The great Syrian deal

By Jonathan Power

One way of measuring the success of President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry in forging a plan with Russia to rid Syria of chemical weapons is to think how the scenario would have been conducted if George W. Bush were still president. He wouldn’t have taken the issue to Congress. He would have distrusted any Russian initiative and not delayed his timetable for an imminent military strike. Strike first, talk afterwards, is how he would have seen it.

This makes President Obama look good. But not as good as he might have been. From the beginning he made it clear he would neither wait for the UN on-the-ground inspectors’ report or the approval, which he knew he would not get, of the UN Security Council. At the same time he made no convincing case why the US should ignore its solemn commitment to the UN Charter, opening the way for Russia, China or anyone to ignore it when they had, in their own opinion, reason to do so.

He also never answered the conundrum of why he had boxed himself into a corner with his loose talk about what he would do if the Syrian government crossed his red line – the use of chemical weapons? Why draw it there and with this particular class of weapons? Nearly every day the regime of Bashar al-Assad kills more people with missiles and bombs than it killed on that day, August 21st, when the chemical weapons were used. (In the deadliest air raid of World War 2, over 100,000 Tokyo residents were killed in one day in a US air force attack using incendiary bombs alone – as many deaths as Hiroshima.)

Obama has come in for criticism over what appeared to be his zigzagging from one initiative to another. The Financial Times quotes a British official as saying, “I can’t think of a foreign policy issue in my life time where America has offered us so little sense of strategy and such a strong sense of making things up as it went along”.

It is true there was an apparent lack of strategy – what would come after a strike? What if Syria retaliated by bombarding a US warship close up in the Mediterranean? What if the strike tipped the scales more in favour of the extremist Al-Qaeda-type cadres which increasingly dominate the rebel forces?

But to criticise him for zigzagging with his unexpected, very personal, decision to take the matter to Congress (he didn’t inform his secretaries of state and defence until after he made his decision) is grossly unfair. In the days after the British parliament voted against military action it had become apparent that public opinion the world over, not least in his own country, was against the planned strikes. Only Congressional support could give him the moral and constitutional authority he needed. Some say, even if defeated, he would have gone ahead on his own say-so. I very much doubt he would have overridden the will of Congress when it was so clearly and loudly expressed.

That was his major “zig”. His “zag” on accepting to seriously discuss the Russian proposal for leaning on Assad to give up his chemical weapons stockpiles was because he was convinced that President Vladamir Putin was not out to get one over him and sabotage the plan to go to war. When Putin made his play it was clear to Putin that Congress was already about to vote “nay”.

Obama obviously thought Putin was sincere, even if the apparent sincerity had to be tested. It has been clear for months that Russia itself has a red line when it comes to chemical weapons. If Assad looses control of some of his chemical weapons’ stocks Russia doesn’t want to see them ending up in the hands of its own Al Qaeda-type rebels.

The quick way an agreement was fashioned in Geneva is testimony to this. Russia now is in as much a hurry as the Americans. Doubtless, it will baulk at any words in a planned Security Council resolution that would give the Americans immediate authority to strike Syria if Assad doesn’t, as promised, cooperate. But by agreeing that the resolution would state clearly that if Assad doesn’t comply then further action would be discussed under Chapter 7 of the Charter, which is only ever used when economic sanctions and force are to be authorised, the Russians have implicitly fudged their own position on the issue of force.

One important issue remains – Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Lebanon cannot afford to look after two million refugees as winter approaches. The money that was going to be spent on war (or on arms in Russia’s case) needs to be diverted in this direction before winter comes. And the rest of the world, thankful that war has been averted, must give much more.

Copyright: Jonathan Power 2013

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