Syria Is Not A Strategic Priority For Washington

WASHINGTON – It is clear that Russia, as the key ally of president Assad of Syria, has taken a lead role in trying to set the stage for a final peace settlement regarding this tragically battered country. The recent Sochi meeting in which president Putin hosted president Rouhani of Iran and president Erdogan of Turkey seems to illustrate a resurgent Russia once again playing a key role in the Middle East.

America in retreat?

In Washington, the defenders of the (frankly defunct) myth of Pax Americana sounded alarm bells. “America is in full retreat —they admonish us— and the bad guys are filling the void. We are losing ground, while they are gaining”.

Indeed. But here is the question. Is the American national interest really profoundly impacted by who is in control in Syria? What’s so important about Syria from Washington’s standpoint? Well, very little. Sure enough, is we look at a map of the Middle East, we can see that a firm Russian foothold into Syria, plus continuing Iranian influence there, changes the geopolitical picture.

Russia and Iran in the lead 

True. Still, this being the case, in what way does this geopolitical realignment affect America’s vital interests? Syria is now a semi-destroyed and completely impoverished country. Whoever will exercise influence on Damascus does not gain that much. In fact, to the extent that the Russians need to prove that they are real friends of Assad, they would have to support Damascus financially, for many years. And this may prove to be quite a burden for a Russian state not exactly swimming in wealth.

Iran’s influence in Syria is a concern. However, there are several counterweights within the region to Tehran’s hegemonic ambitions. From this perspective, it would be prudent for Washington to continue supporting its traditional Sunni Arab allies who are actively opposing Tehran’s expansionism.

Middle East no longer of critical importance

That said, even taking all this into account, the idea that Washington “must” regain its historic role as a key powerful player in the Middle East has no longer any strong rational justification.

Of course, until a few years ago, one could have argued that the Middle East indeed had extraordinary strategic value for Washington, because it sits on most of the oil the rest of the world desperately needs.

Well, this argument is far less compelling today, in this new era of abundant oil supplies in large measure caused by America’s newly discovered technologies (fracking and horizontal drilling) that allowed US energy companies to exploit massive domestic shale oil reserves. Indeed, thanks to fracking, in just a few years America doubled its oil production. This is a real game changer.

Besides, if you add to this dramatic domestic oil production boom increased oil supplies from Canada, plus imports from Mexico, Colombia, and Venezuela, the U.S. has, or will soon have, “hemispheric energy independence”. This means that most of the oil America will need will come from domestic sources or from imports from reliable neighboring countries, and not from the Persian Gulf.

Middle Eastern oil not so important

Now, this is a major and completely benign geopolitical change! In simple language, as the U.S. no longer relies on Middle Eastern oil for its very economic viability, controlling events in the region is no longer such a key priority.

Besides, going forward, the slow but steady emergence of electric vehicles as commercially plausible alternatives to gasoline powered cars makes the strategic importance of oil, and therefore of Middle Eastern oil and whoever owns it or controls it, progressively far less significant.

Down the line, if you take oil out of the equation, or at least if you downgrade its strategic value as the (no longer so) essential fuel for all modern industrial countries, the Middle East becomes far less important. Absent oil and the power and wealth that it brings, Taiwan is a far more significant player in the global economy than Saudi Arabia.

Let Syria go

Bottom line, let’s not fret about who will be in charge in Damascus. After years of civil war that caused destruction and millions of refugees, Syria is a disaster, a true basket case. Even assuming wildly optimistic scenarios, it will take years and astronomic investments to bring it back to semi normality. Let Russia worry about all this.




America Cut Funds to Syrian Rebels

WASHINGTON – After the fall of Aleppo, I concluded that the Syrian opposition to Assad had been essentially defeated. Sure, some resistance still exists. But the chances of overthrowing Assad via military actions is a dream. Americans (half-hearted, in my view) efforts to force regime change in Damascus by supporting the domestic Syrian opposition through military assistance have failed.

No more US aid to the opposition

Now we learn that the Trump administration about a month ago decided to stop helping the Syrian rebels via a CIA operation code-named “Timber Sycamore”. I call this cutting one’s losses and moving on.

Of course, some analysts immediately argued that cutting off the rebels is a big Trump favor to Russian President Putin. A big favor without getting anything in return. They argue that arming the Syrian rebels was smart policy, because it created a pressure point against the Assad regime that could have been used at a later date as a bargaining chip during negotiations about a future settlement of the conflict in Syria.

