BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States, said that, although the end of America’s involvement in a decade of war was a shift away from a “perpetual war-footing”, a glance at today’s headlines indicated the dangers that remained. The convulsions in the Middle East and North Africa had laid bare deep divisions within societies. Peaceful movements had been answered by violence — from those resisting change and from extremists trying to hijack change. Nowhere had those trends converged more powerfully than in Syria. The international community recognized the stakes, but its response had not matched the scale of the challenge. Aid could not keep pace with the suffering; a peace process was still-born; extremist groups had taken root to exploit the crisis; Assad’s traditional allies had propped him up, and, on 21 August, the regime used chemical weapons in an attack that killed more than 1,000 people, including hundreds of children.
President Obama asked: “How do we address the choice of standing callously by while children are subjected to nerve gas, or embroiling ourselves in someone else’s civil war?” As a starting point, the international community must enforce the ban on chemical weapons. When he stated his willingness to order a limited strike against the Assad regime in response, he said he “did not do so lightly”. The ban against chemical weapons had been agreed to by 98 per cent of humanity, and strengthened by the searing memories of soldiers suffocated in the trenches, Jews slaughtered in gas chambers and Iranians poisoned in the many tens of thousands. The evidence was overwhelming that the Assad regime used such weapons on 21 August. It was an insult to human reason and to United Nations’ legitimacy to suggest that anyone other than the regime had carried out that attack.
The Syrian Government, he continued, had taken a first step by giving an accounting of its stockpiles. Now was the time for a strong Security Council resolution to verify that it would keep its commitments, or face consequences if it did not. “If we cannot agree even on this, then it will show that the United Nations is incapable of enforcing the most basic of international laws.” He did not believe that military action — by those within Syria, or by external Powers — could achieve a lasting peace. Neither did he think a leader who “slaughtered his citizens and gassed children to death” could regain the legitimacy to lead a “badly fractured country”. The notion that Syria could return to a pre-war status quo was a “fantasy”, he said.
Time had come for the Russian Federation and Iran to realize that insisting on Assad’s rule would lead to the outcome they feared: an increasingly violent space for extremists to operate, he said. It was important to support the moderate opposition within Syrian. The Syrian people could not afford a collapse of State institutions, he underlined, stressing that a political settlement could not be reached without addressing the legitimate fears of Alawites and other minorities. Pursuing a settlement was “not a zero-sum endeavour”, nor did the United States have any interest in Syria beyond the well-being of its people, the stability of its neighbours, the elimination of chemical weapons and ensuring it did not become a safe haven for terrorists. As the international community moved the Geneva process forward, he urged all nations to meet humanitarian needs in Syria, and he announced a further $340 million in assistance to the country.
Outlining the United States’ policy towards the Middle East and North Africa, he said it was prepared to “use all elements of our power, including military force, to secure these core interests in the region”. It would confront external aggression against its allies and partners, as it did in the Gulf War, and ensure the free flow of energy from the region to the world. It would dismantle terrorist networks that threatened its people and work with its partners to address the root causes of terror. It would “take direct action” to defend the United States against terrorist attacks. Finally, it would not tolerate the development or use of weapons of mass destruction, and it rejected the development of nuclear weapons that could trigger a nuclear arms race in the region and undermine the global non-proliferation regime.
In the near-term, he said, American diplomatic efforts would focus on two key issues: Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, and the Arab-Israeli conflict. While those issues were not the cause of all of the region’s problems, they had been a major source of instability for far too long and resolving them could serve as a foundation for a broader peace. The United States and Iran had been isolated from each other since 1979, and he did not think “this difficult history can be overcome overnight — the suspicion runs too deep”. Although the United States preferred to resolve its concerns over Iran’s nuclear programme peacefully, it was determined to prevent that country from developing a nuclear weapon. The Supreme Leader had issued a fatwa against the development of nuclear weapons, and President Hassan Rouhani has just reiterated that Iran would never develop a nuclear weapon. He would direct United States Secretary of State John Kerry to pursue that effort with the Iranian Government.
He reiterated that the United States would never compromise its commitment to Israel’s security nor support for its existence as a Jewish State. Israeli and Palestinian leaders had recently demonstrated a willingness to take significant political risks, with current talks focused on final status issues of borders and security, refugees and Jerusalem. Israel’s security as a Jewish and democratic State depended on the establishment and stability of a Palestinian State. All sides must recognize that peace was a powerful tool to defeat extremists. Moreover, ties of trade and commerce between Israelis and Arabs could be an engine of growth and opportunity at a time when too many young people in the region were languishing without work. “The time is now ripe for the entire international community to get behind the pursuit of peace,” he urged.
On the Arab Spring, he said that, when peaceful transition towards democracy had begun in Egypt and Tunisia, the world had been filled with hope. However, over the last few years, particularly in Egypt, the world had witnessed how difficult a transition to democracy and openness truly was. The United States would continue its constructive relationship in Egypt and would reject the notion that democratic principles were simply Western exports incompatible with Islam. Promoting peace was the task of a generation, he said, adding that the sectarian violence in Bahrain, Iraq and Syria must be addressed by the peoples of those nations.
Although the United States had a “hard-earned humility”, the danger for the world was not an America that was too eager to immerse itself in the affairs of other countries, but that, after a decade of war — rightly concerned about issues back home and aware of the hostility that its engagement in the region had engendered throughout the Muslim world — might disengage, thereby creating a vacuum of leadership no other nation was ready to fill. Different nations would not agree on the need for action in every instance, and while the principle of sovereignty was at the centre of our international order, it “cannot be a shield for tyrants to commit wanton murder, or an excuse for the international community to turn a blind eye to slaughter”.
“If we don’t want to choose between inaction and war, we must get better — all of us — at the policies that prevent the breakdown of basic order,” he said. Through respect for the responsibilities of nations and the rights of individuals; through meaningful sanctions for those who break the rules; through dogged diplomacy that resolves the root causes of conflict and not merely its aftermath; and through development assistance that brings hope to the marginalized. Sometimes, all that would not be enough and, in such moments, the international community would need to acknowledge that the multilateral use of military force might be required to prevent the very worst from occurring.