Syria, Chemical Weapons, and the Kremlin’s Defeat of Obama

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on April 11, 2014

That Barack Obama’s indecision on Syria is final there has been no doubt for some time. But it is worse than that. When the subject comes up in the Situation Room, President Obama could be found “disengaged …, sometimes scrolling through messages on his BlackBerry or slouching and chewing gum.” Obama has said that any effort to arrest the carnage in Syria has to be weighed against those being “killed in the Congo“. The Congo, alas for them, offers no compelling strategic rationale for involvement. Syria, meanwhile, is intimately bound up with the effort to check the Iranian theocracy’s bid for regional hegemony and nuclear weapons. If that really has to be pointed out to the President then we are in greater trouble than anyone guessed. Fortunately he does seem to know: he just doesn’t care. His effort is, above all else, to stay out of Syria. President Obama’s election was in no small part on the basis of his “ending” the war in Iraq—a war you might notice has not ended just because American troops have abandoned the country, rather to the contrary—and in his “interim” nuclear deal with clerical Iran the implicit condition was that Tehran could have a free-hand in Syria in exchange for delaying its “breakout” until after Obama leaves office.

Now another reason for Obama’s hesitance has obtruded itself: the chemical weapons “deal” struck last September. Purportedly, this deal called off the then-impending military strikes against the Bashar regime as punishment for the massacre of 1,400 people with chemical weapons of mass destruction (CWMD) on the morning of August 21, 2013, in the Ghouta suburbs, and in return the regime would cede its CWMD. The deal was doomed from the start. John Schindler called it a “classic case of … active measures“. Michael Weiss elaborated:

At their most elegant, active measures were intended to make a dupe feel that he himself had originated some ultimately self-defeating idea or stratagem when the true credit belonged to Moscow Center.”

Obama had already backed down from swift retribution for the gas attack by throwing the matter to Congress on August 31. But then on September 9, Secretary of State John Kerry made an apparent “goof,” saying in London that Assad “could turn over every bit of his [chemical] weapons … without delay,” and this would abrogate the need for strikes. In the administration’s telling, Russia’s gruesome Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov latched onto this, and here we are. In reality, Vladimir Putin had been pressing this scheme since June 2012, and had voiced it again directly to President Obama three days before Kerry’s statement at the G20.

In short, the “deal” to get rid of Syria’s chemical weapons was a case of the Obama administration being thoroughly outmanoeuvred by the Kremlin.

What the deal did do was re-legitimise Bashar al-Assad. How could he give up the weapons if he lost control of them? So now an interest was created in his remaining in power. To get the CWMD, there needed to be a path to Latakia, so when the regime killed and conquered its way back into control of as-Safira and Qalamoun in the name of securing the highways to the coast, they were praised by the United Nations for “taking steps to secure” the CWMD.

This has put the Obama administration in a bind when it has now finally accepted that it is being defied at every turn by the Bashar regime and thus should back the rebels, at least enough to pressure Assad to negotiate. Earlier this week the Wall Street Journal reported on a schism now opening in the administration: Samantha Power and Kerry are pushing for more help to the rebellion; Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel are opposing. Among the reasons for opposing arming the rebellion are “worries the Assad regime would halt cooperation on the removal of chemical weapons“. Indeed,

Eliminating those stockpiles peacefully is so high a priority for the Obama administration that some U.S. officials have argued against escalating the American effort to topple Assad for fear that such a push would persuade the Syrian strongman to hold onto his weapons even longer.”

This is truly to have lost sight of strategy for the sake of process. But of course it is worse than that: that process was never designed to work. The damage to U.S. prestige and the moderate rebels by stepping back from those strikes would not have been worth it even if the CWMD were actually to be removed but even that is not true. Obama might strike that “realist” tone when confronted with this disastrous episode—he is “less concerned about style points” and “much more concerned with getting the policy right”—but it would be a brazen apologist who said that this had been gotten right.

That Wall Street Journal piece made this observation on the inter-administration wrangling: “It isn’t clear where Mr. Obama stands.” Previously, a senior White House official had said that one “could read the President’s position through [national security adviser] Tom [Donilon] and [Chief of Staff] Denis [McDonough],” but the President avoided giving direct views. (This is distressing in itself: McDonough believes allowing a Hizballah-Qaeda war in Syria will lessen their numbers rather than radicalise the country and swell their ranks.)

Throughout this whole saga the sense of an administration, and especially a President, adrift has been unmistakeable. Obama called on Bashar to quit in August 2011 and the dictator hunkered down; Obama did nothing. Obama drew a “red line” around CWMD; when the moment came to enforce it he would not pull the trigger. Having refused to bring to account a petty tyrant, Obama was then aghast to learn that “Russian, Iranian, and Chinese officials were discussing how weak the U.S. now looked“. As the man who would not have acted to stop the Ghouta attack, even if he had read the intelligence, because it looked smaller scale and he had decided that some uses of weapons of mass destruction against civilians were “ordinary,” he had no right to this surprise.

The harvest of stepping back from those strikes is now playing out in the Crimea. Moscow has wanted the Ukraine in its orbit since the Soviet Union collapsed and would have continued covert subversive tactics no matter what: it had to sense real weakness to go for an open invasion and annexation. The Kremlin probed first on Syria and found only mush; now it is sure of itself it has moved on to the main event.

14 thoughts on “Syria, Chemical Weapons, and the Kremlin’s Defeat of Obama

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