walter russell mead peter berger lilia shevtsova adam garfinkle andrew a. michta
Published on: September 14, 2013
Kerry-Lavrov Bottom Line: Assad Has Gassed But He Will Not Go


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.]

show comments
  • USNK2

    Mr. Mead: the Saudi Sunnis want Damascus back as a Sunni capital.
    The Sunnis believe the Alawi are worse than heretics; they believe they are secret Christians.
    Assad is only useful to Iran if Hezbollah stays in power in Lebanon.

    And, rather harsh to assume that Russia is “…America’s most dangerous opponent in the Middle East …” when Hezbollah and Iran are the real threat.

  • Gene

    “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.”

    That describes such a large portion of Obama’s base, and such a large portion of the rest of America, the most likely outcome is option (c) as you described, in my opinion. I think succumbing to that very natural but lazy default position will sooner or later bring disaster in its wake (possibly somewhere other than the Middle East). Unfortunately the American people will get, to paraphrase H.L. Mencken, “what it wants, good and hard.”

  • Jacksonian_Libertarian

    Then there are those that see “Divide and Conquer” as an excellent strategy, and would seek to hurt which ever combatant is ascendant at the moment, with the objective of giving the final victor standing in a pile of rubble that used to be Syria, a well deserved Pyrrhic victory.

    The murderous Islamic cultures of the middle east, need an outlet for their rage, and as long as they are focused on each other, they will lack the resources to plot murder on the west.

    • BrianFrankie

      While I share your sentiments, I do not think what you outline will have the ends you wish. The longer the war goes on, the larger and better the jihadi forces become. Nothing teaches quite so well as battlefield experience. Let them battle 10 years, and you’ll be left with a large cadre of experienced, trained, aggressive operators.
      If you want Syria and other Muslim countries to transform themselves to peaceful nations, do not encourage war.

  • Pete

    Well, whatever happens in the Middle East from here on out, one bit of silver lining in this mess might be the defeat of RINO Lindsey Graham in the SC primary race for the senate seat.

  • Lyle7

    Obama was just joshing us when he said Assad must go. At least Assad is killing Al Qaeda.

    Sunni Muslim Syrians… now’s the time to run for your lives. Get out of the country because Assad has the green light to do whatever he wants to you.

  • Anthony

    “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 place….” WRM, perhaps conditions, circumstances, developing power balances, New Middle East order, etc. all mitigate against your inference (WMD use no longer inviolable) at present. “But the world is a complicated place, strange things happen in it, other people also make mistakes” and Assad’s use of chemical weapons may yet bring…. Sometimes it is important to develop an accurate sense of the appropriateness of a flexible or rigid consequence for a given situation.

    Mores WRM constitute the field of power and stepping out of bounds too often disrupts momentum – power is mortgaged; repayments are inescapable. So we shall see

  • purusha

    Going to war, not going to war, either way, Mead is paid to spin everything as a disaster for Obama.


    • bpuharic

      Exactly. The right seems to have lost the ability to do evidence based analysis and is now in full apocalyptic meltdown.

      • Brian O’Connor

        And the left has gone all amnesiac — history? What’s that??

        • bpuharic

          The right has a history

          It makes it up every day.

          • Brian O’Connor

            Troll lesson:

            You’re wrong!

            Lesson over!

    • cubanbob

      You got cause and effect backwards. The problem is Obama is a disaster for America.

      • bpuharic

        4400 dead US soldiers would make an eloquent argument against right wing policies…if they could

        • Brian O’Connor

          Millions of dead following the appeasement policies of the 1930s would argue that avoiding military action at all costs might be, er, suboptimal.

          But I forget myself . . . WW11 is Bush’s fault.

        • lukelea

          Off topic, but when I ran into this link I thought of you, bpuharic:

      • purusha

        Go back to staring at FOXNEWS

        • Brian O’Connor

          IRS, Fast & Furious, NBPP, Benghazi, & etc.

          Never in the course of human events have so many been so screwed so many times by a single president.

          (With apologies to Winston Churchill.)

          • bpuharic

            To the right wing, a minor event by a rogue IRS agent is more important than

            a 2 trillion dollar war

            that killed 4400 US troops

            along with a depression that put 8 million out of work

            while taking 19 trillion in equity out of the economy

            requiring a bailout of the rich by the middle class.

            The right wing makes up in quality what it lacks in quantity. When IT screws up it puts the nation in danger

          • Brian O’Connor

            You’re not a very good troll! You need lessons!

            I’ll school you. Are you ready?

            No, the IRS misdeeds were directly ordered and supervised by the president himself. (AFAIK, a lie, but since when did truth matter?)

            Our participation in WW11 was all the fault of that radical far left president FDR. If he hadn’t sanctioned Japan and instead just let them do their China two-step, Japan never would have attacked Pearl Harbor.

