Syria 2013 – Crisis or Diplomatic Opportunity?

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The crisis in Syria has its roots in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, but U.S. and Russian diplomats seem to be turning towards solutions once again.

View of Apamea ruins
View of Apamea ruins in Syria

The world sits at the verge of its destruction. Russia and the U.S. are in a deadlock, and each country’s nuclear arsenal is more than capable of unleashing a devastating blow to the other side. The world waits with drawn breath as the first strike seems imminent, while the rhetoric at the international level is doing nothing but increasing tensions further. This might describe the geopolitical situation surrounding Syria right now. However, we’ve been here before.

A similar level of tensions and the cool front seen in the relations between the U.S. and Russia occurred before — and there was even a threat of World War III playing out, which would spell the end of mankind on the face of the earth. The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 was the threat that the world confronted in the past, and modern-day Syria seems to be a sort of sequel to that event. But a closer analysis shows that the crisis back then was far more serious than the present Syrian situation and the avoidance of nuclear confrontation back then came to be seen as a stellar achievement for U.S./Russia diplomats.

October 1962 manifested the height of paranoia between the two superpowers. With spies being sent over borders and overflights being carried out with new advanced technology, there was a constant need to know what the other side was planning. The feeling of being ‘in the know’ combined with the lack of information available, only fueled the high level of suspicion that existed in the 1960’s. There had been proxy hot wars fought by the two countries in Korea, but the Cuban Missile Crisis was the first time that the Cold War could realistically escalate to a full-on nuclear war.

The first move was made by Russia. Communist Cuba had just started to gain significance and was flexing its muscle and it seemed the perfect time for Nikita Khrushchev to park some Soviet nuclear weapons 40 miles from Florida. The move was portrayed as a power play by Russia to up the ante in the region and show the U.S. that it could upgrade its attack capabilities. With nuclear weapons just off the coast, Russia could hit the U.S. before the U.S. could defend itself.

The White House woke up to Keyhole KH-11 satellite pictures of Soviet ships heading towards Cuba with crates of nuclear-tipped missiles on the decks, and a rhetorical war began. The U.S. knew it had to show its strength and resolve in the face of crisis. The to and fro from both quarters escalated tensions day by day, and soon the use of nuclear weapons became more of a question of when — rather than if.

The looming missile strike was so expected, that nuclear drills were carried out in U.S. and Canadian schools and offices in order to minimize the predicted civilian casualties caused by a nuclear exchange. But, cooler heads prevailed, partly because of the utter finality of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), the crisis was averted and letters between President Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev show how close the two came to pressing the button.

The same can be seen in Syria today where there is a sense of imminence about an American strike on Syria and the tone from Russia has been confrontational. A week back, there was a real concern that U.S. would bomb Syria — with or without a UN resolution — and with Russia backing Assad’s regime, a full blown conflict could emerge.

But the latest news out of Syria, Russia, and the U.S., shows that a sense that rational thought has finally emerged. The prisoner’s dilemma shows that there is just too much too lose, with very little to gain, and just as in the past, I think the threat of Mutually Assured Destruction will lead to some sort of compromise being reached.

Syria has allowed its chemical weapons to be inspected and the international community has asked Syria to hand over its chemical weapon supply. With Russia leading the negotiations, Syria is getting an indirect seat at the table and with everyone getting a voice in the argument; the geopolitical portion of the Syrian crisis will hopefully be averted. That being said, there should still be some sort of ongoing effort by the UN and regional powers towards finding a workable solution to the underlying Syrian problem, which is the civil war that is going on within the country.

© Zain Naeem

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