A Possible Political Solution in Syria


This growing boondoggle on Syria gets more absurd by the day. Monday morning, John Kerry held a joint press conference with British Foreign Secretary William Hague and, of course, the questions were all about Syria. When a reporter asked if there was anything Assad could do to avoid military action by the United States, he said:

Sure. 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 a full and total accounting for that. But he isn’t about to do it, and it can’t be done, obviously.

The Russian government thought that was a great idea and jumped on it, saying they would “immediately begin work with Damascus” to convince Assad to do just that. Now, whether he will or not is obviously an important and unanswered question. But the State Department quickly walked back Kerry’s statement, claiming that he really meant something entirely different than what he said:

“Secretary Kerry was making a rhetorical argument about the impossibility and unlikelihood of Assad turning over chemical weapons he has denied he used,” Jen Psaki, the State Department spokeswoman, said in an e-mail to reporters after Mr. Kerry’s comments. “His point was that this brutal dictator with a history of playing fast and loose with the facts cannot be trusted to turn over chemical weapons, otherwise he would have done so long ago. That’s why the world faces this moment.”

The White House, on the other hand, says they’re “going to take a hard look at this” and will “talk to the Russians about it.” That’s good, that’s the proper response. I don’t know whether Assad would really do this, but if the Russians can bring pressure to bear and the threat of bombing can push him to do it, that seems like an ideal solution to me. And if Assad says he’ll do that and the White House doesn’t back down from the brink of an attack, that will pretty clearly show that the threat of attack is not really about the chemical weapons.

And WTF is Kerry doing? Seriously, if you’re throwing out off the cuff remarks in front of the press that have to be completely walked back by the administration a few minutes later, maybe you’re in the wrong job.

Comments

  1. eric says

    Lots of ifs, lots of ways for the bad guys to slow roll or corrupt such a process until the safeguards and accountability is rendered meaningless. Ideally, I agree, its a good process. But then again, ideally we’ve had various types of inspection agreements in place with Iran since 2007. How’s that working out for us?

    Its worth pursuing. It could definitely be better than bombing. But if another CW attacks occurs while we’re pursuing it, it’s failed.

  2. sigurd jorsalfar says

    How’s it working out for us? You imply that it’s working out badly for us, but I seem to have missed the news of Iranian attacks on the United States, eric. Perhaps you could provide a link or two? Thanks.

  3. dickspringer says

    There is ample evidence that the “off the cuff” remarks were scripted. Obama said as much, and there is no way that the pieces would have so neatly fallen into place without advanced scripting.

    I have a question: Is the protocol against poison gas merely a thing to make peacniks feel virtuous, or is it a treaty that must be enforced? For too many commentators it seems to be the former. There is an old cliche in law: “There is no right without a remedy.” If we deplore what Assad does and otherwise wipe our hands of it, are we really occupying the moral high ground? If the UN acts because of the Russian initiative that would certainly be the best outcome, But are people here really arguing that we should do nothing if the UN does not act? I fear for the precedent that will have been set when someone uses a nuclear weapon. Give the question the very serious thought it deserves.

  4. F [is for failure to emerge] says

    Is the protocol against poison gas merely a thing to make peacniks feel virtuous,

    No, it’s there to make the belligerent look like they have limits and ethics.

  5. troll says

    @4, it’s the former. Syria never signed on to the CW ban, which is why they’ve been able to openly possess and manufacture them for all these years. I seem to recall reading at TPM that Assad expressed a willingness to sign the CW treaty if doing so averts a US strike.

  6. sigurd jorsalfar says

    @5 F, that’s basically correct. Protocols against poison gas were first introduced into international law not because it was agreed that these weapons were too horrible to use against one’s enemies, but because WW1 proved that as often as not poison gas clouds will blow in the wrong direction and end up attacking the side that launched them. Armies hated using these weapons and considered them ineffective, so they were easily sacrificed in post-war agreements as a way of trying to convince the public that something was being done to prevent WW1 from happening again. Weapons that had proven effective and harmful only to their intended targets were all kept and eagerly improved upon throughout the world.

