Peter Galbraith, Ex-Diplomat and Vermont State Senator, Says Syrian Strikes Are a Mistake | Off Message

Peter Galbraith, Ex-Diplomat and Vermont State Senator, Says Syrian Strikes Are a Mistake

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The Vermont politician with arguably the most diplomatic experience in the Middle East won't have a chance to vote this week on whether the U.S. should strike Syria.

That's because former ambassador and veteran diplomat Peter Galbraith now serves in Vermont's state senate, whose foreign policy jurisdiction ends at the New Hampshire border.

But if he could vote, Galbraith says, he'd oppose President Obama's proposed strikes.

"We should not, because the airstrikes won't accomplish anything," Galbraith says. "They are not going to degrade the Syrian government's ability to use the weapons. They are not going to change the military balance. So they're really about making a statement, and that's not, in my view, an appropriate use of military force."

Galbraith knows a thing or two about chemical weapons. Twenty-five years ago this month, while serving on the staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Galbraith traveled to the Iraqi-Turkish border, where he uncovered evidence of Saddam Hussein's gassing of the Kurds. That discovery led to Senate passage of the "Prevention of Genocide Act of 1988," which Galbraith credits with prompting Hussein to halt his use of chemical weapons.

He subsequently served as the U.S. ambassador to Croatia and in United Nations posts in East Timor and Afghanistan. During the Iraq war, Galbraith worked closely with that country's Kurdish minority as it sought greater autonomy in a post-Hussein Iraq.

It's the plight of the Kurds, who make up roughly 11 percent of Syria's population, and that of the country's other minority populations — Alawites and Christians each make up another 11 percent of Syria's population — that most concerns Galbraith. For the past year, he says, he's been working with a non-governmental organization to prepare those three minority groups for negotiations leading to a post-Bashar al-Assad Syria. Galbraith won't disclose the name of the NGA with whom he's working.

As he wrote in a Los Angeles Times op-ed published Sunday, Galbraith worries that the majority Sunni rebels who have thus far led the anti-Assad insurgency have been "unable to win significant support from the country's ethnic and religious minorities." Were the Assad regime to fall, Galbraith wrote, the president's fellow Alawites "know they face a likely genocide."

With that in mind, Galbraith argues:

[T]he United States should be cautious about a strategy involving military support, including airstrikes and arms supplies, to a Syrian opposition that has neither the ability nor the inclination to reach out to Syria's minorities. Such a strategy is not likely to succeed and, more important, we may not want it to succeed.

And that's not the only problem with Obama's plan, Galbraith says. Striking Syria would likely enrage its greatest ally in the region, Iran, which "could torpedo our ability to negotiate a nuclear compromise" with the latter country. Those negotiations have taken a promising turn since the moderate cleric Hassan Rouhani assumed Iran's presidency last month.

"A U.S. attack on Iran's ally, Syria, could make it difficult for these negotiations to proceed," Galbraith says.

Lastly, Galbraith argues, it would be a mistake for the U.S. to act without the support of the international community — most especially that of the United Nations. 

"President Obama campaigned on the notion that we would respect international law," Galbraith says. "He's frankly sounding an awful lot like President Bush in 2003."

Galbraith hastens to add that Obama's proposed airstrikes fall far short of Bush's invasion of Iraq, but as he told National Public Radio's Jacki Lyden over the weekend, a more appropriate course of action would be to seek a stern warning from the U.N:

I would guess that if the Obama administration went to the U.N. with a resolution that said there'd be serious consequences for any further use of chemical weapons that the Russians and the Chinese would go along, precisely because they would prefer that resolution and a warning to U.S. military strikes.

Galbraith says he's advised several members of Congress in advance of this week's vote, including one of Vermont's three delegates, though he declined to say which one.

And though he disagrees with many in the administration with whom he's worked closely over the years — including Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State John Kerry and U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power — Galbraith says the dilemma is not the end of the world.

"It's possible to overstate the significance of this. It's not like they're going out and invading Syria. It's not like they're invading Iraq," he says. "So regardless of how the vote turns out and what action takes place, a few weeks later it will be a past event and the United States will move on and Obama will move on. So I don't think in any way think it's make or break."

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