• Familiar territory
    September 16,2013

    The accord reached in Geneva last week by Secretary of State John Kerry and Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, to end the chemical weapons crisis in Syria gives most of us a reason to finally feel optimistic about the volatile situation in Damascus.

    But, as welcome as the agreement may be, it is clouded not just by the facts on the ground in Syria — the rebels, for example, feel betrayed — but also by the inescapable facts of history.

    In 1918, the world breathed a collective sigh of relief as “the war to end war” concluded. Years later, the peace treaty signed in the aftermath of that war continues to negatively affect international relations in many ways.

    And in 1938, there was collective, if cautious, celebration when Britain’s Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain proudly proclaimed “peace in our time” after meeting with Hitler. A year later, Germany invaded Poland and World War II was under way.

    In 1945, there was a similar sense of relief when the so-called Axis powers — Germany, Italy and Japan — were soundly defeated by the United States, Great Britain and their allies, although one huge price that was paid for that victory, and that in some ways is still being paid, was the introduction of atomic weapons.

    Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union were united in their determination to defeat Hitler. A great deal of American weapons were shipped in dangerous convoys (85 merchant vessels were sunk en route to the Soviet ports of Murmansk and Archangel) to aid Stalin’s war effort in the east.

    But almost immediately the Americans and British found themselves immersed in a “cold war” with the Soviet Union and, among other crises, that led to the tense confrontation with Moscow over its decision to send missiles to Fidel Castro that the Cuban dictator could easily use in an attack on the United States.

    One final reference to relevant history: In 1989, the Soviet Union collapsed and the Cold War was finally over. This led to the largest reorganization of nations since at least 1848, and it also led to new dreams of world peace. But the dreams didn’t last long.

    So now, while Egypt, Libya, Nigeria and other parts of Africa are torn by bitter feuds — many (if not all) of them tribal or religious in nature — and as Iraq implodes, the most attention is being paid to Syria. And there has been applause for Russia’s surprise role in attempting to bring a peaceful solution to a seemingly intractable conflict.

    But listen to the Syrian rebels: A spokesman for the rebel military council in Damascus declared that with the Geneva agreement “the regime gained a victory.” Why? Because, he said, the Assad regime “now believes that the whole international community can’t punish it or stop it, so it will do it all.”

    And Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center, agreed, saying that Assad likely will take advantage of the window before the Geneva agreement’s mid-2014 deadline to destroy its stockpiles of chemical weapons in an attempt to stamp out rebel forces.

    “Assad will be a fairly confident guy today, and if he’s sincere about the plan, there’s potentially a lot of political gain for him,” Shaikh said. “He’s certainly likely to feel victorious, there is no credible threat of the use of force on the table anymore, which is the thing he fears the most.”

    Yet for most of us, the Kerry-Lavrov meeting brought optimism and relief. The problem: We’ve been there before.

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