    But this history has long been forgotten, allowing us to pretend that poison gas has been banned for moral reasons which mean that anyone who uses them is ‘evil’, whereas countries that use ‘shock and awe’, B1 bombers, Abrams tanks, A-10 Warthogs, tomahawk cruise missiles, etc and maintain a bristling nuclear arsenal are the good guys.

  7. cry4turtles says

    Assad told Charlie Rose that America won’t attack because we’re skeeered. I think we’re sick of mopping up Mideast messes with American blood.

  8. sigurd jorsalfar says

    @8 Oh is that what the invasion of Iraq was? Mopping up a mideast mess with American blood? Think again.

  9. Synfandel says

    Secretary Kerry just happened to trip on exactly what the Russians had already been quietly discussing with the Assad regime for a week. The Russians seized the opportunity to make themselves look good.

    The various governments’ priorities are:
    – For the Obama administration: to look effective rather than impotent without getting embroiled in an extended and expensive military engagement.
    – For the Putin administration: to save face and look relevant in front of an international community that is increasingly isolating it.
    – For the Assad regime: to hold onto power.
    – For the Iranians: to keep Assad in power.

    International community control of the chemical weapons may serve all of their objectives.

  10. raven says

    @8 Oh is that what the invasion of Iraq was? Mopping up a mideast mess with American blood?

    Well it was.

    We just mistook a large army for a mop. Silly mistake, could happen to anyone.

  11. daved says

    How good is the evidence that Assad was, indeed, responsible for the chemical attacks in Syria? (I think it’s beyond question that the attacks did occur.)

    I ask because over at mikethemadbiologist.com, there are a couple of articles suggesting that the opposition in Syria *also* has chemical weapons, which were thoughtfully provided to them by the Saudis, bless their little hearts.

  12. sigurd jorsalfar says

    @12 The evidence that Assad was responsible for the chemical attacks is weak.

    But weak evidence of a gas attack is enough to bomb a country just to send a message. By that standard the international community would have been justified in bombing Washington DC into the stone age back when Bush ordered his military to commit the ‘supreme crime’ under international law and attack a sovereign country.

  13. Nick Gotts says

    I fear for the precedent that will have been set when someone uses a nuclear weapon. – dickspringer@4

    Well first, it’s worth remembering that only one state has ever used nuclear weapons as such. Do you happen to remember who that was, dickspringer?

    But perhaps the most plausible uses of nuclear weapons in the next decade are (in no particular order):
    1) North Korea uses them against South Korea.
    2) India and Pakistan use them on each other.
    3) Israel uses them on Iran. (No, I don’t think the converse is likely, because even if Iran actually intended to build nukes, and got as far as doing so, it would be a long way behind Israel in their number and sophistication – but include it as (4) if you like.)
    a) Does anyone believe the USA, or for that matter any other nuclear power, would respond in equivalent ways to these scenarios? Or would the response depend on prior political and military relationships with the offending powers?
    b) Does anyone believe the USA’s response in the current Syrian crisis would have any influence on what the USA, or any other nuclear power, would do in any of those scenarios?

  14. Jordan Genso says

    @ Nick Gotts

    I think your point is solid. But I would ask this hypothetical in response:
    If the Assad regime used a nuclear weapon against the rebels, and no country responded with punitive strikes, would your three most plausible scenarios become more likely? I would say ‘yes’.

    I don’t think the unanswered use of chemical weapons will increase the likelihood of your three nuclear scenarios, but it would increase the likelihood of chemical weapons being used in the future.

  15. haitied says

    I’m fairly sure the ban on CW is based on the lack of control of the areas affected by the CW. In WWI The CW had a tendency to go where the wind blew and there was ample risk of killing one’s own soldiers. . . . So far from Humanitarian, are the reasons CW are frowned upon. The morality facade is just that.

  16. colnago80 says

    Re Jordan Genso @ #15

    In the first place, the Assad regime using nuclear weapons against the rebels makes no sense. They probably used chemical weapons because they kill people without destroying the infrastructure. A nuclear weapon destroys everything.

