by Susan Eisenhower, October 3, 2013
In transformational times, assessing and reassessing one’s basic assumptions is critical for navigating the confusing and dangerous shoals of public and foreign affairs. Like those who perpetually “fight the last war,” far too many people are inclined to view every development through the lens of their own experience. The conflict in Syria and the U.S. government shutdown may be two differing but relevant cases in point.
The United States and Russia may have agreed to a framework for identifying and destroying Syria’s chemical weapons, but for all of the difficulties associated with getting rid of this arsenal it is no longer the critical issue it once was in determining the outcome of the conflict. The nature of the opposition to Bashar al-Assad is. With a Geneva II peace conference in the works, the international community is grappling with the inherent problems of assessing and making progress with a dangerously fractured opposition.
Despite the U.S.-Russian agreement, these two countries have yet to have a full meeting of the minds on the nature of the Syrian opposition and what that means for the outcome of the civil war and the future of the region.
It appears from the outset that the United States has downplayed the growing role of al-Qaeda- linked groups among the anti-Assad opposition. Just last month, Secretary of State John Kerry said, “I just don’t agree that a majority are al-Qaeda and the bad guys. That’s not true. There are about 70,000 to 100,000 oppositionists…Maybe 15 percent to 25 percent might be in one group or another who are what we would deem to be bad guys.”
Secretary Kerry also suggested that the United States would somehow end up as the power broker were Assad to be ousted — going on to say that this would require a negotiation on who would eventually run Syria.
The Russians have been at best skeptical of American assumptions and at worst shocked by what they might describe as U.S. naiveté. Rightly or wrongly, their take on the what they regard as an opposition riddled with Islamist radicals has led them to support the Syrian government at all costs –as their way of keeping a lid on the growing extremism in that country, and the potential for it to further destabilize the region.
The differences in Russian and American perspectives on this says a lot about the way our respective cultures interpret facts—not surprisingly, largely through the lens of our own historical experiences….
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