After the debacle of seeing America’s allies drop out of support for an attack on Syria’s chemical weapons (with the possible exception of France), an exit strategy for all sides to climb down their tree has been found. Or so it seems.
It all started when US Secretary of State John Kerry made a seeming gaffe when he suggested that the Syrians could avoid a strike if they handed over their chemical weapons within a week – and the Russians jumped on the suggestion in order to carry it through:
Certainly when Margaret Brennan of CBS News asked John Kerry if there was anything the Syrians could do to avert American bombing, she could not have imagined the impact his response would have.
In an apparent jest, the US Secretary of State said that if Bashar al-Assad’s regime handed over its chemical weapons stock in a week, then maybe, just maybe, America’s guns would remain silent.
His exasperated tone carried no hint that he hoped for a breakthrough. But within hours, Syria’s ally Russia had proposed that Damascus should surrender all such weapons to international control in order to prevent a US bombing campaign threatened as punishment for a sarin attack on rebel-held areas.
A diplomatic scramble ensued, in which the White House decided it liked the idea and made a dramatic policy shift, announced by President Barack Obama on Monday evening in several prominent television interviews.
By Tuesday, it appeared as though America might just have ad-libbed its way out of going to war. But had it? And was Mr Kerry’s answer so spontaneous after all?
The Russians seemed keen to cover up any American embarrassment:
On Tuesday, US officials were keen to play down the idea that the White House’s change of direction lacked any background preparation. Mr Obama told his US interviewers that he had discussed the idea of a chemical weapons surrender with Mr Putin last Friday at an impromptu 20-minute meeting at the G20 Summit in St Petersburg.
The Russians likewise said the suggestion was “definitely discussed” between the two leaders at the G20.
“[It] is not an entirely Russian initiative,” said Mr Lavrov. “It stems from contacts we have had with our American colleagues, from yesterday’s statement by John Kerry.”
The idea of presenting such a demand to Damascus had in fact been floated publicly for the first time over the weekend at the end of an EU foreign ministers’ conference in Lithuania that was addressed by Mr Kerry and where opinion was sharply divided on the wisdom of US air strikes.
David Cameron wryly observed on Tuesday that “things have moved faster than was perhaps expected” after Mr Kerry spoke, suggesting he thought the effects were more unintentional than not.
But some experts thought there had been a mixture of conspiracy and cock-up from the Americans.
Following the Russian offer to take charge of Syria’s chemical weapons, President Obama has vowed to explore their offer though he did suggest caution:
US President Barack Obama vowed on Tuesday to explore a diplomatic initiative from Russia to neutralize Syria’s chemical weapons but voiced skepticism about it and urged war-weary Americans to support his threat to use military force.
Obama said a Russian offer to push Syrian President Bashar Assad to place chemical weapons under international control opened up the possibility of halting the limited military strike that he is considering against Syria.
Obama set no deadlines for diplomacy to run its course, but said any deal with Assad would require verification that the Syrian president keeps his word.
“It’s too early to tell whether this offer will succeed. And any agreement must verify that the Assad regime keeps its commitments. But this initiative has the potential to remove the threat of chemical weapons without the use of force, particularly because Russia is one of Assad’s strongest allies.”
The Russian offer had the effect of extending Obama a lifeline as he fought an uphill battle to persuade Congress and Americans to support a go-it-alone attack on Syria.
In a sign of the shifting political mood in Washington toward diplomacy, a group of Republican and Democratic US senators began drafting a modified resolution on the use of military force that would give the United Nations time to take control of Syria’s chemical weapons.
The Russian diplomatic initiative, which emerged after off-the-cuff remarks by Kerry on Monday alluding to such a deal, marked a sudden reversal following weeks in which the West seemed headed toward intervening into Syria’s 2-1/2-year-old civil war.
Syria too has agreed to take up Russia’s deal to give up its chemical weapons in order to prevent an American strike:
Syria said Tuesday it has accepted Russia’s proposal to place its chemical weapons under international control for subsequent dismantling.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem said Tuesday after meeting with Russian parliament speaker that his government quickly “agreed to the Russian initiative.”