    Re Nick Gotts @ #15

    The size and composition of Israel’s nuclear arsenal is the subject of much uncertainty. According to the DIA, Israel has about 80 devices of various yields. Mordecai Vanunu says the number is 200. The Reverend John Steinbach says the number may be as many as 5 or 6 hundred. And even bigger question is whether any of them are thermonuclear devices.

    http://www.timesofisrael.com/iran-not-israel-faces-an-existential-threat/

  17. Jordan Genso says

    @ colnago80

    Of course it would make no sense for Assad to use nuclear weapons against the rebels. It’s a hypothetical to demonstrate a principle. If a WMD is used, and there is no negative consequence for the regime using them, then doesn’t that increase their likelihood of use in the future?

    I’m not in favor of the US striking against Assad on our own. I would prefer for any punishment to be doled out by the larger international community. But that’s irrelevant to my point above.

  18. dingojack says

    cry4turtles (#8) – sick of ‘mopping up Mideast [sic] messes with American blood’?

    Well don’t.
    I’d recommend warm soapy water when mopping, it’s a lot more effective than blood (American or otherwise).

    Dingo

  19. lorn says

    I think Obama understands that the fight in Syria continuing is what serves the best interests of the US and its allies. With sides grinding each other down, consuming expensive weapons and ammunition, losing their best fighter, bankrupting their host nations, the best thing for the US to do is stand aside and encourage both sides to keep fighting.

    Yes, the US, and Obama, have to deplore the general loss of life, refugee flooding surrounding countries, and destruction of property. Obama had tried to warn Assad, actually both sides, about chemical weapons with the whole “red line” thing but the use of them was an advancing trend. The rebels have been messing around with small amounts for some time and the government side has access to huge amounts and a desperate desire to shorten its lines by clearing certain urban areas. Of course once the use gets large enough to become obvious Obama is pretty much forced to deplore its use. Not that he really feels much actual need to do anything about it.

    Handing the optics of making a decision off to the congress, driving it deep into the political weeds, was a smooth move. Of course weeds don’t get much denser, of ditches much deeper, than the diplomatic kind. If you want to delay something politics is a good way to go but international diplomacy is the gold standard of delay. Every detail can be milked for time. During the Korean war they spent months debating the shape of the table and length of the flagpoles. The details of how Syria reports, gives up, disposes of, the weapons is ripe for delay. The main interests of most of the powers is that the background music, the ongoing war, is far more important than the front and center optics related to the chemical weapons.

    Protocols and accepted standards of decency, and international behavior, are that creation of refugees must be lamented, deaths, particularly civilian deaths must cause alarm, and that use of chemical weapons on civilians requires actions, even if no action makes sense. In a situation where doing nothing is the best course of action the optics of outrage, perhaps even action, is far more important than actually doing anything.

  20. says

    During the Korean war they spent months debating the shape of the table

    Quibble that doesn’t change your point: That was the Vietnam, Paris talks.

  21. uzza says

    It’s kind of amazing how they’ve managed to get the whole world talking about a fight between basically Gazprom and ExxonMobile over the European market for natural gas without ever a mention of LNG, the Islamic Pipeline, the Pan-Arab Pipeline, or South Pars. How do they do it?

  22. says

    Yeah, it’s important to remember that M*A*S*H was a protest series against the Vietnam War, not the much shorter Korean War. Many of the situations shown in the show had more to do with the corruption of US forces in Vietnam, than with the actual history of the Korean War (which had its own brutalities, to be sure!).

  23. Nick Gotts says

    Jordan Genso@15,

    I don’t think the unanswered use of chemical weapons will increase the likelihood of your three nuclear scenarios, but it would increase the likelihood of chemical weapons being used in the future.

    It might, but that’s a fairly remote hypothetical. The near-certainty of many deaths, including civilians, from air strikes, and the high probability they would only be the start of American involvement, outweigh it. It’s worth noting that (assuming Assad or, perhaps more likely, elements of his regime) were responsible, it’s already had negative consequences for them, with Iran condemning chemical weapons use (and pointedly, not blaming the rebels), Russia pushing for their stocks to be surrendered, and the need to disperse key personnel and assets in the face of possible air strikes.

