Yesterday morning, as the White House and its allies in the legislature went into overdrive to secure Congressional and international support for an attack on Syria, the Russian government urged its Syrian allies to forestall an American bombing campaign by turning over its chemical weapons to international control. Voices in the Syrian government expressed interest in the option. The Russian government is expert at using false diplomatic starts to further its own ends, but whether or not the offer is genuine, the fact that it is on the table marks a welcome turn of events.
Obama should jump at diplomatic alternative in Syria. Particularly because some of the administration’s central claims about the use of the chemical weapons in Syria are beginning to unravel. The administration claimed it had a cast-iron case that it was Assad who had ordered the chemical attacks (but refused to make the basis for their claim available to either the public or to other nations). Secretary of State John Kerry had claimed that only Assad, his brother, and a general could have ordered the chemical attack.
But German intelligence apparently tells a different story, having allegedly intercepted communications in which Assad denied “brigade and divisional commanders’” requests to use such weapons. Whether he changed his mind or not is apparently not something the intercepts illuminated, and as reported, the intelligence does not say conclusively that it was the Syrian government rather than one or another of the “rebel” factions who used the weapons (though that is clearly the suggestion). But even if the administration was determined to press ahead with strikes in the face of public opposition, these are revelations which should clearly give it pause.
Was it Assad himself who ordered the attack, or a rogue general? We’d have to know more about the nature of the requests from the brigade and divisional commanders to be sure, but it sounds as though they might have day-to-day control over the weapons, and that Assad’s control over them—central to Kerry’s claims—might be little more than notional. This raises several problems with various of the premises that the administration has articulated over the past week.
If this is really about controlling the use of chemical weapons, precipitously weakening the Syrian government might make their use more likely rather than less likely, as operations would become more decentralised and presumably more decisions would be made by local commanders. If this is really about deterrence, but if Assad doesn’t control the weapons, how will bombing him and the military’s central facilities work as a deterrent?
And if this is about humanitarianism, the same old questions remain: how is military action calculated to escalate violence and perhaps provoke the use of chemical weapons in the best interests of Syrian citizens? And what happens when the bombing stops and people come out of the rubble to find that a barrage of missiles and a flight of B-52 bombers marked the extent of the world’s commitment to their country?
In the last week, John Kerry has been transformed into a ridiculously-ravenous warmonger, and we’ve been subjected to the spectacle of him slithering around the House, Senate, and international stage, showing people graphic pictures instead of actual intelligence. His job is to be the country’s chief diplomat, not a vapid cheerleader for violence. But then, inadvertently, he provided the instigation for the diplomatic effort the White House never seemed to want, but which could avert a dangerous conflict.
In remarks at the White House Monday afternoon, Hillary Clinton attempted to credit John Kerry with putting forward the idea that Syria surrender its weapons to some kind of international control. But Kerry’s remarks earlier in the day illustrated just how hollow the administration’s commitment to a diplomatic solution has been. According to CNN, “Kerry said that al-Assad ‘could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week [to forestall the U.S. attack]’—adding, ‘He isn’t about to do it, and it can’t be done, obviously”. Later, as though attempting to ensure that war rather than peace prevailed, the State Department “stressed that Kerry was making a rhetorical argument about the one-week deadline and unlikelihood of Assad turning over Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile”.
The Russian foreign minister’s surprise intervention set in motion some of the diplomacy which should have opened up U.S. efforts over Syria, instead of coming after weeks of sabre-rattling and idiocy from the Obama administration (yesterday, Kerry remarked that strikes on Syria would be “unbelievably small”, suggesting that those who see the administration’s fixation with intervention as gesture politics at their worst are onto something).
However and whenever this tragic civil war ends, the failure of the international community in general and of the U.S. in particular will require some kind of autopsy. Had the U.S. earlier suggested the option of disarmament supervised by an international body (we know they had no time for the UN report on the chemical attack)? Why, if it did indeed need to be made, was their threat of force not an accompaniment to such an offer, which might have garnered wide or even universal international support? Why were our diplomats allowed to transform themselves with such alacrity into strutting warlords? Why did Congress not force the administration’s hand over this issue? Why, when Kerry did make his own version of the “offer”, did he do so in an offhand manner, and immediately dismiss the possibility, in such a way that actually decreased the probability of a diplomatic settlement?
These questions need answering, but in the short-term, the most urgent one is whether the Obama administration is prepared to halt its preparations for war and both embrace and push for some kind of disarmament and ceasefire in Syria. Such disarmament must of course also prevent the U.S, Russia, and other parties from peddling death by arming their proxies in the conflict.