Al-Moallem added that Syria did so to “uproot US aggression.”
His statement sounded more definitive than his remarks Monday, when he said that Damascus welcomed Russia’s initiative.’
Now that the deal has been suggested and accepted by all sides, the next stage is execution and verifying, which is a much more complicated matter. Scepticism abounds in every quarter, for example David Meyers in the Algemeiner who talks about Obama’s insanity on Syria:
It’s hard to understand how anyone could even consider this plan to be a serious option.
How can we trust the word of a Assad – a man who has murdered tens of thousands of his own people, used chemical weapons, broken every international norm and law, reneged on all of his promises to the UN, U.S. officials, and international mediators, and is supported by Iran, one of the most duplicitous nations in the world?
Do we really believe that Assad would give us all of his weapons? How could we verify this? We don’t even know where the weapons are or how many Assad has. How can we take him at his word? How do we know he won’t transfer them to Russia or Iran? (If you think that’s impossible, think about how much military hardware Iran and Russia have shipped into Syria. Do you really think they can’t reverse engineer that process?)
The West is trying to avoid conflict at all costs. This is a mistaken strategy that emboldens our enemies, and will lead to serious trouble down the line. If we’re willing to engage in such a silly charade as this to avoid a missile strike in Syria, what kind of message does that send the world?
Obama is not a stupid man. He knows any plan to let Assad “surrender” his WMD is unfeasible and unrealistic. But the President is so desperate to avoid a conflict, that he’s apparently willing to consider it. This is shameful for the leader of the United States. America, and the free world, deserves better.
[…] How are the large international teams needed to secure the weapons going to get into Syria, move the stockpiles, and ensure no terrorist groups get access to them? Assad’s own forces have trouble moving around the country and securing their military objective. But international forces will somehow be able to?
Obama’s willingness to even consider such a plan has made the President, and America, look like rank fools. The world is upside down. Will anyone come along and right it?
Jeffrey Goldberg at Bloomberg has two important pieces on this deal. Firstly, he has 15 questions about the Syria debate. Some highlights:
1. Is Kerry a national-security genius, or a guy who says whatever half-baked idea comes to mind, or both?
2. Why are the Russians seemingly so ready to aid Kerry and President Barack Obama by helping relieve Syria of its chemical weapons? Since when is Russia interested in helping the U.S. out of a jam, even if it burnishes its own reputation in the process?
3. Do these early signs that Russia might be interested in making a deal to avert an attack prove that threatening to attack was the right thing to do?
6. How do you possibly verify that Assad has given up all of his chemical weapons? The Syrian regime possesses hundreds of tons of these munitions.
7. Does Syria get to keep its biological weapons under this still nonexistent deal?
9. How do you secure and transport all of these chemical-weapons components in the midst of a horrifically violent civil war?
10. Even if the theoretical strike was intended to be “unbelievably small,” why would the U.S. tell Syria this?
13. If Assad’s behavior is even somewhat analogous to Hitler’s, as administration officials (and surrogates like Senator Harry Reid) are suggesting, then how is it possible to argue for anything other than Assad’s total defeat?
Read the entire list. He raises some very important questions in a scathingly cynical way.
His second article expands on his theory that the Russian-Syrian plan won’t work anyway:
So, in order to obviate an attack on a country that Americans evidently care about not at all, Vladimir Putin, the State Department’s new Syria desk officer, working in concert with President Barack Obama and his intermittently slap-happy secretary of state, has come up with a fake solution to a real problem.
Here is the best thing you can say about the proposal: The byproduct of this bizarre episode is that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his allies would have to be utterly self-destructive to use sarin gas or other chemical weapons against civilians right now. That would push Obama to strike, whether Congress approves or not.
Here are a few bad things: All Assad has to do to forever stave off a punitive strike is to keep promising that he’s in the middle of giving up his chemical weapons. (No one, by the way, has addressed the fate of his biological weapons.) This is a process that could go on for months, or even years. Yes, that’s right — we might be reading stories soon about United Nations weapons inspectors roaming Syria (a war zone, it should be noted) in a hunt for missing WMD. There are hundreds of tons of chemical munitions in Syria, and very few people think Assad would part with all of them. Why would he? Chemical weapons are a major deterrent to those outside Syria who seek his demise.