    I think Obama understands that the fight in Syria continuing is what serves the best interests of the US and its allies. With sides grinding each other down, consuming expensive weapons and ammunition, losing their best fighter, bankrupting their host nations, the best thing for the US to do is stand aside and encourage both sides to keep fighting. – lorn

    Highly implausible, and anyone familiar with my comments will know I don’t say that out of any illusions about Obama or US foreign policy. War is unpredictable, this war could easily spread to important US allies such as Jordan and Turkey, and could lead to Al Qaeda-aligned forces controlling much of Syria and chemical weapons with effective delivery systems.

    It’s kind of amazing how they’ve managed to get the whole world talking about a fight between basically Gazprom and ExxonMobile over the European market for natural gas without ever a mention of LNG, the Islamic Pipeline, the Pan-Arab Pipeline, or South Pars.

    Again, colour me sceptical. Pipelines have their advantages, but when they cross several unstable countries they are always vulnerable to political interference and sabotage. A pipeline from Iran to the Mediterranean coast of Syria would still require shipping the LNG onward to Europe, the supposed destination. Most of the sources that seem to take this seriously are dubious (like Examiner.com) or outright irrational (WND, Infowars). Do you have anything more convincing?

  24. reasonbe says

    The Fox “news” reaction to the possible resolution was to announce a US “defeat”, to which Jon Stewart replied: “I get that Fox (News) opposes the Syria peace plan because its modus operandi is to foment dissent in the form of a relentless and irrational contrarianism to Barack Obama and all things democratic to advance its ultimate objective of creating deliberately misinformed body politic whose anger, fear, mistrust and discontent is the manna on which it sustains its parasitic succubus-like existence, but…”. Succubus. Ha!

  25. uzza says

    Europe needs natural gas. Russia is building the South Stream pipeline through Bulgaria to get it to them.
    Qatar and Iran are trying to build these other pipelines that go through Syria and end in Europe. Whoever wins gets the EU market, worth trillions.
    What exactly do you need convincing of?

  26. Nick Gotts says

    Reposting after cutting the number of links.

    What exactly do you need convincing of?

    Most of your claims.

    Russia is building the South Stream pipeline through Bulgaria

    Well first, this is not the same as the Nabucco project you were talking about earlier – it’s seen as a rival to the latter. Second, it would supply only a few southern European countries, none (except Italy) a major market. Third, there are doubts about its economic viability – see here, as indeed, there are about the Nabucco pipeline.

    Qatar and Iran are trying to build these other pipelines that go through Syria and end in Europe. Whoever wins gets the EU market, worth trillions.

    No, they really don’t. The current biggest suppliers of gas to the EU are Russia and Norway, roughly equal. Russia exports gas to the EU via a total of 13 pipelines, most going through either Ukraine or Belarus. Algeria is the third largest external source of supply, and could potentially expand its exports to the EU considerably. Any of the three pipelines you’ve mentioned would enable some diversification, either of routes or of sources, but it’s highly significant that none of the three is clearly economically viable. They just don’t look like adequate motivation for launching a highly destructive and unpredictable war, which has obvious causes in the sectarian tensions within Syria, and the regional political rivalries it is involved in. At most, pipelines look like a minor component in the latter, especially since gas in the form of LNG is routinely shipped if a pipeline is not available (that’s how Qatari gas currently gets to the EU).

  27. uzza says

    Fair enough, I overstated the importance, but that minor diversification you pooh pooh is no small potatoes. Qatar/Exxon just signed a $10 billion deal so they apparently consider it viable. Politics may be more important than economics here as Russia/ Gazprom does not want any of these various lines through Syria, and Assad is their client. However it all works out, Exxon has billions riding on the outcome.

    I’m not proposing anyone launched the war over oil, only that the fact Exxon has billions of dollars at stake seems to far better explain US involvement than the notion that the US suddenly grew a conscience over the latest batch of massacred women and children.

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