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Snookered or Saved on Syria?


So what exactly happened with Syria yesterday? Was Secretary Kerry’s off-the-cuff quip exploited by a wily Putin? Or was it a lucky break that helps defuse a major rolling disaster for President Obama? (We’re ruling out the variant suggested by the President’s most fawning admirers, some of whom affected to see a deeply laid master plan at work.) Josh Marshall argues that Obama got lucky rather than rolled yesterday, and tries to game out how it could play out from here on out:

Don’t look at the offer but the trajectory of events it puts in place. Russia coming forth with this proposal puts in motion a chain of events which totally reshuffles deck internationally in a way that is much more favorable to the US and to the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons capacity. The Russians (and Chinese) Security Council veto has always been the key variable in this drama. But Russia has proposed this course. The White House quickly floated it past UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. He wants to bring this before the Security Council. So that will happen. And it will be extremely difficult for the Russians to veto it.

The key to understand is that this starts a UN Security Council process that probably won’t be vetoed (the Chinese being the wildcard). Soon you’ll have some sort of force on the ground in country inspecting and securing these weapons or knocking at the door of an isolated and recalcitrant Syrian regime.

It’s a good post and worth a read. For our part, though, we’ll hold back on speculating on what this all means just yet. For one thing, it’s far from certain that it would be all that difficult for the Russians to reverse course. As of writing, news was breaking that according to the French foreign minister, the Russians are against a binding UNSC resolution. And playing fancy games about words, resolutions, timing, the details of inspections and so forth is exactly the kind of thing that mass murderers like to do as they merrily continue wreaking mayhem. If Moscow, Damascus and Beijing want to make America look clueless and helpless as they tie the Obama administration down in a procedural labyrinth, they may have no shortage of opportunities to do exactly that.

In any case, our last big Syria piece closed with a hope that the good foreign policy fairy would wave her wand at this mess.  If this is not a full scale wave of the wand, it’s at least a little sprinkle of pixie dust, covering at least temporarily what yesterday threatened to avalanche into a major disaster. Overall, it’s good news that today people are arguing over whether the US is in a good place or not—while 24 hours ago there was little debate anywhere but that the administration was in a deep and ugly predicament.

It’s not an answer, it’s not a safe haven, it’s not a solution to the contradictions and inconsistencies that enmeshed the Obama administration in a tight and nasty tangle — but neither is it a catastrophic public meltdown and a historic fiasco. That was about the best Obama could hope for yesterday; he’s got some breathing space in which, with luck, he might actually be able to figure out a viable Syria policy.

But we hope the good foreign policy fairy doesn’t think her work is done; the United States needs some more special providence if we are going to get out of this mess with nothing worse than a bit of bruised self-esteem.

[A man holds portrait of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin (R) and Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad (L) during a rally in support of Syrian regime in front of the US Embassy in Moscow in October 2012. Photo courtesy Getty Images.]

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  • rheddles

    “God has a special providence for fools, drunks, and the United States of America.”

  • Anthony

    “So what exactly happened with Syria yesterday?….” A little bit of both WRM and your request at end of “The Constitution….” for special providence caught some ear (foreign policy fairy???).

  • Clayton Holbrook

    Couldn’t this just amount to Assad and his allies buying even more time? And what of the accountability for the use of chemical weapons in August? Allowing for UN inspectors to gather up weapons the Assad regime decides to allow them to could perhaps prevent those particular weapons from being used. But it’s hardly the accountability President Obama was looking for.

    Asked whether Assad could do anything to avert military strikes, Secretary Kerry said, “Sure. He could 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 the full and total accounting for that. But he isn’t about to do it.”

    So what about that “full and total accounting part”? Is simply allowing for UN inspectors to gather chemical weapons in Syria fulfilling that? To me, that means holding Assad accountable for using them. Which would mean arrest and prosecution for war crimes, no? And I don’t think that will be part of this agreement if it goes down.

    I’m really hoping that Syria and Russia aren’t just calling Sec. Kerry’s bluff. To me it seems like sweet deal for Assad who was responsible for gassing his own citizens and now would face little immediate accountability.

  • Matt B

    Does anyone seriously believe that Vladimir Putin is America’s Foreign Policy Fairy? Apparently Barack Obama believes it’s possible. We’ll now be treated to at least 2 more weeks of dithering.

  • BrianFrankie

    This is rich. Now, we’ll be able to watch for years as Assad and Putin play rope-a-dope with the US.

    Haven’t we seen this movie before? Oh, right – that would be Iraq from 1991 to March 2003, when Saddam finally ran out of time to string along the UN inspectors. Does anyone imagine the process will be any less difficult, or shorter, in Syria? If so, why? Are conditions for UN inspectors easier in civil-war-torn Syria? Is Assad less cunning than Saddam? Is Assad’s support from external parties like Russia and Iran weaker than Iraq’s was? Is the UN more unified now than in the 1990’s? Does anyone who is not a partisan hack perceive President Obama as more resolute than Presidents Bush, Clinton, or Bush on these matters?

    Honestly, VM, it is abundantly clear that this is not a wave of the foreign policy fairy’s wand, or even a sprinkling of pixie dust. It is a joke, and an especially sick, twisted, not-at-all-funny joke.

    • PapayaSF

      Not only that, but how, exactly, would this work? They call a ceasefire so that the UN can visit Assad’s most secret and secure weapons depots? All the Al Qaeda types sit back and watch scores or hundreds of trucks filled with chemical weapons rumble down the highway to a port? Like any of that’s going to happen anytime soon.

  • Ethan_C

    I’m thinking of this from Assad’s perspective. He agrees to allow “international control” of his weapons. Well, that’ll be a multi-year process at the very least, fraught with danger and complications. And who will we have to make sure stays around for all of it? Why, Mr. Assad, of course. No more “Assad must go” talk now, I think! Well played, Bashar.

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