By William Choong, Shangri-La Dialogue Senior Fellow for Asia-Pacific Security
Under sunny skies, the USS Freedom – the US Navy’s newest littoral combat ship (LCS) – cut a sleek silhouette as it approached Changi Naval Base last week. The warship’s arrival marked the start of an eight-month deployment to southeast Asia. Under a Singapore-United States agreement, up to four of these ships will be put on rotational deployments through Singapore.
Speaking to reporters on the deck of the USS Freedom last Thursday, US Ambassador to Singapore David Adelman said the arrival of the ship marked a ‘new chapter’ for the US Navy in the Asia-Pacific.
Indeed, the deployment of the LCS – together with the move of 60% of the US Navy’s assets to the Pacific and the deployment of 2,500 US Marines in Australia – forms part of America’s much-heralded ‘pivot’ or ‘rebalance’ to Asia.
Dina Esfandiary, Research Associate and Project Coordinator of the IISS Non-proliferation and Disarmament Programme, has an article in The Diplomat analysing recent claims of chemical-weapons use in Syria.
Syria’s state news agency, SANA, made the first allegations on Tuesday when it broadcast pictures of alleged chemical-weapons victims having difficulty breathing and foaming at the mouth, in what it reported was the result of a ‘terrorist’ rocket attack near Aleppo. The Russian Foreign Ministry then released a statement confirming the opposition’s use of chemical weapons, but presented no evidence to support this claim. An opposition commander also said he had heard secondhand reports that victims were having respiratory problems in response to a chemical attack, but he said the regime was responsible.
What we actually know is patchy, says Esfandiary. Despite ‘proof’ from both sides in the form of photos and videos, there is nothing that shows the attack site, and no indication that any of the victims’ symptoms match those that would result from exposure to mustard gas, Sarin or VX – Syria’s alleged chemical-weapons arsenal – which would have more devastating effects than those reported.
If the use of chemical weapons is confirmed, it could change the character of the conflict because the US and the international community would be pressured to intervene, explains Esfandiary. The US and Europe are therefore rightly proceeding with caution. ‘But if anything, this event reiterates how little is known about the situation on the ground in Syria,’ Esfandiary argues. When the West can be sure of so little, perhaps the real debate should be whether or not it should be arming the rebels.
‘Historical analogies are often perilous and they are always inexact,’ IISS Senior Fellow for US Foreign Policy and Transatlantic Affairs Dr Dana Allin admitted, when posing a question to Australian MP and former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd (above) during the Fifth Plenary Session at the recent Manama Dialogue. Nevertheless, Allin continued, ‘I have long been intrigued by some parallels between the challenges facing the Obama administration and those that faced the Nixon administration 40 years ago.’ He ticked off a list: a war-weary American public; an economic crisis; a political crisis (although ‘largely self‑inflicted by the Nixon administration and I do not think you can say the same thing about the Obama administration’); a major Middle East crisis; and the view that figuring out a relationship with China was vital.
How could America make a difference, he wondered. Was more energetic diplomacy going to be enough?
Rudd responded that he also saw ‘extraordinary parallels with the Nixon period’, partly because he was a keen China watcher. He said he had spoken to President Richard Nixon’s Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, ‘a lot’ about dealing with the major challenges that American administration faced.
In this latest post by one of the ‘Young Strategists’ attending the Manama Dialogue, Jean-Loup Samaan, a researcher for the NATO Defense College, looks at US engagement in the Gulf through the prism of a Cold War concept.
Although Syria was undoubtedly the biggest issue on the agenda of the 2012 Manama Dialogue, another one was in the air: the seeming erosion of US leadership in international affairs in general and in the Gulf in particular.
Much press attention at this year’s Manama Dialogue will focus inevitably on the conflict in Syria and other consequences of the Arab Spring. But a set of other core issues also remain, including the threat perceptions of regional states, and Iran’s place in these calculations. Regional states, and international partners such as the US, remain concerned by Iran’s continuing drive to improve its ballistic missile capabilities, amidst international preoccupation with Tehran’s nuclear programme. Given these uncertainties, the development of regional military capabilities will likely figure high in delegates’ conversations Read the rest of this entry »
‘The first step is to accept that nothing is clear in Syria’ says IISS Research Associate Dina Esfandiary in a new piece for the The Diplomat on the possibility that the regime might be preparing chemical weapons for use against rebel forces.
‘Given the latest developments in Syria, fear that Assad will resort to these weapons is not unreasonable. Pressure must be mounting for Syria’s ruler, as the rebels advance and his army proves increasingly unable to push them back. Logic dictates that if Assad truly fears for his survival, then the use of his most potent weapon may not be so far-fetched.’
However, she cautions: ‘We should measure our alarm. A reckless assumption that Assad will use chemical weapons could get us in all sorts of trouble – remember what happened in Iraq?’
There are only two ways the world can respond right now she concludes: preparation in case of the worst and ‘establishing unequivocal clear red lines’ to deter any use of chemical weapons.
The IISS’s Suvi Dogra has a piece in the Financial Express today looking at the United States’ wish for closer engagement with countries around the Indian Ocean. She reports that Washington has asked to become more closely involved with the 19-member Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Co-operation (IOR-ARC). The move seems to be part of the US’ renewed engagement with Asia and the Indian Ocean, but it also underlines the IOC-ARC’s growing relevance in the region, where it could play a key role not only in trade and economic cooperation, but in security matters.
The IOR-ARC, launched in 1997 as an international organisation focusing on regional trade cooperation and development, began its 12th Council of Ministers meeting today in Gurgaon, India, where it will consider the US request, among other issues such as trade in the food processing industry and piracy in the Indian Ocean.
The US’ request to become a ‘dialogue partner’ is likely to be approved, even though Iran is part of the association and is expected to oppose it. News reports suggest that India welcomes the move, while the US will find strong endorsements for its request from African member states, as well as from other Indian Ocean states such as Australia, Singapore and Indonesia. The IOR-ARC already has five dialogue partners – China, Japan, Egypt, France and the UK – who sit in on open discussions but are not part of the body’s decision-making.
Read the full article.