Obama and Syria: take a breath and hold for further word

By J Brooks Spector 12 September 2013

For anyone who even occasionally thinks about international relations, it has been one weird, wild ride since Sunday afternoon. On Saturday, those clichéd drums of war were being pounded like crazy over Syria. Then, suddenly from Sunday onward, in a seeming bolt from the blue, an actual diplomatic path for a solution came into view. J. BROOKS SPECTOR takes a stab at an explanation of what’s going on.

It was a seemingly chance comment by Secretary of State John Kerry over the weekend (apparently inspired by a brief interchange between US President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin in St Petersburg at the G20 summit the week before) that suddenly pushed events right out of their predictable pathways. While in the UK to consult with the British government over Syria, Kerry had said publicly that Syria could still forestall missile strikes by the US – but only if it surrendered its arsenal of chemical weapons over to international control and then acceded to the UN-sponsored Chemical Weapons Convention (Syria had signed the earlier convention, the Geneva Protocol of 1925, but has never become a signatory to the newer CWC). But, once having made that comment, Kerry then apparently discounted the chance his off-the-cuff rumination could actually come into the realm of the possible.

Meanwhile, while Kerry was in London, Barack Obama and his White House team – plus numerous others from the State Department, Defense Department and the various intelligence agencies – were still vigorously lobbying members of the Congress to support the resolution that would back the use of missile strikes on Syrian military targets to punish the use of chemical weapons. In spite of all this arm-twisting, the chances for the resolution were starting to look very doubtful to most nose counters in Washington.

Simultaneously, Obama and other members of the White House staff were now deep into preparing the speech the president would deliver to the nation on Tuesday evening. That speech was to be the launching pad for Obama’s fullest explanation to date for the planned missile strike on Syria – along with an exhortation to Congress to pass his resolution of support, despite their hesitations about it or outright opposition to it. Every commentator who could get near a microphone or a laptop was busy explaining why the resolution would fail in one or both houses of Congress, or why it should pass and why it was crucial for the credibility of US foreign policy – or even why it had become a thoughtless, dangerous folly on the part of an increasingly beleaguered president who was out of his depth on foreign policy.

And then, just as the arm-twisting of Congress had reached its apogee, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov picked up on Kerry’s presumably spur-of-the-moment comments to come out with a more thoroughly articulated version of a plan that emanated from Kerry’s earlier remark. And then Lavrov’s statements, in turn, triggered Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s presumably unsolicited comments (after some very private arm-twisting by the Russians) that Assad was prepared to admit to having chemical warfare weapons (something well understood around the world but never specifically admitted to by Syria in the past) and that it would also accept an international control regime over these weapons. Analysts are still sorting out who blinked first in all of this – or if just possibly the international diplomatic system behaved rationally and everyone concerned saw negotiations as the ultlimate win-win-win situation.

To some more cynical types, these developments seem to have had an unusual quality of coherence for such accidental synchronicity. That could indicate there had also been some intense, super-secret, back room negotiating that had gotten things going in a hurry, even as the public face was all disarray and angry discord. (Maybe some really trusted journalist has even been allowed to follow the negotiations and will produce one blockbuster of an article fit for a Pulitzer Prize down the road a bit. But, if there is one, he or she has been very quiet so far.)

Even more amazingly, all of this presumably ad hoc progress ended up being the set-up for Barack Obama’s national televised speech. Rather than providing a lawyerly brief that justified the launch of those promised cruise missiles, the US president was now saying he would just as soon prefer to wait a little while to see how this totally surprising, now-promising diplomatic effort panned out before unleashing those Tomahawk missiles.

Obama told his battle-fatigued nation diplomacy now has “the potential to remove the threat of chemical weapons” in Syria without use of force, but that the nation’s military would “be ready to respond” against Syria should these diplomatic alternatives not succeed. In fact, presaging this new tack, Obama had already said on a Monday evening television interview that it was important “to make sure that the international community has confidence that these chemical weapons are under control, that they are not being used, that potentially they are removed from Syria and that they are destroyed.”

The reality of the situation — the  substantial Congressional opposition to a use of force resolution, together with the uncertainties of the nascent Russian-led effort to force Syria to hand over its chemical weapons — now meant there was little definitive he could say about the future of US actions – putting them in a holding pattern for the time being.

The core argument was a moral one that said, “When dictators commit atrocities, they depend on the world to look the other way,” In essence it was that if an act such as gassing your own people is condemned but tolerated then other rogue actors can also press the bounds of acceptable behaviour in the future increases – a kind of domino theory of morality. Perhaps, then, Obama was really talking about the next case, rather than just the current one.

Chris Cillizza, writing in the Washington Post, had observed that in the speech as finally given, the president had offered his carefully argued case about how the country should see its place in the world in the 21st century. While the US was not the world’s police man, when there was a situation like Syria, if the US needed to send a strong moral message about the globe with small risks, it should do so. Moreover, the president seemed to be at pains to underscore the point that Syria was not Iraq and that he does not intend to allow it to become like that expensive, unhappy lesson in national hubris.

As a result of all this dramatic activity, instead of the US Senate coming together this week to take a preliminary vote on the resolution that had survived the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s decision in a 10-7 vote, in a vote even White House optimists were saying would be very close (or maybe even a startling defeat for Obama), the president gave his support to postponing a vote on any resolution until this new Kerry-Lavrov idea was developed further in more tangible detail. And that, in turn, will now probably press the pause button on the House of Representatives’ own consideration of an equivalent resolution that would support a presidential missile strike as well.

