Americans awoke to the possibility this morning that the US has found a ‘solution’ to the Syria situation. The Times is reporting that the US and Russia have reached an agreement to remove or destroy Syria’s chemical weapons by mid-2014 (the official state department framework document on this agreement is here).
If this deal goes through, two things are clear. First, for now at least, using chemical weapons worked for Assad. The Russia-US deal that the WH wants to spin as a win contains no mention of Assad leaving power, much less facing international justice for a massacre involving chemical weapons. The precedent is now set that, if it has Russia’s support at the UN, a rogue regime can gas its own people and emerge in a stronger diplomatic position. Unless something changes this new status quo, the use of chemical weapons in a civil war is no longer a grave crime against humanity. It is more of a violation, like a speeding ticket. Assad has some points on his license, but he’s still at the wheel of his car.
Second, the deal a weakened Kerry accepted as the best he could get under the circumstances confirms the loss of prestige for Obama in the Middle East— again, for now. Assad must go, said Obama. Assad must not gas, said Obama. Assad has gassed and he will not go. This is big. The White House wants everyone to focus on the prospects for getting Syria’s chemical weapons under control, but this effort to distract attention from a diplomatic climbdown won’t work with the hard eyed realists who calculate power realities in the Middle East — and in Beijing and Pyongyang, for that matter. If the WH had forced a comparably humiliating step down on Putin’s part, the MSM would be full of hosannas and alleluias to the wisdom and greatness of the brilliance of US diplomacy. Andrew Sullivan’s joy would truly know no bounds—evil gay-bashing dictator humiliated by the gay-friendly, now fully evolved Obama.
But this defeat is not irreversible, if US policy is still to get rid of Assad. Whether from internal dissension within the regime, pressure from rebels, or a combination of both, Assad can still go down. That would turn a diplomatic defeat into a real world win. Obama would make his point, and Putin would be left playing air guitar.
The most optimistic view of what is going on would be this: Due to a lack of domestic support, President Obama concluded that direct military strikes by the US are off the table, but he still wants to get this job done. However, it’s not clear whether the administration is still determined to get rid of Assad; it may have now decided that, due to the weakness,the disunity and the nasty pro-terror links of some of the rebels, that the US is better off with Assad in power than if he falls.
That may in fact be true, or at least what the WH believes based on solid intelligence. However, it would mean a sudden and startling change in perspective—until a few days ago the WH was ready to mount military strikes that would have weakened Assad and helped the rebels.
So if the administration still believes that US interests would be served by the overthrow of an inept and brutal dictator who has violated one of the most fundamental taboos in international life and who is strategically linked with America’s most dangerous opponent in the Middle East, then the road forward is clear. Under cover of the deal with Russia, the US administration will encourage and perhaps, from far in the rear and in relatively quiet ways, assist the Saudis and others who see the overthrow of Assad as the next step in the process of containing Iran.
The other calculation now will be what the Saudis and their allies do. We haven’t seen any sign that they are less committed to Assad’s overthrow than before. Do they step up their aid to the rebels and redouble their efforts to help the Sunnis win the sectarian civil war in Syria? They could have many reasons for doing so: a mix of religious solidarity with fellow Sunnis, ambition to solidify their position as the chief upholder of Sunnism in the Islamic world, and determination to curb the pretensions and power of Iran.
And if the Saudis and friends and frenemies (the Turks are not their friends but Erdogan also wants to see Assad go) continue to push Assad’s overthrow, will the US a) quietly support them in various ‘lead from way, way behind’ ways b) wash its hands of Syria completely and take a ‘que sera sera’ approach or c) actively work, perhaps with Russia, against the Saudis and others to organize a ‘political solution’ that leaves Assad in Damascus?
In the coming days and weeks if we see the US taking path (a), that’s a sign that the WH recognized that domestic opposition made a military strike too hard, but is still committed to the same line of policy and is working to carry it out under the new circumstances. If it takes path (b), it’s a sign that the WH doesn’t really know what to do about Syria and has opted for hope and prayer.
From the evidence we’ve seen so far, however, the WH is most likely to take option (c), less because it has a clear policy in mind than because (c) is the option that different factions in the president’s entourage can unite behind.
Chastened Syria hawks, who would still like Assad out, but have lost standing in the WH due to the political storm their hawkish advice generated last week, might embrace this option in the hope of converting it to a diplomatic effort to get rid of Assad. And then there are the Syria doves, who fall into two main camps. First, there are the doves who think that trying to overthrow Assad is bad for the US, either because they fear possible chaos and terrorism if the rebels win or because they worry US efforts to overthrow Assad would undermine those elusive ‘moderates’ in Iran and prevent a grand bargain. Then there are those who just don’t care that much about foreign policy and want this mess off Obama’s hands as quickly as possible so he can focus on domestic issues. All these doves will push for a deal as quickly as possible.
Choosing option (c), then, is less a strategy than a way that the administration can avoid making a definitive choice. Based on past performance, that is exactly why the President seems likely to choose it, and also why it is unlikely to bring him success. But the world is a complicated place, strange things happen in it, other people also make mistakes, and sometimes playing for time works out.
So far, playing for time on Syria has just made things worse, but who knows? Tomorrow is another day. We shall see.
[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.]