Note: This post was substantially written before Obama have
his big speech tonight. The speech reiterates his desire to bomb
Syria, either to punish Assad for using chemical weapons (adding
to the death toll of Syria's civil war) or just to remind the
world of America's might-makes-right moral superiority (adding
to the death toll of Syria's civil war). And he still wants
Congress to rally behind his leadership and bless his right to
bomb Syria, but he's going to hold off on that for a few days --
not so much because Congress was prepared to vote against his
war mongering as because he's willing to give Russia and the UN
a few days to wrap up a deal where Syria would give up its
chemical weapons (although he still wants the UN to authorize
him to bomb Syria if they don't do it to his satisfaction).
Not that he actually needs anyone's permission to bomb Syria --
he is, after all, the Commander-in-Chief and he can damn well
bomb anyone he pleases: "That's what makes America different.
That's what makes us exceptional." And, uh, "God bless the
United States of America."
One reason I've been harping so much on Obama's failures to
engage Russia (and Iran) over Syria is that a deal such as the
one Putin proposed (and Assad agreed) to on chemical weapons has
always seemed possible. The Obama administration is now trying
to spin this as a victory for their sabre rattling (see
White House Takes Credit for Syria's Apparent Concession),
but the main reason they have for embracing it is that it gives
them an opportunity to put off potentially face-loosing votes
in Congress. However, in order for the deal to go through, Russia
insists that the US withdraw its threats to bomb Syria -- how,
they argue, can you get a state to voluntarily disarm while under
threat of attack?. Already, the French have attempted to undermine
the deal by tying it to a UN Security Council Resolution that
would authorize force. (See
Russia balks at French plan for U.N. Security Council resolution
on Syrian chemical arms). I've also seen reports that the
insurgent groups are opposed to the deal.
For an example of how little effort the Obama administration
put into diplomatic efforts, and how strong their mental blinders
are, consider this quote from the latter article:
The possibility of placing Syrian chemical weapons under international
control was discussed by Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin when
they met Friday at the Group of 20 summit in St. Petersburg. On Monday,
appearing before reporters, Kerry referred to it almost sarcastically
when he was asked whether there was anything Assad could do to avoid a
"Sure, he could turn over every bit of his weapons to the international
community within the next week, without delay," Kerry responded with a
shrug. "But he isn't about to."
As Kerry flew back to Washington to help lobby lawmakers, he received
a midair call from Lavrov, who said he had heard the secretary's remarks
and was about to make a public announcement. The statement in Moscow came
before Kerry landed.
Lucky for us that Putin, at least, was paying attention. Also that
he recognized that chemical weapons were a matter of some ambivalence
for Assad. Chemical weapons have never been very effective -- the few
exceptions were mostly cases where they were used on people who had
nothing comparable to fight back with, such as when the British used
them in Iraq in the 1920s or when the Italians used them in Ethiopia
in the 1930s. Nor have they been an effective deterrent against powers
like Israel and the United States. On the other hand, their possession
can be pointed to in propaganda, as the US did with Iraq and is doing
now with Syria.
As far as I can tell, Syria developed chemical weapons thinking they
would provide a deterrent against Israeli attack, maybe even offering
a cheap balance against Israel's arsenal of nukes. A second reason may
have been Iraq, at least back when Saddam Hussein had (and was fond of
using) chemical weapons. Syria and Iraq were both Ba'ath Party states,
but they had split in terms of what that meant, and were rivals for the
leadership of the broader Ba'ath movement (Arab nationalism). Syria was
so hostile to Hussein it became an agitator for the US-led Gulf War
But the Ba'ath rivalty with Iraq is long past, and it never was clear
that chemical weapons did much to deter Israel -- which continues to bomb
Syria periodically, but is unlikely to send its army into Damascus, not
because it fears the Syrian army but because there are just too damn
many Arabs living there. So there's little reason for Syria not to give
up its chemical weapons. Indeed, there's the risk that rebels will loot
them for use against the government. So for Syria this isn't a setback.
If anything, it makes the regime appear more reasonable and legitimate.
Aside from France, some Syrian insurgent groups, and superhawks like
John McCain, everyone else is pleased by this turn of events. One more
quote from the article is especially interesting:
In Tehran, newly appointed Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Marzieh
Afkham said Iran "welcomes Moscow's initiative at this stage to resolve
the Syrian crisis. The Islamic Republic of Iran sees this initiative as
a way to halt militarization in the region."
This is an interesting choice of words, not least because the US,
Israel, and Saudi Arabia -- probably the three largest per capita
military spenders in the world -- habitually accuse Iran of being
the one militarizing a "Shiite Crescent" from Iran across to Lebanon.
Afkham's choice of words not only express approval for ridding Syria
of chemical weapons, they open the door to further demilitarization
in Syria and elsewhere. Also, the word "resolve" is significant: the
civil war could go on indefinitely without chemical weapons, but
that doesn't seem to be Iran's intent or desire. We should look at
this as one step of several toward a resolution.
It seems essential to me that there should be a ceasefire while
the chemical weapons are being inventoried and secured. A ceasefire
would freeze the current territorial division, and set up the basis
for a negotiated resolution. It would stem the current torrent of
refugees, and allow at least some to go home. It would be the right
thing to do.