            What’s any combination of economic woes compared to the millions killed by that far-left radical FDR?

            Answer me that!

            See how easy being a troll is?

          • bpuharic

            Hmmm…now the right’s denying the Iraq war even took place.

            Scary. These folks are really scary…

          • Brian O’Connor

            Troll lesson 2 – how it’s done:

            Better than denying that the far-left, baby-killing, bloody-handed FDR dragged the US into WWII, causing the deaths of millions of babies.

            And then there’s the far-left Woodrow Wilson, who dragged us into WWI.

            Lesson over.

          • purusha

            Yeah, weren’t the Bush years just dandy, what with the imploding world economy and all?

  • amerxp

    Christians fear radical Islamists have been swelling rebel ranks and mostly comprise Salafi terrorists funded by Saudi Arabia and Persian Gulf Arab puppet regimes.They also fear the same fate as a number of Christians during the war in Iraq, where militants targeted them and spurred many to leave the country. Christians make up roughly 10% of the population.

    • BrianFrankie

      The Salafi / jihadi units currently compose around 20% of total rebel forces. They are growing and strengthening. The way to stop this is to end the war ASAP. Syria is not naturally fertile terrain for jihadi’s. Absent the war, they would be defeated fairly quickly.

      • amerxp

        But if Salafism grew out of one impasse, it has led into another. It gained prominence at a time when the rest of the armed opposition was stuck in a military stalemate, yet it has further polarised society and, by heightening the sectarian character of the conflict, reinforced arguments of those it purports to fight Remember that jihadism is not an exclusive Sunni phenomenon; Shiite jihad is also a flourishing business. The Lebanese guerrilla organization Hezbollah is a perfect example. The assumption that a collapse of Assad’s regime would lead Hezbollah, and its patron Iran, to give up on Syria is wishful thinking to say the least. If Assad was ousted, the Shiite Crescent would suffer a huge setback, but their resilience and tenacity would help them endure the pain, and formulate a new survival strategy. For them, the best comeback is to declare jihad in Syria, and hence a counter-Sunni jihad could easily emerge. In other words, while an early military intervention in Syria might have prevented the leak-in of Sunni jihadists, the weakness of a wartorn post-Assad Syria would almost certainly invite them in in the name of fighting Shiite terrorists. Thanassis Cambanis argues that Syria could turn out to be Iran’s Vietnam, but it could also easily be the opposite: Turning Syria into Vietnam could be the Iranian revenge.

  • Corlyss

    “So if the administration still believes that US interests would be served by the overthrow . . .”

    After all this they should make a choice and stick with it. Do SOMETHING even if it is wrong! There’s no “right” choice here. Just choices that make us look a) weak, b) pathetic, or c) ridiculous. While Dear Leader dithers, chasing after Russian phantasms, we look all three. To dust off an old canard, we’re going up against chess-players with a guy that likes to shoot hoops with people shorter than him.

  • LevasC

    Bad logic: “using chemical weapons worked for Assad” WTF? No he will give up it..
    Americans so illogic these days :D

  • ljgude

    Dead is dead by gas or by bullet. My sense for some time has been that Syria would be better off partitioned. So I think option ‘c’ could possible work out well. Don’t get me wrong, I think disaster is the most likely outcome. But indulge me while I channel my inner Tom Friedman.Let’s say the Sunnis in Syria amalgamate with the Sunnis in Iraq and form a new country. Likewise the Kurds in Iraq and Syria form another nation. And Assad is confined to the traditional lands of the Alawites, Druze and Christians. That would leave Iran with a Kurdish problem, but they have gas and nukes so that shouldn’t be a problem. Likewise Turkey is not going to cede any territory to the Kurds, but both countries could experience population loss. Just dreamin’.

  • ripol

    Why on earth do we want to support the cannibals in Syria? Sure, gassing people is awful (though why you weren’t so upset when the rebels did it is beyond me) but surely eating your enemies is worse?

  • CiporaJuliannaKohn

    Putin has won the Syria card.
    Putin also saved Obama from a war in Syria which looked increasingly unpalatable given that the rebels are not mostly nationalistic secular types.
    Putin thereby handed Obama a free hand in Iran, a much more important issue as Obama himself has acknowledged.
    The question is whether Obama will muster the courage, sincerity and resolve to deal with Iran seriously rather than a shell game.
    The so-called international community has lost every vestige of prestige that it has so often unduly claimed. Tyrants can commit crimes against humanity and use weapons of mass destruction without any fear of retribution.

  • ThomasD

    Obama won’t dare topple Assad – at least not in any way that could be pinned on him (or the US.)

    That would put him on the hook for securing Assad’s chemical weapons, lest they fall into the hands of someone willing to use them elsewhere.

    No, by the terms of this fiasco we, the United States, have become the guarantor of Assad’s security.

    Had Obama said, or done nothing over the last three weeks the Assad regime would be less secure than it is today.

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