Sarin in Syria: what standard of proof?

Damsascus

Damascus. Photo Credit: Flickr/sharnik.

By Mark Fitzpatrick, Director, Non-proliferation and Disarmament Programme

Yesterday US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said it was likely that chemical weapons (CW) had been used on a ‘small scale’ in Syria. President Obama claimed in August that the use of CW in Syria would change his calculus on US intervention, but the intelligence must be examined carefully to assess whether his ‘red line’ on CW has actually been crossed.

On Thursday, the White House said that although it was likely the nerve gas sarin had been used, the evidence was still too thin and that it needed ‘credible and corroborated facts’. President Obama is being pilloried in some quarters for not following through on his earlier red line. But after the misuse of intelligence to justify an invasion of Iraq ten years ago, the bar for concluding that Assad used chemical weapons must naturally be set high. The standard of evidence should meet at least three conditions: clear-cut evidence of use, meaningful quantity, and purposefulness.

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Managing risks in cyber warfare

Navy Cyber Defense Operations Command, Watchfloor
By Dr William Choong, Shangri-La Dialogue Senior Fellow for Asia-Pacific Security

It is a nondescript 12-storey building in Shanghai, but its alleged exploits in cyber hacking into American-based computers has put it at the centre of intensified tensions between China and the United States.

The alleged intrusions by China-based hackers are not entirely new. In past years, the Pentagon and Google have alleged that Chinese hackers had broken into their networks. In 2011, it was alleged that Operation Shady RAT had targeted more than 70 organisations over five years. This included the United Nations, government agencies in the US, Canada, South Korea, Taiwan and Vietnam.

But the mounting evidence of China’s support for the hacking and the growing threat posed to US infrastructure, if proven to be true, would represent an emerging Chinese way of war that is truly worrying.

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Pushing for US-Russia ‘reset 2.0’

06 02 13-010

By Alexa van Sickle, Assistant editor

The US ‘reset’ towards Russia during the first Obama administration had created ‘dividends for European security’, the IISS’s new senior fellow for Russia and Eurasia told an audience in London this week – even if this positive effect was underappreciated. However, relations with Russia in Obama’s second term would be complicated by Vladimir Putin’s recent return to the presidency and Putin’s less apparent warmth towards Washington than predecessor Dmitry Medvedev.

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Forward? Barack Obama’s second term

By Chris Raggett, Assistant editor

Although foreign policy played a small role in the US presidential campaign late last year, the way Barack Obama handles Iran before 2016 could determine how the president goes down in history. So argues Mark Fitzpatrick, the director of the IISS’s non-proliferation programme, speaking at a discussion meeting last week about Obama’s upcoming second term.

Over the weekend, Iran signalled it might return in late February to talks with the international community over its disputed nuclear programme. However, the country has also recently notified the UN nuclear watchdog, the IAEA, that it will be installing new, more efficient centrifuges at its uranium-enrichment facility at Natanz. This would dramatically shorten the time it would take Tehran to ‘break-out’ and make a nuclear bomb after expelling IAEA inspectors. Fitzpatrick, who believes there is the chance that some sort of military action ‘may come into play’ in the next four years to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, has said the installation of new centrifuges would be a ‘game changer‘.

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Myanmar ‘delivers’ nuclear transparency

President Barack Obama tours the Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon, Burma. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

By Mark Fitzpatrick, Director, Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme

In the run-up to presidential visits aides look for achievements that can be announced, typically agreements on trade and the like. Called ‘deliverables’ in the diplomatic argot, they are often the currency of exchange for deciding on travel destinations.

So when it was announced that US President Barack Obama would include Burma in his mid-November trip to Southeast Asia, there were concerns and questions, including from Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, about whether Myanmar deserved the honour. What ‘deliverable’ would warrant bestowing a presidential visit on a country that had not yet fully emerged from its decades of authoritarianism and human-rights abuses?

But as it turned out, the quid pro quo for Obama’s visit was significant indeed. To the delight of the
non-proliferation community, Myanmar said it would accept the global standard for nuclear inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), known by the catchy name of the ‘Additional Protocol’.

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Obama’s second chance at Prague nuke agenda

By Mark Fitzpatrick, Director, Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme

The US electorate has spoken, and most of the international diplomats, academics, and others with whom I spoke on the day after our presidential election on 6 November breathed a sigh of relief that the stewardship of the world’s (still) sole superpower will remain in safe hands for another four years. The rest of the world famously backed Barack Obama, so while much of the satisfaction I heard about the Democrat’s re-election pertained particularly to the nuclear-policy matters being addressed in my various meetings, I also found myself, as an American citizen abroad, congratulated more broadly.

The election turned on domestic issues, and even the presidential debate that was supposed to be dedicated to foreign policy pivoted back to the American economy and education system. Nevertheless, the question that I have been asked most is how Obama will use his renewed lease on the White House to address global issues. In my area of specialisation on arms control and non-proliferation, everyone agrees there is much to be done. Unfortunately, there seems little scope for Obama to do it. And, of course, Iran looms large on his agenda.

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Romney’s Italian Job

Mitt Romney

By Guest Blogger Giacomo Tagiuri

In the final days of the US election campaign, my home country of Italy has stepped into a cameo role. It is, to be sure, the role of a villain. Republican candidate Mitt Romney has invoked Italy as the kind of bad example that America should do everything possible to avoid. Even so, as an Italian accustomed to a diminishing presence in the international debate, I have been amused and even a little proud.

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