Thursday, September 12, 2013

125.4 - Syria


So I'm going to talk a bit about the situation about Syria. I deliberately say "about" rather than "in" because the situation in Syria remains the same: People are dying every day.

But the situation about Syria is, as they say, in flux.

It came because of a supposedly off-hand comment by Secretary of State John Kerry, who when asked if there was anything Syrian President Bashar al-Assad could do to head off a US attack, said
"Sure. He could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week."
This was downplayed by White House reps and labeled an off-the-cuff statement by the State Department, one intended to show the impossibility of Assad doing so or wanting to do so. But it turned out that the idea had been broached by Russian President Vladimir Putin during his meeting with Barack Obama during the G20 summit last week.

So maybe it wasn't so unplanned, maybe it was a way to signal to Putin that the idea could be in play, particularly since Obama's chances of getting his war resolution passed by the Congress seemed to be getting dimmer by the day. It would hardly be the first time that supposedly casual, off-hand remarks have been used by governments to send signals to other governments.

If so, Putin seemed more than willing to take the opening: Within hours, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov promised to push Syria to adopt the idea. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem then embraced the proposal, as did Assad himself on Tuesday.

I have long said that if you want to avoid a war, if you want to avoid the death and bloodshed that even a so-called "limited" attack would involve, then you have to give the other side a way to back out without appearing to back down. I unfortunately can't remember that actual source, but it was a man who for some years was editor of Foreign Policy magazine and he once noted quite cogently that historically, when given a choice between humiliation and war, nations have shown a depressingly consistent preference for the latter.

This deal may be a way to allow both sides - Obama and Assad - to back out without appearing to back down.

But right now I'm not so sure this will work out and we may be right back at the same place in a couple of weeks. Maybe I'm wrong, hopefully I'm wrong, particularly since Assad has now said Syria will abide by the Chemical Weapons Convention, implicitly promising to destroy stocks of weapons that just days earlier he had denied he even had. But - well, we'll see.

The problem, as always, is the devil in the details and already red flags are going up. The US said it would take "a hard look" at the proposal, which involves working through the UN Security Council, and Obama even asked Congress to delay the Senate vote on his resolution - but also said he is "skeptical" of Assad's - and, by extension, Putin's - motives, a stance echoed by others in his administration.

Kerry, for example, says Syria must "go further" than declaring its chemical weapons stockpiles and signing the international treaty that bans them. He said the Syrian government must "live up to what they said just said they would do" and then cooperate with Russia "to work out a formula by which those weapons could be transferred to international control and destroyed." Which could be taken as wanting proof of sincerity on Syria's part or as goal-post shifting, depending on your point of view.

Even so, the White House says Obama has agreed to discussions at the United Nations Security Council on the Russian proposal to secure Syria's chemical weapons stockpiles. Obama discussed the idea with French President Francois Hollande and British Prime Minister David Cameron. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius says France will float a resolution in the U.N. Security Council aimed at forcing Syria to make public its chemical weapons program, place it under international control and dismantle it.

What's more, the UK, US and France want any Security Council resolution to include a timetable for Syria to act and want it to be passed under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, which allows for military action if other measures have not succeeded. The White House says that any resolution lacking a timetable would amount to a "stalling tactic" and that the US will "not fall for" that.

Russia, on the other hand, rejected the French draft and said that any text putting the blame on Syria for the August 21 chemical weapons attack was unacceptable. It urged a Security Council declaration backing its initiative to be passed under Chapter 6 - which does not allow for military action. Lavrov told Fabius that Russia would not countenance a resolution threatening Syria with force, and it seems unimaginable that Obama would, or politically could, accept a resolution lacking any specific means of enforcement.

And even after you get past all that there is simply the practical matter of doing it in the middle of a civil war when accounting for and dismantling weapons of any sort is hard enough in peacetime.

So that's where we stand right now, as I do this, realizing it could change quickly. What I'm going to do now is take a couple of minutes with some general observations.

One is that a number of people, mostly but not exclusively on the left, have raised questions about whether or not Assad was actually responsible for the gas attack on August 21. The basis for this is that one of the strongest pieces of evidence the US has offered to connect Assad to the attack is a "panicky phone call" from a Syrian defense official to the leader of a chemical weapons unit which the US intercepted. The thing is, to the very extent that call ties the regime to the attack, to that same extent it raises the question of if the attack was ordered from above or was it some lower-level commander doing it on his own.

For me, whatever the questions regarding the legalities, I say it still leaves Assad responsible: He ordered the creation of these weapons, he ordered the distribution of these weapons, and he created the mechanisms for their use. We on the left have never been willing to let the higher-ups walk free while the grunts got the blame. When, for example, Abu Ghraib came to light, we were not willing to exculpate the generals who had created the circumstances on grounds that they had not specifically ordered the abuse. So it should be here.

Another point is that the American public is clearly, even overwhelmingly, opposed to a military strike.

A HuffingtonPost/YouGov poll found that just 18 percent thought U.S. airstrikes against the Syrian government would stop the use of chemical weapons there, while 48 percent thought they wouldn't. 57 percent said airstrikes would not help to end the fighting in Syria. Pluralities said the attacks would increase the rate of civilian casualties and the mission would be a first step toward sending U.S. troops into Syria.

An NBC News poll had 50 percent of respondents opposing the US taking military action against Syria; just 42 percent who support it. Importantly, a massive number, 79 percent, said the president should be required to receive congressional approval before taking any action.

The ABC News / Washington Post poll showed 59 percent of Americans opposed to US missile strikes in Syria and a majority remain opposed even if its presented as an allied attack.

And then we have the administration's pathetic claims that "this is not a war."

Really? Seriously? You're going to drop "a few hundred" cruise missiles on at least 50 sites around Syria and claim that "we're not going to war?" What, then, do you say to Rep. Zoe Lofgren, who said "anyone who argues that shooting missiles and dropping bombs on another country is not an act of war" needs to go back to school. After all, she said, "If somebody shot cruise missiles at Washington for only one day, we would still consider it an act of war, wouldn’t we?”

And what do you say to Gen. Martin Dempsey, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who said about Syria in a letter to Sen. Carl Levin on July 19, that a “decision to use force is not one that any of us takes lightly. It is no less than an act of war.”

And for all their talk about "limited" this and "restricted" that and "not doing" the other, Kerry still left open the possibility of "boots on the ground" in his testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the event Syria "imploded, for instance." He tried to walk that back, but it still hangs out there, like a bad smell in the air.

A particularly bad smell because despite its claims that it's not actually trying to overthrow Assad, the Obama administration is considering a plan to use US military trainers to help train the Syrian rebels.

Right now, such training is done by the CIA, with the trainees counted in the dozens. If the military takes over, that number could be expanded to the thousands.

Finally, too big for today, I will do this next week because it will remain an issue no matter what happens with the UN: the number of people, the number of leaders, including people on the supposed left or at least liberal part of the spectrum, who openly avow that the president, any president, has the power to ignore the Constitution and the Congress and attack any country anywhere, anytime, whenever that president on their own authority, answerable to no one, decides its a good idea. That is a frightening notion.


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