It did not work

May be so. But, while the details about how much money was spent and how cost-effective this operation has been are not publicly available, the truth is that the Syrian opposition aided by the US and several Arab countries was never very effective; and now it has been essentially beaten. Not completely destroyed. Still, after the fall of Aleppo, it lost any chance of overthrowing the Damascus regime, or even inflicting serious damages to it.

Accept defeat

The Trump administration seems to have accepted this; while it is keen on focusing on the ongoing fight against the Islamic State, or ISIL. Therefore: “Let’s cut or losses, concentrate our efforts on beating ISIL, and stop throwing good money after bad”.

New consensus 

There seems to be a new consensus within the US Government that removing Assad from power is no longer a priority. (Obama instead repeatedly declared that Assad “had to go”, because of his violations of human rights and other crimes against the Syrian people). Secretary of State Rex Tilllerson and others actually said publicly that the removal of President Assad is no longer a precondition for any serious talks about the future of Syria.

Waste of money 

Given all this, continuing a CIA funded operation aimed at arming a few Syrian rebels who do not have any realistic chances to achieve much against regular pro-Assad forces backed by Russia, Iran and Hezbollah, seems like a waste of time and money.

Betrayed 

Of course, if you were part of a Syrian rebels group that had been included in this CIA funded program and you were counting on continuing American military and financial support, you have every right of feeling betrayed. But this would not be the first time in which allies of America have been dropped by Washington, on account of larger strategic considerations.

 




Forget About Assad – America Should Focus on Fighting ISIL

WASHINGTON – What are Obama’s options regarding an American “Syria Policy” aimed at supporting the emergence of a democratic state over there?  None. Simply stated, we cannot fight and win against ISIL, (entrenched both in Syria and Iraq), while also trying to get rid of President Assad, as he is protected by Russia, Iran, and Iran-funded Hezbollah.

Focus on ISIL 

As we should really focus on ISIL, the broader threat, we should let go of any plans aimed at replacing Assad.

As we remember, when the Arab Spring reformist winds reached Syria, President Bashar al-Assad responded with characteristic brutality. Street demonstrators were met with force. Many were killed.

At the very beginning of what (years later) turned out to be a human tragedy of monumental proportions, the Obama administration postured. It issued strong statements, proclamations. “Assad has got to go“, Obama stated.

Yes, except that there was no appetite to do anything that would actually make him go. At that time, may be there was still a chance to support the moderate, reasonably pro-western Syrian opposition. But that opportunity, assuming that it was viable, came and went.

ISIL firmly entrenched 

What happened instead is that the group that became known later on as ISIL managed to exploit the unfolding civil strife within the country to gain control of a huge part of Eastern Syria. From there, the jihadists subsequently managed to quickly invade North Western Iraq, encountering no opposition, because they were viewed as “liberators” by the Sunni majority who live there.

After this territorial conquest, they proclaimed the establishment of an Islamic Caliphate in the territories they control. And it is clear that they believe to be engaged in a global battle whose final objective is Islam’s victory against the rest of the world.

As the situation on the ground rapidly deteriorated, the US administration looked surprised. The impression is that they did not see any of this coming. Since then, not much has happened, except for the mounting destruction within Syria caused by Assad’s forces, various insurgents, ISIL, and now Russian bombs.

America’s air war 

True, after much hesitation, President Obama finally declared that America would fight ISIL in order to finally defeat it. Yes, except that the military effort (a limited air war) is so minimal that many people wonder if America means this or not.

But let’s look at where we are now. With America largely absent, Iran and its proxies, plus Russia entered the fray in Syria. (Iran is also supporting the Shia Government in Iraq in its own fight against ISIL).

Russia and Iran protecting Assad

It is clear that Russia and Iran want to save Assad, even though the Syrian President’s position has deteriorated. Meanwhile, both America and Iran seem to share an interest in dislodging ISIL from its strongholds in Iraq and Syria.

Given all this, it is clear that America cannot even remotely aspire to obtain its old objective of supporting the emergence of a free, democratic Syria. Syria is now a semi-destroyed, hopeless country. Assad is protected by two major powers. And we have no influence there.

Destroy ISIL 

What we can and should do is to destroy ISIL, because its very existence fans the flames of a global, if disorganized, jihadist ideology and groups that support it through violent means, (witness the acts of terrorism in France and elsewhere).

I believe that ISIL’s ability to convince thousands of young Muslims to engage in “home-made” jihad is vastly over stated. Still, ISIL is a dangerous cancer now firmly planted in the heart of the Middle East. It has to be eradicated.

