World Outlook for 2014, interview

Syria in the near term faces an immense humanitarian crisis. Some 2.3 million Syrians are now refugees who crossed the borders into neighboring countries. That's about 10 % of the population
Iran's ambassador to the IAEA Reza Najafi in Vienna .
Iran’s ambassador to the IAEA Reza Najafi in Vienna .

Interviewee: James M. Lindsay, Senior Vice President, Director of Studies, and Maurice R. Greenberg Chair at the Council on Foreign Relations and a leading authority on U.S. foreign policy
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor

Although a policy “pivot” to Asia has been one of the Obama administration’s key foreign policy initiatives, the Middle East continues to demand front-burner attention. The “number one priority” for next year will be to make permanent a six-month interim agreement between Iran and the P5+1 (the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China, and Germany) to limit Iran’s nuclear enrichment in return for reduced sanctions, says CFR’s James M. Lindsay. He fears this will not be easy to accomplish. The fallout from the continuing Syria conflict – humanitarian, political and regional – will also dominate the agenda, Lindsay says. Meanwhile, Lindsay expresses concern that, China’s new air defense zone may create an “accidental or inadvertent military escalation” in the East China Sea.

When we looked ahead for 2013 last year, you said the major issue was the Middle East—most immediately the problems in Syria, followed by Iran’s nuclear activities. The situation in Syria seems to have worsened, but there’s potentially a breakthrough with Iran. Would you like to elaborate?

The Middle East continues to present the Obama administration with a wide range of challenges. The issues look much the same as they did in 2013, but the particulars have changed somewhat. Let’s take the good news first. With the Geneva interim agreementreached with Iran in November, the administration has the opportunity to strike a broader deal on ending or severely limiting Iran’s nuclear program. And the Obama administration’s number one priority in 2014 will be to make the transition from an interim to a comprehensive agreement. But that will not be easy to do, and it may prove impossible.

Perhaps the most likely outcome is that the two sides will kick the can down the road by renewing the interim agreement. Hanging over the negotiations will be the question of what kind of new sanctions legislation emerges from Congress. Many members of Congress are unhappy with the interim agreement, or believe that they can give the administration additional bargaining leverage by imposing new, tougher sanctions on Iran. So we’ll see how that influences the course of the negotiations.

Israel has a big interest in this.

Israel has a big interest in the outcome, as does Saudi Arabia. Both counties see big risks in the warming of relations between Washington and Tehran. So the Obama administration will be feeling a lot of pressure politically and diplomatically from two of its partners in the region. But keep in mind that the discussion with Iran is not simply between the United States and Iran, but between the P5+1, the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany, and Iran. So the Obama administration is going to have to balance a lot of different pressures, concerns, interests in trying to come to an agreement. It will be a very tough negotiation.

What about the Syria conflict and its spillover?

“Syria in the near term faces an immense humanitarian crisis. Some 2.3 million Syrians are now refugees who crossed the borders into neighboring countries. That’s about 10 percent of the population.”

The Assad government looks to have stabilized its control over parts of Syria. The Free Syrian Army, which had been favored by the West, has lost out to more Islamic-minded rebel groups. Syria in the near term faces an immense humanitarian crisis. Some 2.3 million Syrians are now refugees who have crossed into neighboring countries. That’s about 10 percent of the population. Another 30 to 40 percent of the Syrian population has been internally displaced. They are likely to face very challenging conditions as we go further into the winter. There’s a shortage of fuel, food, and medicine.

Beyond that, there’s the question of what the ripple effects of the continued fighting in Syria will be for neighboring countries. We’ve begun to see Lebanon feel the stress of the fighting as Hezbollah has come to the aid of the Assad government, raising the prospect of the war spilling across borders and taking on a sectarian tone as Shiites square off against Sunnis. That could have troubling ramifications for the broader region.

Looking to Jordan, there was concern early on that it would struggle to handle the influx of refugees, and that the resulting stresses might exacerbate existing divisions in Jordanian society. So far the Jordanian government has done a reasonable job of managing the refugee issue. Still, there’s always the possibility that the size of the problem, and the difficulty of providing for the needs of Jordanian citizens and for refugees, could create political problems and destabilize the Jordanian government.

Looking to the east of Syria, we have Iraq, which has had its own stresses exacerbated by the influx of refugees and fighters coming from Syria. We’re seeing an escalation in sectarian violence as Iraq approaches its elections this spring. There’s concern that the level of violence in Iraq could jump well beyond what we saw in 2006-2007, when it led George W. Bush to order a surge of American troops that managed to restore order. There is not going to be an American response to the violence in Iraq in 2014. The question is whether and how Iraqis will contain the violence.

The UN is calling for a new conference to be held on January 22 in Montreux, Switzerland. Will it be possible to work anything out at the conference, which is supposed to include all the opposition groups and the Assad government?

