Syria: This Could Be Good Time to Press for Ceasefire

By Ambassador Dennis Ross

Ambassador Dennis Ross is counselor and William Davidson Distinguished Fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Prior to returning to the Institute in 2011, he served two years as special assistant to President Obama and National Security Council senior director for the Central Region, and a year as special advisor to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. A scholar and diplomat with more than two decades of experience in Soviet and Middle East policy, Ambassador Ross worked closely with Secretaries of State James Baker, Warren Christopher, and Madeleine Albright. Prior to his service as special Middle East coordinator under President Clinton, Ambassador Ross served as director of the State Department's Policy Planning Staff in the first Bush administration. In that capacity, he played a prominent role in U.S. policy toward the former Soviet Union, the unification of Germany and its integration into NATO, arms control negotiations, and the 1991 Gulf War coalition. A 1970 graduate of UCLA, Ambassador Ross wrote his doctoral dissertation on Soviet decisionmaking, and from 1984 to 1986 served as executive director of the Berkeley-Stanford program on Soviet International Behavior. He received UCLA's highest medal and has been named UCLA alumnus of the year. He has also received honorary doctorates from Brandeis, Amherst, Jewish Theological Seminary, and Syracuse University. Ambassador Ross was named a 2016-2017 senior fellow by Yale University's Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. Ambassador Ross has published extensively on the former Soviet Union, arms control, and the greater Middle East, contributing numerous chapters to anthologies. In the 1970s and 1980s, his articles appeared in World Politics, Political Science Quarterly, Orbis, International Security, Survival, and Journal of Strategic Studies. Since leaving government at the end of 2011, he has authored many op-eds in the New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal.

The U.S. military launched dozens of Tomahawk missiles from two naval warships in the Mediterranean Sea at the Shayrat air base near Homs in Syria, on Thursday night. The Pentagon said the base was used by the Assad regime to store chemical weapons.

It was the kind of direct intervention in Syria’s six-year-old civil war that President Donald Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama avoided.

The Cipher Brief’s Leone Lakhani asked Ambassador Dennis Ross – Counselor at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a former senior Middle East adviser to three U.S. presidents – how this could change the balance in Syria.

The Cipher Brief: Would a strike like this change the dynamic on the ground?

The base was the one used for the chemical weapon strikes. It is unlikely to change the dynamic on the ground, but it could make Assad and, certainly the Russians, more cautious and maybe more open to a real ceasefire. Of course, they could choose to test the Administration, but that could be risky.

TCB: What message did it send to the Assad government?

If it uses chemical weapons, it pays a price. Take U.S. words seriously.

TCB: What does signal to Syria’s allies, Russia and Iran?

Dennis Ross: To the Russians and Iranians, the U.S. won’t accept the lack of limitations on Assad’s behavior. Will this mean they will impose on Assad in a way they have not until now?

This would be a good time to press for a real ceasefire in Syria, especially if it is clear the Administration will respond to violations by the regime. The Administration should be clear in its messages to Russia and Iran: “we don’t seek escalation but we will answer threats to our forces and favor getting serious about ending the war in Syria.”

Q: What should the U.S. do next?

DR: There will a general sense that the U.S. is going to live up to its responsibilities in the region. Ironically, this also makes our friends more likely to respond to our requests. 

Q: How will this be received in by traditional U.S. allies in the Middle East?

DR: [It will be received] very well by our friends, who feared we might limit our actions to rhetoric.

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