More reading today:
Ezra Klein: The White House may really be about to win on Syria:
"Remember: The White House's aim here wasn't to topple Assad, or even
to hurt him. It was to affirm and reinforce the international norm
against chemical weapons. [ . . . ] But the White
House shouldn't work too hard to set the bar high here. If Assad is
willing to sign the treaty and stop using chemical weapons, they
should declare victory. It's a better outcome than they could have
Natasha Lennard: Obama's embarrassing Syria scramble: "While the
Obama administration and its key mouthpieces have been banging the war
drum with mounting vigor in recent weeks -- touting the immutable moral
imperative of military action in the face of "humanity's red line"
being crossed -- the chemical weapons handover initiative made Russia
look a dove to America's hawkish leadership. Little wonder Obama was
then swift to call the proposal a 'possible breakthrough' and insist
that it was his idea all along. The fact that the president and Putin
may have discussed a possible chemical weapons resolution last week
hardly undoes Obama's rhetoric-drenched push for military action in
Robert Collier: World's best diplomats: Here's how to achieve peace
in Syria: "negotiate aggressively; include all regional powers --
including Iran; no preconditions about core issues; no war crimes
trials -- at least not right away; be creative; freeze out the true
Megan Iorio: How Syria Plays Into AIPAC Mythology: "Iran's influence
with the Assad regime is undeniable and their cooperation will be necessary
to secure a cease-fire. Yet, last year, Iran was not invited to a peace
conference on Syria that was held in Geneva, a fact which many attribute
to the conference's failure. A second Geneva conference has been proposed,
but the US has refused to allow Iran to attend, which, in turn, has
prevented the conference from convening. The US has also yet to engage
directly with Iran to find a diplomatic way to address the chemical
weapons issue, even though new Iran President Hassan Rouhani, who ran
on a message of reconciliation with the US, has condemned the alleged
use of chemical weapons."
'A disaster anyway we cut it' -- Phyllis Bennis on the folly of U.S.
strikes on Syria: "You know, one of the things that nobody is talking
about, is if President Obama went on television Tuesday night and said to
the American people, not just, "there have been 100,000 people killed in
this terrible war in Syria, and we have to go after the dictator who is
responsible." If instead of saying that, he said, "there have been 100,000
people killed in this civil war" -- 43 percent of them, according to the
pro-opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights -- 43 percent are
government, pro-Syrian government militiamen and 37 percent are civilians,
and 17 percent are opposition fighters, would people feel the same way?
The implication is always that these are 100,000 innocent civilians, all
killed by the regime, when in fact almost half are regime soldiers and
militiamen who have been killed by the other side." Obama, of course,
didn't say any such thing. He went on and on about 400-some children
killed by sarin gas. Curiously, 1400 dead including 400 children is
almost exactly the number of Palestinians killed by Israel in Gaza in
Operation Cast Lead in 2008 -- facts that didn't raise a peep from the
Gareth Porter: Obama's Case for Syria Didn't Reflect Intel Consensus:
"In essence, the White House selected those elements of the intelligence
community assessments that supported the administration's policy of
planning a strike against the Syrian government force and omitted those
that didn't. In a radical departure from normal practice involving summaries
or excerpts of intelligence documents that are made public, the Syria
chemical weapons intelligence summary document was not released by the
Office of the Director of National Intelligence but by the White House
Office of the Press Secretary."
Linda J Bilmes: The Cost of Striking Syria: 4 Lessons From Iraq and
Afghanistan: "The Pentagon's accounting system is so flawed that
there is no way even to perform an audit. Indeed, officials admit they
have 'lost visibility' on tens of billions of dollars.
[ . . . ] We also do not account for the value of
lives lost, or the future value of deferred benefits owed to veterans.
The economic lessons from 12 years in Iraq and Afghanistan are that
we underestimated the costs, borrowed all the money to pay for them,
and failed to account for where it was all spent."
New claim that order for chemical attacks did not come from Assad.
Israel skeptical about Russian plan; Netanyahu said to be personally
lobbying Congress to support attack on Syria; also
Does Israel have chemical weapons too? When Syria signs, that
will leave only six nations in the world that haven't signed the
Chemical Weapons Convention: North Korea, Angola, Egypt, South
Sudan, Burma, and Israel.
Paul Woodward: Why Syria was so quick to support the chemical weapons
deal: "The only way of ensuring that the operation could successfully
be completed and that chemical weapons could be prevented from falling
into the hands of opposition militias would be for Assad to remain in
power. The United States and Russia would in effect become the guarantors
of Assad's continuing rule." There's something to this, and it certainly
won't set well with the insurgent groups. But this step also marks the
start of an effort to reform the Syrian government. There is still an
awful lot that needs to be done in that direction, but it strikes me
as more promising than waiting for a central government collapse and
subsequent fighting between the fractured resistance.
Helena Cobban: The Russia-Syria deal: What it means and what now?
Details how this is a win-win-win deal, then adds: "Who is this deal
not good for? I would say, firstly, the Qaeda-linked and other takfiris
in Syria, who have been working assiduously since spring 2011 to draw
the Americans in, in order to "win" their battles in Syria for them --
a gameplan they had pursued with such success in Libya in March 2011.
(Has anyone looked at the situation in Libya recently??)" Also: "The
deal is definitely not good for Susan Rice, Samantha Power, or John
Kerry. The attempts these three have made to (a) hype the threat in
Syria, (b) express certainty where none was warranted, and (c) sell
the war to Congress and the American people -- let alone that 95% of
humankind who are not U.S. citizens! -- have been mendacious,
ill-informed, and unsuccessful. They have led the president into
looking pretty stupid."
That's a good line to end on: "They have led the president into
looking pretty stupid." Unfortunately, if you read his
speech, you'll see that he has scarcely begun to recover.