The prospects for a negotiated settlement to the Syria crisis are low. The Assad government controls large parts of the country, so it feels no pressure to negotiate with its opposition. The opposition is divided. There has been conflict among the various factions. The Western-favored factions seem to be losing influence. The government in exile appears to have little influence over many of the rebel fighters, particularly those from various Islamist groups. So the most likely outcome is continued fighting, with a regrettably high loss of life, and the informal carving up of Syria into government-held territory and rebel-held territory. An estimated 125,000 Syrians have died in the fighting in the 33-month civil war, and right now the daily death toll is higher than the death toll in Iraq at the height of the sectarian violence back in 2006-2007. It is a horrifying situation, but there’s no likely diplomatic solution that’s going to work, and it’s clear neither the United States nor any other major power has an interest or desire to become involved militarily with boots on the ground in Syria.

Talking about boots on the ground, what does the future look like for Afghanistan, where U.S. troops will pull out entirely unless President Karzai signs an agreement to keep them there after 2014?

The future of Afghanistan is going to turn on whether the Karzai government agrees to a deal that keeps at least some U.S. troops in the country. If no agreement is reached in the early part of 2014, the United States will likely withdraw its forces completely. At that point, the strength of the government—now Karzai’s, but soon to be run by a new president chosen in elections slated for April 2014—will be tested. The Taliban is strong in the southern part of the country. It has not given up on its vision of returning to power, so the future of Afghanistan could be dire.

Let’s talk about the Obama administration’s pivot to Asia, which has been eclipsed by concerns with the Middle East and Iran most of this year.

“Vice President Biden during his visit to China recently did not demand revocation of the [ADIZ] but made the point that the Chinese were raising tensions and creating potential for a confrontation that would serve no one’s interests.”

Tensions in the East China Sea have risen sharply in the last several weeks in response to China’s declaration of an ADIZ [Air Defense Identification Zone] that covers areas claimed by Japan. It’s noteworthy that China instituted this with no advance notice to Japan or the United States. So Washington and Tokyo have understandably interpreted the announcement as an aggressive play. Washington in particular has pushed Beijing to think carefully what it has done. Vice President Biden during his visit to China recently did not demand revocation of the [ADIZ], but made the point that the Chinese were raising tensions and creating potential for a confrontation that would serve no one’s interests.

The real concern in the East China Sea isn’t that we’re likely to see one side or the other deliberately escalate to the use of military force. The bigger concern is the possibility for accidental or inadvertent escalation. What we have now are the Chinese and Japanese militaries operating in very close proximity. There’s the possibility that planes or ships may collide. China and Japan do not have well-developed crisis communication procedures in place, so if something bad happens, the leaders of the two countries may not be able to get on the phone to each other quickly and work things out before they escalate.

Where do you see U.S.-Russian relations heading? They have seemed to go hot and cold during Obama administration.

It’s fair to say there is no love lost between Washington and Moscow. The White House’s decision not to send any high-ranking officials to the Sochi Olympic Games in February was clearly intended to signal U.S. displeasure with Russian policies on a wide range of issues—its odious anti-gay laws, its decision to grant temporary asylum to Edward Snowden, and its continued support for the Assad government in Syria, to name a few. The snub may rankle Putin, but it’s not likely to persuade him to alter Russian policies.

Ukraine could become a major flashpoint over the next six months. Putin has made clear that he will move aggressively to keep Ukraine and other former Soviet republics closely tied to Moscow. Ordinary Ukrainians may have other plans, which could present the United States and Europe with tough choices in 2014 about whether and how to help. The complicating factor for the White House is that it wants Russia’s cooperation on critical issues like Iran and Syria. In all, the fortieth annual G8 summit meeting, which Russia will host in June, could turn out to be a strained affair.

In July, Egypt’s military ousted the country’s elected president, Mohammed Morsi. No one’s really counting on the Arab Spring now to lead to democracies throughout the Middle East.

No. Americans, because of our historical experience, tend to be optimistic about what revolutions can produce and how fast they can produce them. But if you look at revolutions in many other parts of the world, they often don’t turn out well, or they take a while to turn out well. Just think, for example, of the French Revolution and the course that it traveled. So it’s not surprising that the upheaval that swept the Arab world in 2011 hasn’t yielded more progress than it has. It may be quite some time before we see either stability or true democracy in many of the Arab countries that overthrew their governments.

One challenge for Washington going forward will be how to avoid making some of the same mistakes that administrations made before the Arab uprising, aligning themselves with governments that proved to be terribly unpopular. It’s a difficult choice, and it comes most clearly in the case of U.S. relations with Egypt. We had what was clearly a coup; an elected president was ousted. There are lots of arguments made inside and outside Egypt about why that coup was necessary and in the best interest of Egyptian democracy. Nonetheless, that presents a real challenge for an American foreign policy that has argued for the importance of preserving democracy,. Many people find it hard to understand how you have to subvert democracy in order to advance it. So this is going to be a challenge for the Obama administration and for European countries that have tried to promote democracy and human rights in the Middle East.

Council on Foreign Relations