A Syrian rebel throws a handmade weapon in Aleppo, June 11, 2013. (Reuters/Muzaffar Salman)
In the aftermath of President Obama’s clumsy deal with Russia over Syria’s chemical weapons, it seems likely that the Obama administration will draw precisely the wrong conclusion from the last couple of weeks. That’s because they’ve convinced themselves that the reason Russia and Syria agreed to the deal is that the United States was blackmailing them by the threat of force.
Which gets everything exactly backward.
By the time the Russians surfaced their plan to work with the United States and the UN to take control of Syria’s chemical stockpiles and destroy them, the possibility that the United States would attack Syria was approximately zero. At that point, you’ll recall, the British parliament had voted down an attack, American public opinion had turned sharply against war, President Obama had collected almost no international support for war with Syria, and it was increasingly clear that Congress was going to reject the president’s demand for an authorization to use military force. In addition, White House officials were signaling that without congressional authorization, it would be extremely difficult—read: politically impossible—to strike Syria.
I’m pretty sure that the folks in Moscow and Damascus could figure that out.
So, at that moment, just before the Russian offer was made, Obama was facing a catastrophic defeat in the arena of foreign policy. So serious was it that many commentators—left, right and center—predicted that Obama could not recover from a congressional rejection of the use of military force, and that Obama would be essentially a lame duck, at least in foreign affairs, for the next three years.
There was, of course, a moment when a US attack on Syria seemed almost certain. But that was in late August, when it appeared that the United States was gearing up for a unilateral attack, without UN approval and without backing from Congress. At that moment, it also appeared as if the British and the French would both join in enthusiastically, à la Libya, in flagrant disregard for international law. But that all fell apart, and it was left to the Russians to step in with a plan that not only bailed out Obama but helps Russia’s position in the Middle East and the world immensely. All of a sudden, Russia’s Middle East prestige has soared, its world standing has been bolstered, its credibility with its allies—especially Syria and Iran—is stronger, and this has set the stage for broader political deals that could stabilize Syria (and preserve the rule of President Bashar al-Assad), bring Iran into the Syria talks and create a framework for a broader agreement over Iran’s nuclear program and Tehran’s regional role.
Despite all that, the Obama administration insists—in every forum where its officials, the secretary of state and the president speak—that it is determined to hold the threat of force over the heads of everyone involved. If the talks break down—and they might, as least for a time, over any number of legitimate stumbling blocks—the United States will once again be prepared to bomb Syria, say the president and Secretary of State John Kerry. At the UN, where the US-Russian accord is to be codified in a UN Security Council resolution, the United States and France, at least, are intent on making sure that such a resolution include authorization for military action against Syria if its implementation stalls. (Russia, of course, will veto any resolution like that in a New York minute.)
Not only that, but the United States may not be able to launch an attack now, no matter what happens. Obama’s advisers have informed him that there is no chance that Congress will approve an attack if and when the US-Russia deal falters, and the public’s attention is elsewhere.
So the Syrian rebels are unhappy and grumbling, because they know that Russia has succeeded in strengthening Assad through 2014, at least. Now it’s time to go to Geneva II for a political settlement of the civil war, one which no doubt will result in Assad staying on for a while, at least.
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