How Does our Involvement in Syria Bode for U.S. Relations with Brazil and Mexico?
By Carl MeachamSep 12, 2013
On Tuesday evening (September 10), President Barack Obama delivered an address on both his administration’s response to the ongoing crisis in Syria and what to expect moving forward. And the next day, his administration revealed that the CIA had already begun shipping weapons to Syrian rebel groups in an effort to support their fight against President Bashar al-Assad’s government.
Countless commentaries have already been published on the speech specifically and on U.S. actions more generally—what they mean for the United States, what they say about Obama as a president and world leader, how they will affect U.S. relations abroad (especially with Russia, China, and Syria’s Middle Eastern allies).
Absent from the discussions, however, is how President Obama’s handling of the situation in Syria will impact the Western Hemisphere—and particularly Brazil and Mexico, the region’s rising forces on the international stage. So what are the options looking forward, and how are Brazil and Mexico likely to respond?
Q1: Where do things stand today?
A1: At this time, the U.S. government is already engaged in providing assistance to the vetted, moderate rebels in Syria. Throughout the conflict, the government has provided humanitarian aid, and more recently, U.S. weapons have flowed into the rebels’ hands as well. For now, it seems that there are two scenarios along which the conflict and the U.S. response to it could develop:
The United States could choose to respond unilaterally, launching military strikes against the Assad government without UN Security Council approval. Such an approach could include targeted strikes aimed to limit Assad’s chemical weapons capabilities or retributive action intended to simply deter his regime from their further use. This option seems to have taken a back burner for the moment in light of the potential diplomatic solution to the chemical weapons crisis.
Earlier this week, Russia proposed that the international community work with Syria through the United Nations to take control over and eventually dismantle Assad’s store of chemical weapons—and to carry out inspections to ensure that the Syrian government refrains from developing similar weapons in the future. The process would be lengthy and complex—and subject to potential delays, opening up the possibility of U.S. frustration with its progress and possible military action down the road.
Q2: How are Brazil and Mexico likely to respond?
A2: In recent years, both Brazil and Mexico have sought to increase their roles in the international sphere—concurrent with and backed up by robust economic growth. That growing role brings with it the countries’ greater involvement in decisions facing the international community as a whole—and, in this case, how to respond to the conflict in Syria.
Any variety of unilateral, U.S.-led responses would be subject to criticism on the part of Mexico and Brazil. Regardless of President Obama’s ability to gain public and congressional support here at home for a military response, these two countries are unlikely to stand behind a U.S. effort to intervene without the full backing of the United Nations—an unlikely prospect at this time.
Though the coming days will reveal how the United States, Russia, and the international community will respond, the combination of a multilateral platform and a noninterventionist approach would likely appeal to Presidents Dilma Rousseff and Enrique Peña Nieto, helping them further their condemnation of chemical weapons use without turning their backs on their long-held positions on international intervention. This scenario could help bring Brazil and Mexico on board given that these countries maintain a firmly noninterventionist posture, enshrining national sovereignty above most, if not all, else in foreign affairs.
Conclusion: Considering the likely reactions of Mexico and Brazil to whatever is to come in Syria raises another set of contextual questions entirely. It is, to be sure, far from unexpected that these two countries take a noninterventionist, sovereignty-favoring stance in such scenarios. What may be surprising to many, however, is their resistance (and especially Mexico’s) to a U.S. role as the protagonist in such efforts—in both unilateral and multilateral settings.
At the end of the day, though, their hesitance to throw their support behind U.S.-led efforts abroad is not too surprising, particularly in light of Edward Snowden’s revelations of the NSA’s intelligence-gathering efforts around the world—including in Mexico, a close U.S. ally and partner, and Brazil, a country with which the United States is working on developing a deeper strategic partnership. The summer’s developments have spiked the proverbial punch of the U.S. image with these two countries. The result? Two of the most influential countries in the Western Hemisphere have adopted a greater degree of skepticism to U.S. intentions and actions, and our response to the crisis in Syria is no exception.
What remains to be seen is what the Obama administration will do—both in Syria, and to rebuild that trust, moving our relations with Mexico and Brazil to firmer ground.
Carl Meacham is the director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Jillian Rafferty, intern scholar with the CSIS Americas Program, provided research assistance.
Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
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