Caught in the Crossfire

If the United States wants to save Lebanon, it should get off the sidelines and help topple Bashar al-Assad's bloody dictatorship.

Lebanon is returning to an all-too-familiar-game. On Oct. 19, a large explosion shook Beirut, killing senior Lebanese security official Gen. Wissam al-Hassan and unleashing a round of sectarian street battles across the city.

Among those who speak out against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his ally, the Lebanese Shia militant group Hezbollah, an instinctive reaction kicked in. I went down my list of family and friends, trying to reach my loved ones, until Hassan's death was announced.

The assassination of Lebanon's director of security intelligence has sparked an angry reaction in Beirut, one the current government has proven powerless to control. His funeral on Oct. 21 devolved into clashes between security forces and anti-Assad protesters who tried to push their way into the prime minister's office. The violence continued into this week, with deadly skirmishes between protesters and the military in both the capital and the northern city of Tripoli. It is hard to see how the country can return to the status quo that existed before Hassan's killing.

In truth, Hassan had been a dead man walking for some time. In August, he uncovered a Syrian plot to export the Assad regime's troubles through a bombing campaign against its fragile neighbor. The case implicated Syria's national security advisor, a top aide to President Assad, and a former Lebanese minister with close ties to Damascus. The evidence was overwhelming: Hassan not only seized the explosives that would have been used in the plot, but presented video and audio footage of the perpetrators discussing the operation.

Hassan had gone where no other Lebanese security official dared -- and as a result, he was living on borrowed time. Like Gebran Tueini, the late publisher of Lebanon's anti-Syrian An-Nahar newspaper, he was tailed upon arriving at Beirut Airport and car-bombed within hours of his return home.

This is not only a Lebanese tragedy, but one precipitated by the world's lack of action to Syria's 19-month revolt. In Washington, critics of President Barack Obama's approach have long warned that continued U.S. inaction will surely lead to contagion -- broadening the conflict to Turkey, Iraq, Jordan and, of course, Lebanon.  In fact, while Hassan's killing represents a watershed moment when the Syrian conflict jumped the border into Lebanon, it is far from the first time that Syria has provoked chaos among its neighbors. Most notably, Syria has repeatedly shelled Turkish border villages, given Kurdish insurgents a free hand to carry out cross border attacks from its territory, and even downed a Turkish fighter jet. These provocations have largely gone unanswered, and are undermining U.S. influence, and that of its allies, in the Middle East.

To put it bluntly, the Middle East cannot wait for Washington to emerge from its electoral hiatus. And while Republican nominee Mitt Romney has sharply criticized Obama's Syria policy, he has yet to offer much beyond campaign rhetoric. It is incumbent on the United States to show greater leadership in a part of the world that remains vital to its interests, and in which its Arab, Turkish, and European allies are all urging it to do more.

But with Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Libya in mind, there's a palpable sense of Middle East fatigue in Washington, among Republicans and Democrats alike. So what can realistically be done, short of an all out U.S. intervention in Syria?

To begin with, the Obama administration needs to lift its veto on the Gulf states providing anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons to the Syrian rebels. Such arms are a necessity if anti-Assad forces are to take on the regime's Russian-made tanks and fighter aircraft, which are devastating civilian areas throughout the country. While there are justified concerns of such equipment falling into extremists hands, such risks can be mitigated through the careful vetting of rebel leaders -- a process that has been ongoing by the United States for months.

Working with NATO allies such as Turkey, as well as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Jordan, the United States can also help create safe havens within Syria without the need to put any boots on the ground. By moving Turkish and Jordanian anti-aircraft batteries to the Syrian border, it would be possible to create de facto no-fly zones 50 miles into Syrian airspace. Such a step would protect major Syrian population centers, including the cities of Aleppo and Deraa. It would also stem the outflow of hundreds of thousands of refugees into Syria's neighbors.

Turkey and Jordan will not act without U.S. security guarantees and Saudi money. The United States and Saudi Arabia have so far resisted taking such steps, however.

A more robust U.S. approach to Syria should not preclude a meaningful diplomatic effort, one that aims at securing Assad's departure and preserving Syrian state institutions. Russia, Assad's traditional backer, is a key player in achieving such an outcome. But after being at loggerheads on the Syrian issue for months, during which Moscow vetoed three U.N. Security Council resolutions on the subject, a U.S.-Russian understanding looks as distant as ever.