After the initial global euphoria about this diplomatic solution to a messy, nasty bit of business, of course, the real problems in the plan are becoming into clearer focus. The AP reported on Wednesday, “A Russian plan for Syria to turn over its chemical weapons to avert Western missile strikes bogged down Tuesday when Moscow rejected U.S. and French demands for a binding U.N. resolution with ‘very severe consequences’ for non-compliance. The surprise Russian proposal, which Syria and the United States both accepted, would put President Bashar Assad’s regime’s chemical stockpile under international control before its eventual dismantling. The initiative – also cautiously endorsed by Britain and France – appeared to offer a way out of a crisis that raised the prospect of U.S.-led military action against Syria in retaliation for an alleged chemical weapons attack last month.”

The AP went on to note that the progress on broad agreement on the specifics of the proposal “ran aground as the world powers haggled over the crucial element of how to enforce it. Wary of falling into what the French foreign minister called ‘a trap,’ Paris and Washington are pushing for a U.N. Security Council resolution to verify Syria’s disarmament. Russia, a close Assad ally and the regime’s chief patron on the international stage, dismissed France’s proposal as unacceptable.” Clearly much still needs to be done before everything is totally shipshape.

The Russians are holding fast to the view there should be no UN sanctioning of the use of force, even if things don’t go right. Moreover, it might even be okay if the process of internationalizing control over those chemical weapons evolved out of a Syrian presidential declaration, rather than a UN decision. Some people naturally see this as a way of Russia’s protection of its ally/client state, a place that just happens to be an active purchaser of lots of Russian-made military hardware and that houses Russia’s only naval port on the Mediterranean Sea.

Any international control regimen has major challenges – even if it is implemented quickly and relatively without hiccups. First of all, it is not clear how an international control body will be able to guarantee it actually has all such weapons under its control.

Just for starters, the government, the military leadership or even an individual commander might well choose to hold back a few weapons, just in case, and it would be extremely difficult to prove conclusively such a thing hadn’t taken place. Moreover, the control regimen would have to establish carefully managed, internationally supervised and implemented mechanisms and administration for the storage and eventual destruction of such weapons – while in the midst of a brutal civil war. For comparison’s sake, it needs to be remembered that the US has spent over a decade and a half in its gradual decommissioning of its own chemical weapons stock, pursuant to international agreements – and the task is not yet completed – and that none of that effort has taken place in a war zone.

Further, it is not clear where the storage and eventual decommissioning and destruction of such weapons would be able to be carried out – or whether it would be done in Syria, the US, or yet another nation. The on-the-ground mechanisms for temporary storage, then safe and secure transport have never been attempted under such conditions and in such multi-party, mutually mistrustful circumstances in the midst of violent hostilities.

Then there is the utility in carrying out the conclusive destruction of major storage depots of the precursor chemicals used to create the weapons, or the rockets and other delivery systems for the chemical warheads, rather than just the dangerous gases themselves. Finally, to make all of this work right, the first time out, every bit of this apparatus and administration has to be created from scratch, internationally agreed upon, and fully financed as a matter of enormous urgency so that the resulting effort does not appear to be a capitulation by the US or Syria. And, so far, at least, absolutely none of this has been worked out on anything more than the equivalent of the back of an envelope – especially given the fact that there is no ready-made institution or structure to summon into action for all of this.

Instead of the international histrionics over a missile strike carried out by the US with French (and a few other nations’) support on Syrian military installations, the Obama televised speech thus became a call for watchful caution and a kind of time out while the tentative diplomatic coming together takes life. John Kerry is to go to Russia to meet with his counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, to see if things can be nailed down, hammered together and sorted out in the granular detail needed to make it all work – and that the Russians can bring the Syrians along with no backsliding or circumventing the agreements.

As far as winners and losers go, the Syrian government may be able to claim that it has seen the light, further engaged with the world community, rid the battlefield of chemical weapons, and achieved this all while not giving an inch to their rebel opponents. It is also possible that the Iranians will begin to see some encouragement to begin their own rapprochement over nuclear negotiations with the West, now that it seems the Russians will push one of their staunch ally-clients towards compromises.

Assuming things go as hoped, the Russians gain global acclaim for brokering a negotiated way out of an American attack – and for supporting the lessened danger of chemical weapons use in future in the Middle East. The Israelis have been extremely quiet during this entire sequence of events but they too can breathe a bit easier – they hope – as the chances of chemical weapons attacks on their cities in retaliation for an American attack on Syria seem to have declined as well.

For the Americans, well it depends on who one talks about. For those in Congress who opposed an air strike, save for those who sought to aid the rebels further, this may vindicate their opposition to a resolution supporting the use of force to end the chemical weapons threat. For those who supported the resolution, however, paradoxically, it can also be argued this outcome supports their view – the threat of measured force has achieved its intended result – even as there will be no Munich-like capitulation to those treacherous Syrians. And for Barack Obama, it is just possible that this deal, should it come together, he stands a chance of being able to claim a victory without a shot being fired, although his critics will still be able to claim it was his easy moralizing and foreign policy articulation on the fly that got him into this mess in the first place.

On the other hand, some analysts say the Saudis and other Persian Gulf supporters of the rebels may feel less than pleased by all this since the fact that there is no imminent attack on the Syrian government could heighten the pressure on the rebels they have been supporting. Perhaps the biggest loser in all of this may be the rebel forces that will see no additional pressures on their tormentors, even as the Syrian government gains a modicum of international respect for moving those chemical weapons out of their arsenal. Left out of all the scoring of winners and losers, of course, is the fact of the continuing civil war in Syria, fighting that has already cost the lives of more than 100,000 people and driven some 6 million (!) people into internal or external refugee status. But at least Bashar al-Assad got to have all of this diplomatic excitement take place on his birthday – a date he shares with the al Qaeda attacks of 2001.

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Photo: U.S. President Barack Obama addresses the nation about the situation in Syria from the East Room at the White House in Washington, September 10, 2013. REUTERS/Evan Vucci



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