Forget about Syria

As for Syria, let’s look at it realistically. Did Assad ever launch any messianic, anti-western movement? No, he did not. Was he behind terror attacks against the US Homeland? No, he was not. He was yet another Middle Eastern nasty autocrat. Unpleasant, yes. But no direct threat to the security of the United States. Bottom line: we can live with him.

No deal with ISIL 

But we cannot “do a deal” with ISIL. ISIL needs to be eradicated. Is it possible for Washington to work with Russia and may be even Iran on this? Who knows.

Still, whatever the chances of a serious anti-ISIL coalition, Russia and Iran will continue to support Assad.

As we have no way to convince them otherwise, we better admit this reality, forget about Assad, and focus on ISIL.

 

 

 




US Troops In Syria?

WASHINGTON – What do we make of the announcement by the Obama administration about its decision to send about 50 US Special Operations troops into Northern Syria? Is this part of a larger strategy? Is America about to get serious in its declared fight against ISIL?

No strategy 

I would not count on any of this. Quite frankly, it is hard to detect any US strategy. When President Assad reacted violently against any political dissent that was stimulated by the Arab Spring, America did nothing. After the situation in Syria got worse, America made noises but did essentially nothing. When ISIL, taking advantage of the mess in Syria took over a big chunk of the country, America did nothing. Worse yet, when an emboldened ISIL launched its invasion of Iraq from its bases in Syria, Obama reacted with surprise; but continued to do essentially nothing, while blaming (with some cause) the Shia majority government in Baghdad for its failure to establish good relations with the Sunni minority.

The coalition did little 

Sure enough, after months of hesitation, Obama announced that America had formed a large and powerful coalition (more than 60 countries, we are told) whose objective was and is to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL.

Well, notwithstanding a few bombing raids here and there, ISIL is still pretty much in control of a large chunk of Syria and most of North Western Iraq.

Put it differently, America is not winning. (Allowing a terrorist state to keep its grip on a large piece of territory in the heart of the Middle East has huge detrimental political implications. Just by being there, the self-described Caliphate can claim victory. But we shall not focus on this pernicious aspect of the crisis here).

Others stepping in 

In the meantime, under ISIL’s attack Syria is falling apart, while the US $ 500 million program to train and arm pro-Western Syrian rebels went absolutely nowhere. And now? Now it is an even bigger mess.

Iraq is openly supported by the Iranians in its fight against ISIL. Assad is supplied by the Iranians and is assisted by Hezbollah fighters. Most recently, Russia decided to intervene militarily in order to support Assad. It may impossible to regain control over the entire country, but at least Russia will to its best to allow its weakened ally to keep a piece of it, while Moscow will retain its valuable military bases.

What about America? 

And what about America? Well, who knows, really. The anti-ISIL “Grand Coalition” was and is a fiction. The US-led military effort against ISIL is modest, in fact pitiful.

And now, what? Well, now Washington is sending about 50 military advisers to help the Kurds in Northern Syria.

Not what I would call a game changer.




Obama Inherited The Iraq Mess, But He Made It Worse

WASHINGTON – So, “Did Obama lose Iraq”? Is it Obama’s fault that a country once at the center of US foreign and security policies is now falling apart? Well, yes and no.

Plenty of blame

There is plenty of blame for lots of US policy-makers. Of course, it is easy to say that “it is all George Bush’s fault”. He believed (or made up, according to partisan critics) the intelligence whereby Iraq’s stockpiles of Weapons of Mass Destruction, WMDs, (that were not there, as it turned out), represented an immediate security threat for the United States. And so he ordered the invasion of Iraq that started in March 2003.

Well, the rosy scenarios of a quick war followed by an easy transition to pluralism and democracy –all funded by abundant Iraqi oil– turned to be disastrously wrong. Soon after the successful overthrow of Saddam Hussein, Iraq became a nightmare.

Incompetent occupation

Thanks to a spectacularly incompetent occupation policy, US forces watched as Iraq started falling apart. It took years of heavy losses, destruction, Sunni-Shia sectarian fighting, not to mention extreme suffering for Iraqi civilians, to pacify this sorry country.

That said, when George W. Bush left office, Iraq was reasonably at peace, while a legitimate civilian government was in charge.

Obama: we are done with Iraq

But after Obama took over in Washington, the general feeling was that America was done with Iraq. And it would appear that US negotiators did not press the Iraqi government too much when they created difficulties regarding the conditions under which a residual US force would be allowed to stay in Iraq after the formal end of the occupation. Because these negotiations failed, all American soldiers left Iraq.

