What to Watch for: Possibility of Russian-Backed Chemical Weapons Deal to Avert Strike

[UPDATE: it now seems the Russian proposal may have originated with comments by former Israeli intelligence chief Amos Yadlin. Here.]

Did the Russia-Iranian-Assad axis just spectacularly outfox Obama’s war plans for Syria?

In the midst of Congress’s fumbling of the Syrian question, which seems set to turn very nasty indeed for Obama, there is a surprising new development to watch for: the possibility of a Russian-backed deal on which Assad will ‘place his chemical weapons under international inspection’ in return for averting a US attack.

What happened? In one of his many emphatic arguments advocating a Syrian strike, Secretary Kerry recently responded to a question by saying that Assad might avert a strike if “he could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week — turn it over, all of it, without delay and allow the full and total accounting.”

It seems that in this statement Kerry misspoke to some degree, not dissimilar to Obama with his improvised red lines. At least, after the press conference Kerry’s spokesperson immediately tried to walk back the comments in question, suggesting they constituted a mere reductio ad absurdum: clearly Assad will never turn over his chemical arsenal, which he has so carefully stockpiled over many years and never admitted to even possessing!

Wrong.

Russia immediately seems to have pounced on the opportunity to avoid a potential collapse of the Syrian regime by suggesting to Assad that he accept Kerry’s ‘offer’. And by mouth of Syrian FM Walid Muallam, the Syrian government now seems to have accepted (though there seems to be confusion on whether Syria also agrees to have the weapons ‘ultimately destroyed’, as Russia’s plan entails).

What may be the consequences of this development? Of course the US could simply ignore the Russian suggestion. But what if they feel compelled to accept the consequences of Kerry’s statement (which no doubt leaves many Americans happy to avoid war)?

In that case, the consequences may seem double. On the one hand Obama may be glad to avoid a vote in Congress, and happy to save face with some sort of deal. On the other hand, however, the real winners may seem Russia and Assad: once again they outfoxed Obama’s strategy concerning Syria, and this time the consequences may be serious—- now that the threat of US force is taken off the table, clearly it will not be back any time soon. After all, is Obama going want to repeat this Congress farce in the near future?

This means Assad will have a free reign to continue fighting the rebels, and who knows, perhaps he can even do some nibbling on the conditions of the Russian ‘deal’. Obama backing off would also spell bad news for those who are concerned about an Iranian nuclear weapon— it would underscore Obama’s weakness in the use of force, and his desperation for anything resembling a diplomatic way out of difficulties, no matter the consequences for allies involved.

No matter what the outcome though, unless Kerry’s statement was indeed intended policy, we can only marvel at the loose-lippedness allowed by the Obama administration. In general communication about the Syria question has been poor so far, with Kerry repeatedly employing bombastic jargon, only to be subsequently contradicted by other Obama officials (example: Kerry has repeatedly called the evidence against Syria ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’, while Obama aide McDonough has been denying this, and called it more of a ‘common sense’ question).

More generally, just consider this: using force in Syria only entered the stage in large part due to Obama’s ad-libbing about ‘red lines’; now the same sort of improvisation may be moving it off stage again. One hates to agree with Karl Rove on anything, but “amateur hour” seems not far off as an apt description.

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