By Paolo von Schirach
September 10, 2013
WASHINGTON – The Russian last minute proposal, (made through Sergey Lavrov, the Foreign Minister), to have the international community take control of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile could be construed as an American political victory. One could argue that the perennially obstructionist Russians have been prompted into constructive action by their conviction that “this time” America really means business: Assad will be attacked by Washington as punishment for his use of banned chemical weapons. Which is to say that the mere American threat to use military means forced a dramatic change of course that will yield precisely the policy goal Washington seeks: the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons. So, well done Mr. Obama! You got what you wanted –and without firing a single shot!
Of course, it could be just the opposite. Sensing congressional vacillations in a country in which public opinion is clearly against military action, just to further muddy the waters the Russians introduced a bogus proposal related to a vague promise by Assad to hand over his chemical weapons to the UN. The Russians do not mean this. Their Syrian allies certainly do not mean this. This is just a clever way to assure that no US military action will take place.
Indeed, since this Moscow-Damascus proposal is presented like a real diplomatic opening, it forces America to hold its fire and get engaged in discussions on how the weapons hand over will be achieved. The devious Syrians will make false promises; they will make some gestures, (hand over a small stockpile), while engaging in dilatory tactics. In the meantime, they will win some international approval, while America forgets all about the August 21 chemical weapons use incident that precipitated the crisis.
America prepared to use force
So, which is which? Nobody really knows for sure. But we can rest assured that, if the Russians and the Syrians believed that Obama in the end does not have the political backing to carry out an attack against Damascus, the temptation to use the upcoming negotiations as mere dilatory tactics is just too strong.
The only way that this new diplomatic avenue opened by Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov will get us somewhere is the certainty of an American military action, should diplomacy prove to be only a ruse.
In an ideal scenario, Obama would get immediately strong congressional backing for a military action, contingent on the success or failure of a diplomatic effort –an effort that should produce tangible results in a very short time. In other words, it should be crystal clear to Assad that, if he is just trying to be clever by negotiating in bad faith, a united Washington will immediately see through his ploy, put an end to the bogus negotiations, and go back to a military strike.
Negotiations will take the military option off the table
This is how it should be. But it will not be this way. You can bet that all of those in Congress who are already opposed to a US strike, along with the large number of undecided, will latch on to these negotiations, calling them the responsible way forward. “Why use force when we can obtain what we want –the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons– through diplomacy”? Indeed. The problem is that in this case as in most other cases diplomacy may have a chance only because our opponents are convinced that, should negotiations fail, we are ready and willing to use our military as a means of coercion.
Sadly, Washington is deeply divided on the use of force. The whole world can see this. Therefore, it is inevitable that any upcoming negotiation will be seen by Damascus only as a great opportunity to buy time, without giving up anything substantial.
In the meantime, Assad stays in power, reassured by the support coming from the Russians, the Iranians and Hezbollah. So much for Obama’s high-minded (empty) proclamations about the need to uphold international law. When America wavers, the bad guys carry the day.