, there's a price to pay.
Q: Why would Bashar Assad have authorized the use of chemical weapons?
A: Obviously I'm not privy to intelligence, so I don't know. Obviously, the Syrian government has this capability. We've known that for years. They have a serious chemical weapons/biological weapons program, which was originally built by his father to be a deterrent against Israel. Who pressed the button? I don't know. There are mixed reports that the military made that decision. But I can't believe that the decision would have been made without Assad's approval. The other report that's out there is that they may have panicked because the opposition was making inroads into some very important suburbs in Damascus. I can't verify any of this, but this is the supposition.
Q: Is it possible that this was a calculated decision designed to deflate the opposition if no one is willing to come to their assistance even after such a weapon was used?
A: That could be factor in his mind. But it's hard to get into his mind. You know, having dealt with his father when I was ambassador, Hafez Assad was a strategic thinker. He knew what the red lines were - vis-...-vis Israel, vis-...-vis his neighbors. Bashar has been more risk-prone, for example trying to build a nuclear reactor capability, which the Israelis took out. As for the use of chemical weapons, it's his government, so ultimately he's responsible. What gives me unease is that he's not the strategic thinker his father was, so it makes it more difficult to deal with him.
Q:Though it may be a moot point, had his father still been in charge, would the current chaos be gripping Syria?
A: I don't think so. His father would not have let the situation devolve to the point where the power structure that he so carefully put into place would be so jeopardized and made so vulnerable. There would have been more scope for negotiations to take place. … With the father, we negotiated a number of very contentious issues but did it successfully: ending the civil war in Lebanon, getting Assad to join the U.S.- led coalition in Desert Storm both politically and militarily, getting freedom of travel for Syrian Jews, getting the Madrid peace conference going. We negotiated … the release of American hostages in Beirut that were in the hands of Hezbollah. I just feel that if the father had been in power he would not have let the situation deteriorate to the point where it has.
Q: We keep hearing that Assad intends to fight to the death, that he will never agree to give up power. Do you think this is likely?
A: There is some truth to that. But I think we should be … looking to 2014 when the presidential elections are scheduled in Syria. Assad has always mentioned those elections. What the international community should be doing is enhancing the prospects for a political transition to take place no later than 2014. At least that's a strategy that should be tried. At the end of the day, he and his small clique may want to go under - close the barricades, fight to the end - but at least there should be a political option out there. I'm not a military expert to tell you exactly what the military strike should look like. But certain capabilities could be degraded that would have the rulers in Damascus think twice about what the prospects of an endless war should be.
Q: Does Russia have a significant tole to play in resolving the crisis? Will its president, Vladimir Putin, be willing to work with us?
A: At the end of the day, we should be in a strategic dialog with Russia on this, because Russia's role is key. Putin has a very primary interest, first because of the historic Russia-Syria relationship politically, militarily and economically that dates back to the 1950s. The second thing in Putin's mind, which I think is one of his primary considerations, is that he is extremely worried about the rise of Islamic radicalism on Russia's southern borders. If Islamic radicals took over (Syria), that could be another threat that could exacerbate the internal problems he has in Chechnya, in Dagestan and elsewhere, because Russia has an important Muslim population.
Q: There seems to be a strong isolationist current among many in Congress and much of the American public. How does that complicate any solution?
A: There is war weariness on the part of the American public because of our long involvement in Afghanistan, our long involvement in Iraq and our engagement in Libya. We have spent a great deal of blood and treasure since 2001 in the Middle East. Public opinion is adverse to this type of engagement being repeated, and for cause. There's no question in my mind when we went in Afghanistan after 2001, that was a just war. But when you look at the end results, they are very mixed to say the least. American public opinion is that this is enough - we've been there, we've tried, it hasn't worked, let's not get involved again. But it does matter, and that's where presidential leadership is tested - whether the president of the U.S. can convince the American public opinion that the stakes are high enough that the U.S. must be involved. And that is what President Obama is facing today.