Interestingly, George Friedman in his article”Syria, America and Putin’s Bluff (republished with permission of Stratfor) posits that Putin has had his bluff called by the United States, and not the other way round:
Putin is bluffing that Russia has emerged as a major world power. In reality, Russia is merely a regional power, but mainly because its periphery is in shambles. He has tried to project a strength that that he doesn’t have, and he has done it well. For him, Syria poses a problem because the United States is about to call his bluff, and he is not holding strong cards. To understand his game we need to start with the recent G-20 meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Putin and Obama held a 20-minute meeting there that appeared to be cold and inconclusive. The United States seems to be committed to some undefined military action in Syria, and the Russians are vehemently opposed. The tensions showcased at the G-20 between Washington and Moscow rekindled memories of the Cold War, a time when Russia was a global power. And that is precisely the mood Putin wanted to create. That’s where Putin’s bluff begins.
The article goes on to detail Russia’s domestic and international troubles over Serbia, Kosovo, Georgia, Albania etc., and comes to the conclusion that:
Russia felt it deserved more deference on Kosovo, but it couldn’t have expected much more given its weak geopolitical position at the time. However, the incident served as a catalyst for Russia’s leadership to try to halt the country’s decline and regain its respect. Kosovo was one of the many reasons that Vladimir Putin became president, and with him, the full power of the intelligence services he rose from were restored to their former pre-eminence.
Which brings us eventually to Syria:
Since 2008, Putin has attempted to create a sense that Russia has returned to its former historic power. It maintains global relations with left-wing powers such as Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia and Cuba. Of course, technically Russia is not left wing, and if it is, it is a weird leftism given its numerous oligarchs who still prosper. And in fact there is little that Russia can do for any of those countries, beyond promising energy investments and weapon transfers that only occasionally materialize. Still, it gives Russia a sense of global power.
In fact, Russia remains a shadow of what the Soviet Union was. Its economy is heavily focused on energy exports and depends on high prices it cannot control. Outside Moscow and St. Petersburg, life remains hard and life expectancy short. Militarily, it cannot possibly match the United States. But at this moment in history, with the United States withdrawing from deep involvement in the Muslim world, and with the Europeans in institutional disarray, it exerts a level of power in excess of its real capacity. The Russians have been playing their own bluff, and this bluff helps domestically by creating a sense that, despite its problems, Russia has returned to greatness.
In this game, taking on and besting the United States at something, regardless of its importance, is critical.
The al Assad regime’s relations with Russia go back to 1970, when Hafez al Assad, current President Bashar al Assad’s father, staged a coup and aligned Syria with the Soviet Union. In the illusion of global power that Putin needs to create, the fall of al Assad would undermine his strategy tremendously unless the United States was drawn into yet another prolonged and expensive conflict in the Middle East. In the past, the U.S. distraction with Iraq and Afghanistan served Russia’s interests. But the United States is not very likely to get as deeply involved in Syria as it did in those countries. Obama might bring down the regime and create a Sunni government of unknown beliefs, or he may opt for a casual cruise missile attack. But this will not turn into Iraq unless Obama loses control completely.
This could cause Russia to suffer a humiliation similar to the one it dealt the United States in 2008 with Georgia. The United States will demonstrate that Russia’s concerns are of no account and that Russia has no counters if and when the United States decides to act.
Putin made this a core issue for him. I don’t think he expected the Europeans to take the position that al Assad had used chemical weapons. He thought he had more pull than that. He didn’t. The Europeans may not fly missions but they are not in a position to morally condemn those who do. That means that Putin’s bluff is in danger.
This is a very interesting almost lone voice in counterpoint to the general view that the Russian deal, triggered by Kerry’s now-denied gaffe, is either a trap, impractical or outright dangerous.
In this game of international chess, the only thing we know for certain is that more Syrian civilians will be killed.