Going from Bad to Worse (Syria Edition)

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on September 11, 2013

I missed the president’s speech on Syria, but looking through it, I can’t find anything that makes me feel more confident in the White House’s handling of the situation. Chemical weapons are awful and horrendous things, but I don’t see any rationale for making the use of chemical weapons the trigger for a possible American intervention, especially since before the use of these weapons, we’ve known that “[o]ver a hundred thousand people have been killed,” and that “[m]illions have fled” Syria. It seems to me that we have had a monumental humanitarian catastrophe on our hands even before the use of chemical weapons. Why didn’t we intervene before that catastrophe got worse, before chemical weapons were used? Other than telling us that “we cannot resolve someone else’s civil war through force, particularly after a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan,” the president doesn’t explain why humanitarian catastrophes brought about without chemical weapons are somehow less deserving of international attention than are humanitarian catastrophes brought about with chemical weapons.

The president tells us that “[i]f we fail to act, the Assad regime will see no reason to stop using chemical weapons,” and that in addition, “other tyrants will have no reason to think twice about acquiring poison gas and using them.” But what reason do they have to stop now? Will the“unbelievably small” consequences that the Assad regime might have to face somehow deter the regime, or “other tyrants”? Will the fact that a coalition of the willing that is smaller, less coalesced and certainly less willing than its predecessor coalition–along with possible Russian assistance that will help Syria replace bombed assets–help deter the Assad regime, or “other tyrants”? We are told that if we do not intervene, fighting might possibly spill “beyond Syria’s borders,” which would mean that “these weapons could threaten allies like Turkey, Jordan and Israel.” This raises some questions:

  1. How and why do we think that fighting might spill “beyond Syria’s borders”? I have read my Clausewitz and I know that war is difficult to control, but why do we think that a civil war might possibly spread to other countries? By what particular mechanism will spillage occur?
  2. Who exactly will “threaten allies like Turkey, Jordan and Israel”? The Assad regime? If so, they would be fools to do so; such an act would directly bring American national security interests into the picture and spell the regime’s doom. Seeing as how it is not in the regime’s interests to destroy itself with so brazen and militaristic an act, one rather doubts that they will do so. The Syrian rebels? If so, why are we potentially acting to help them?

There are, of course, no answers to these questions in the president’s speech. But the president goes on to tell us that

. . . a failure to stand against the use of chemical weapons would weaken prohibitions against other weapons of mass destruction and embolden Assad’s ally, Iran, which must decide whether to ignore international law by building a nuclear weapon or to take a more peaceful path.

Look, Iran wants nuclear power. We all know that. The Iranians have wanted nuclear power since the shah’s time. Given this history, how seriously can anyone take the administration’s claim that Assad’s use of chemical weapons will encourage the Iranians to get nuclear weapons, when history plainly shows that Iran has not waited for the Assad regime’s cue in order to work to obtain nuclear power?

The president goes on to promise “targeted strikes,” and swears up and down that the campaign will not be “open-ended,” or “prolonged,” which is just another way of assuring the Assad regime that if it hunkers down, it will survive any American attack and that once the attacks are finished, the regime can go ahead and continue to gas opponents. How this is expected to constitute deterrence is anyone’s guess.

Later on, we get this:

Other questions involve the dangers of retaliation. We don’t dismiss any threats, but the Assad regime does not have the ability to seriously threaten our military. Any other — any other retaliation they might seek is in line with threats that we face every day. Neither Assad nor his allies have any interest in escalation that would lead to his demise. And our ally Israel can defend itself with overwhelming force, as well as the unshakable support of the United States of America.

If this is the case, then why worry that fighting might possibly spill “beyond Syria’s borders,” which would mean that “these weapons could threaten allies like Turkey, Jordan and Israel”? If “[n]either Assad nor his allies have any interest in escalation that would lead to his demise,” why do we think that there may be spillage? The president plainly believes that Assad won’t encourage or bring about such spillage and if there are elements in the Syrian opposition that might encourage or bring about such spillage, then we shouldn’t be helping them, should we? And if “our ally Israel can defend itself with overwhelming force, as well as the unshakable support of the United States of America,” then doesn’t that mean that spillage–while potentially a serious issue–is one that we can handle without the use of preemptive airstrikes that are too weak to accomplish anything in the first place?