ISIL: from Syria to Iraq

Then the Arab Spring came along, and with that the beginning of the upheaval in Syria against President Assad. As we know, America did nothing to support the relatively moderate Syrian opposition. As a result, the anti-Assad insurgency became a magnet for all sorts of Arab factions and movements. Little by little, Islamic radicals became a dominant component of the anti-Assad resistance.

However, this really bad and worrisome development gave the Obama administration a perfect excuse not to intervene. Indeed: “Assad, bad guy. Opposition, also bad guys. Sadly, nobody reliable America can support. End of story”.

Fair enough. But then the really bad guys (ISIL) took over a chunk of Syria and they used it as a base of operations to conquer Northern Iraq. This happened rather suddenly.

Still, the US had the opportunity to react to this major military and political shift. But Washington did nothing. And so the radical ISIL (or ISIS) forces established themselves and even announced the formation of a brand new Islamic Caliphate, (no, this is not a joke), encompassing all the territories they control in Iraq and Syria.

ISIL occupying Iraq? Blame al Maliki

As this was getting really serious, what did Obama do? Essentially nothing, except for blaming the sectarian Iraqi Prime Minister, Nuri al Maliki. With cause, Washington argued that al Maliki discriminated against the Iraqi Sunnis, this way opening the door for the Sunni ISIL forces to come into the country, essentially unopposed. Again, while this is largely true, what about actions aimed at stopping ISIL? Nothing.

In the meantime, ISIL forces consolidated their power and started  advancing towards the Kurdish region in the North East of Iraq. Again, Obama did nothing. It took a new humanitarian crisis in the shape of a religious minority chased out by the deranged ISIL forces to trigger –at last– an American reaction.

Finally, some US action

Finally America started bombing from the air ISIL forces, while it seems that America is now sending weapons and ammunitions to the peshmerga, the Kurdish armed militia.

Now, will this truly belated American response to a crisis that had already morphed into a disaster turn things around? Who knows really. Much depends on the intensity of the US air campaign and the perception that America really means business this time.

Of course, the political crisis in Baghdad does not help. Indeed, following in part US advice, the Iraqis are trying to get rid of divisive al Maliki. But, so far at least, he does not want to go. And so, what does this mean? Are we talking civil war in Iraq, on top of everything else? Hopefully not; but it is too early to tell.

Blame Bush?

Still, be that as it may, it is a bit simplistic to say that all this is  George W. Bush’s fault, because after all he started this mess with the ill-advised 2003 invasion. After ll, in 2009 Obama inherited the Iraq problem created by Bush. All this is true.

Obama made it worse

However, Obama has been president for 6 years now. And it is rather obvious that he managed the deteriorating Iraq situation very poorly. While he did not create the problem, his negligence made it a lot worse.




As America Was Distracted, Iraq Descended Into Chaos

WASHINGTON – With the benefit of hindsight we are all geniuses. Still, it would not have been too difficult to imagine the present scenario in which militant forces belonging to ISIS, an al Qaeda offshoot fighting in the Syrian civil war, have now taken over the Northern part of Iraq. 

Festering conflict

By allowing the Syrian conflict to fester, Washington created the opportunity for a spill over into Iraq. And this is exactly what happened.

The Obama “hands off” approach regarding Syria’s civil war is in large part responsible for this “domino effect”. Of course, it was and still easy to say that it is prudent for America to stay out of the Syrian mess that started in 2011, simply “because there are no good options over there”. Sure enough, Assad is the bad guy; but so are the jihadists and other assorted religious militants who have flocked into Syria with the intent of replacing Assad’s dictatorship with their own Islamic kind.

Better do nothing

As for the pro-Western insurgents, not enough of them, claims the Obama administration. Besides, they are deeply divided and they do not like us Americans that much, anyway. Therefore we would have taken a big chance by helping them. The risk was and is that weapons supplied to them may end up in the hands of the jihadists. So, better to stay out of this conflict and do nothing. Besides, Obama argued that he had been elected and re-elected with the promise of ending wars. Therefore, starting yet another conflict in the Middle East would have been politically inappropriate.

ISIS expanded its reach

Indeed. Great strategy for winning elections. Except that the Syrian conflict, as we were not paying much attention, has become a powerful magnet for all sorts of foreign fighters. And Iraq, until recently just a transit point for militants headed to Syria, has now become part of the conflict. ISIS got a firm foothold in Northern Iraq and it can now claim that it controls territories and cities in Eastern Syria and Northern Iraq.

Now, this is serious business. Whatever your opinion about the costly Iraq War launched by then President George W. Bush in March 2003, I think we would all agree that it was and still is in America’s interest that the country left behind after all US troops left at the end of 2011 should be stable and at peace.