A telling open microphone moment between Obama and then Russian President Medvedev in March suggests a mutual accommodation might become more likely after the U.S. elections. The U.S. president was overheard saying he would have "more flexibility" after the election to compromise on some of Russia's foreign policy concerns. A solution for Syria could conceivably be part of such an accommodation.

Until then, more can and must be done to limit Assad's killing machine, and to set the stage for a positive political outcome in Syria. Meanwhile, Lebanon and the region will remain on a knife's edge, leaving us guessing whom the next car bomb victim will be.

-/AFP/Getty Images

National Security

Boost Phase

U.S.-Russian nuclear arms cooperation is not dead, it just needs a good kick in the pants.

Last week, alarm bells rang as the first headlines ran about Moscow's "bombshell" decision not to renew the 1992 Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) Agreement underpinning efforts to improve nuclear security. Perhaps it was the context of chilling relations with Putin's Russia, including the crackdown on nongovernmental organizations and the eviction of the U.S. Agency for International Development, that evoked such angst. The claim that U.S.-Russian nuclear security cooperation is dead, however, is greatly exaggerated.

The CTR Agreement was conceived and implemented in a very different time. The Soviet Union had disintegrated and Russia was financially supine. U.S. assistance was necessary to keep body and soul together for Russian nuclear weapons scientists, and to remove the temptation for them to sell their knowledge and wares to other nations or terrorists. In the absence of Soviet oppression, the Russian nuclear archipelago was a security nightmare, with fallen fences, crumbling buildings, poor procedures, and a demoralized (and all too often drunken) guard force. Championed by Senators Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar, and signed by President George H. W. Bush, the Cooperative Threat Reduction legislation created programs to detect, secure, and dispose of dangerous nuclear material in Russia and the former Soviet Union, as well as to facilitate the destruction of missiles and chemical weapons.

Today, Russia is more prosperous and its nuclear weapons, materials, and facilities are much more secure. Work under the Bratislava Initiative, agreed to by Presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin in 2005, essentially completed physical security upgrades at nuclear weapons facilities in Russia. Fissile material production reactors at Seversk and Zheleznogorsk were shut down and replaced with coal-fired plants. Hundreds of Russian ports, airports, and border crossings are now equipped with nuclear detection equipment. Over 400 metric tons of Russian highly enriched uranium has been down-blended to fuel reactors that now provide 10 percent of American electricity. Nuclear weapons in Kazakhstan, Ukraine, and Belarus have been removed to Russia, and the former Soviet nuclear test site at Degelen Mountain in Kazakhstan has been secured from scavengers. Moscow and Washington, among others, should be proud of these signal achievements.

That Moscow would now seek a different agreement, based on equality, is not surprising, nor should it be alarming. The current CTR agreement will expire next year, but that does not mean that cooperation must or will end. Indeed, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said last week, "We are interested in an equal, normal, mutually beneficial cooperation in the these subjects, including in cooperation in third countries, and we would like to have completed projects implemented in Russia in the framework of the so-called Global Partnership on weapons of mass destruction."

The recent debacle at the U.S. Y-12 highly enriched uranium site shows that no country can be complacent about its nuclear security systems. Russia and the United States have a shared interest in ensuring that the best possible nuclear security measures are implemented worldwide.

In Russia, more work remains to be done, including: sustaining the security improvements already in place with maintenance, training, and replacement of worn equipment, some of which is now almost 20 years old; implementing independent regulatory oversight of nuclear security; consolidating or closing dozens of redundant facilities holding weapons-grade nuclear material so that they can be more easily and economically protected; and disposing of some 34 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium and additional highly enriched uranium.

Together, the United States and Russia can address these problems, but they can also work improve security practices in third countries. They have established a de facto nuclear security standard through their actions to improve Russian facilities. And they could work to codify and describe this empirical knowledge to form guidelines to advise other nations. This joint project could be offered as a commitment for the 2014 Nuclear Security Summit and implemented through the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism, which Russia and the United States co-founded in 2006. The World Institute for Nuclear Security might also be a means to share their best practices. They might also work to address the dangers of nuclear terrorism detailed in a Joint Threat Assessment by Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and the Russian Academy of Science's U.S.A. Canada Institute.

The United States and Russia have a rich agenda for future work to improve collective nuclear security. And both nations appear still to have the will to advance that agenda. Nunn-Lugar doesn't mark the end of these efforts, merely the end of a stage. Now, both nations need to complete a more modern agreement to govern their efforts. Such an agreement is in the interest and within the capabilities of both sides. It cannot be completed until after the U.S. elections, but both American political parties have strongly backed cooperative threat reduction. So next year, American and Russian negotiators should get on with it.