I chuckled a little bit when the president said that “al-Qaida will only draw strength in a more chaotic Syria if people there see the world doing nothing to prevent innocent civilians from being gassed to death.” I presume that he would have no problem with the following very similar statements:

  • “Al Qaeda will only draw strength in a more chaotic Iraq if people see the world doing nothing to prevent innocent civilians from being gassed to death.”
  • “Al Qaeda will only draw strength in a more chaotic Iraq if people see the world doing nothing to prevent innocent civilians from being persecuted, tortured and executed for their political beliefs.”
  • “Al Qaeda will only draw strength in a more chaotic Afghanistan if people see the world doing nothing to prevent innocent civilians from being persecuted, tortured and executed for their political beliefs.”

I had no idea that the president is secretly a fan of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He must be, because similar logic applies to both countries. You learn something new everyday.

The latest development in the Syrian sitzkrieg is that John Kerry, our secretary of state, stepped in it recently:

This, apparently, is how diplomacy happens these days: Someone makes an off-hand remark at a press conference and triggers an international chain reaction that turns an already chaotic and complex situation completely on its head, and gives everyone a sense that, perhaps, this is the light at the end of the indecision tunnel.

Speaking in London next to British Foreign Secretary William Hague on Monday, Secretary of State John Kerry said that perhaps the military strike around which the administration has been painfully circling for weeks could be avoided if Bashar al-Assad can “turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week. Turn it over, all of it, without delay, and allow a full and total accounting for that.”

The fact that Kerry immediately followed with, “But he isn’t about to do it, and it can’t be done, obviously,” didn’t seem to bother anyone. (Probably because they were focusing on his other slip-up: calling the promised strikes “unbelievably small.”)

The Russians immediately jumped on the impromptu proposal, calling Kerry to check if he was serious before going live with their proposal to lean on Syria. An hour later, they trotted out Syria’s foreign minister, Walid al-Mouallem, who said he too was down with the proposal, which was a strange way to get the Syrians to finally admit they even had chemical weapons to begin with. Before long, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon, the English, and the French were all on board, too.

Meanwhile, back in Washington, the White House was just as surprised as anyone. Asked if this was a White House plan that Kerry had served up in London, Deputy National Security Advisor Tony Blinken was unequivocal. “No, no, no,” he said. “We literally just heard about this as you did some hours ago.”

So that’s good. At least everyone’s on the same page.

Read the whole thing. While reading, be sure to remember that John Kerry once wanted to be president. Probably still does. Anyone want to tell me how easy it will be to (a) stop a civil war; and (b) send in an international force that removes all chemical weapons before (c) announcing to civil war participants that it’s okay for them to shoot at each other again? Or will we just not bother with (a)? As Julia Ioffe notes, this proposal–and its possible embrace–mean that “Moscow and Damascus have all the time in the world, and the Kremlin, which has never met a legal norm it couldn’t waltz around, will quibble and hair-split and insist that this is all done legally—whatever that means in Moscow.” The Obama administration has officially been bamboozled out of its ability to launch “unbelievably small” strikes against the Syrian regime, which takes some doing, if you ask me.

If all of this is not bad enough for you, read Colum Lynch:

A day after President Obama expressed hope of a “breakthrough” on Syria’s chemical weapons, Britain, France, and United States clashed on Tuesday with Russia over the terms of a plan that would place Syria’s chemical weapons under international supervision and require Syria to join the international Chemical Weapons Convention.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov dubbed a U.S.-backed French initiative threatening possible military action against Syria “unacceptable.” The plan to monitor Syria’s chemical weapons “can work only if we hear that the American side and all those who support the United States in this sense reject the use of force,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said in a television address.

The Russian stance left in disarray Western plans to establish a legally binding inspection regime, backed by the threat of force. The move also raised questions about whether a diplomatic breakthrough welcomed by President Obama is still in reach. Yet Security Council diplomats said that Russia’s abrupt decision on Tuesday to drop its demand for an emergency session of the U.N. Security Council suggested there was still hope of diplomatic progress.

In an effort to overcome Russian opposition, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry plans to travel to Geneva to meet on Thursday with Lavrov. American, British, and French diplomats, meanwhile, pressed ahead here at the United Nations with efforts to refine the French U.N. Security Council resolution condemning the Syrian government and placing Syria’s chemical weapons program “under international control” in preparation for their destruction.

If they succeed in gaining passage of their resolution, they will give the United Nations a new reason to do business with President Assad. The senior Arab diplomat said, “This all reminds me of Iraq, when Kofi Annan said he has a partner in Saddam Hussein,” who then spent years in a cat-and-mouse game with U.N. weapons inspectors. “Do we know we have a partner in Bashar al-Assad?”

All of which means that the proper response to the question posed by the title of Lynch’s column is “yes.” But hey, let’s “trust the Russians.” What could possibly go wrong with that plan?

Finally, to close out this very long post, let’s take a trip down memory lane. Somewhere, Mitt Romney laughs.

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