But now Iraq is a huge mess. This can have vast repercussions. Iran may get involved. Other Sunni Arab states may also get involved in order to reassert control and prevent Iran from expanding its sphere of influence.

What will Washington do?

And what is America prepared to do? As of today, not much; except from expediting delivery of assorted hardware to the Iraqi military.

But any observer can see that this is no solution to the crisis at hand. Iraq’s main problem is not lack of assets. Iraq’s problem is a poorly trained and poorly motivated military. The most discomforting reports describe Iraqi soldiers who simply threw their uniforms away, put on civilian clothes and fled, as the jihadists were approaching Mosul.

US-trained Iraqi forces

And here we go back to the way in which the Obama administration ended the US military presence in Iraq in 2011.

We know that there were thorny political issues. Washington and Baghdad could not agree on a new Status of Forces Agreement, (SOFA). America wanted US forces in Iraq to be under US jurisdiction. Iraq resisted this. There being no compromise, Obama decided to have no deal and to withdraw all US forces.

In so doing, the administration took a big chance. But it declared to everybody that it had full confidence in the vastly expanded and –mind you– US-trained  Iraqi armed forces and police.

Indeed. Now we see how good the training really was. These Iraqi troops were not defeated in combat. Challenged by a brutal enemy, they abandoned their posts, discarded their uniforms and fled.

Caught off guard

Sadly, the worst part of the story is that the US did not see any of this coming. (“Iraqi Drama Catches US Off Guard”, says a WSJ June 12 headline). Indeed while Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel was spending hours on Capitol Hill on June 11, defending a questionable deal involving the swap of 5 Taliban leaders for 1 US soldier, Iraq was exploding.

New National Security Team?

Senator John McCain summed up this strategic debacle by calling for a brand new National Security team made out of serious professionals who know what they are doing. The current team is composed of people who look more at focus groups and polls than at America’s national security interests. They are not up to the task.

America needs a plan to save Iraq. And we need it now.

 




Too Early To Call The US-Russia Deal On A Road Map Leading To The Destruction Of Syria’s WMDs “A Success”

By Paolo von Schirach

September 14, 2013

WASHINGTON – The rather optimistic headlines are that the US and Russia reached an agreement on the destruction of the entire Syrian chemical weapons arsenal. If it were so, this would be a stunning triumph for the Obama administration. Think of it. Until a few days ago, Washington was ready to bomb Assad because of his chemical weapons use on August 21. Now we got him to admit that he has huge WMDs stockpiles and that he will surrender the entire stash, unconditionally, so that it can be destroyed by international UN inspectors.

How do you get rid of WMDs?

If you take this at face value, all is well. Obama managed to obtain a strategic victory –the destruction of Assad’s entire chemical warfare arsenal– without firing a single shot. Quite impressive.

And yet, in this case more so than in others involving complex and lengthy negotiations, the devil is really in the details. This whole operation will take months, perhaps even longer. It will involve an accurate inventory of any and all chemical warfare facilities, storage depots, factories, laboratories and weaponized WMDs. This by itself is a daunting task. Of course, US intelligence has a reasonably good idea of where “the stuff” is within Syria. But there can be errors. The US may have missed some facilities and it may have miscalculated the amounts stashed here and there.

Good faith execution?

And then there will be the technically difficult task of securing this arsenal and destroying it. This will take several months. In the meantime, the Syrian Government, whose full cooperation is essential, is engaged in fighting a civil war. Russia, the country that launched the idea of this process, is helping Assad. America says that it is helping one segment of the anti-Assad insurgency. Do keep in mind that there is no provision within this framework agreement creating a road mp leading to the destruction of Assad’s WMDs about how to end the civil war. And so what we have here is that, under the tutelage of two major powers that support opposing sides in the Syrian civil war, there will be the flawless execution of a truly complicated agreement that will deprive Assad of his WMD arsenal. And all this will go well, because it is assumed that everybody –starting with Assad– will act in good faith.

American warnings

Let me say that there are reasons to be at least skeptical. Indeed, Secretary of State John Kerry repeatedly stated that all is well and good, as long as everybody behaves. He warned that the US will watch the process very carefully. As soon as any sign of cheating and/or unjustified delay will be spotted, then it is the end of the story. The US would declare these negotiations to be a failure, and we are back to the military option as the only way to punish Assad.

Under the circumstances, these stern warnings are totally appropriate. Syria is Mafia like government run by gangsters. It is totally appropriate to impress upon them that any cheating or subterfuge will be immediately and severely punished.

Obama cannot order a military attack

That said, a critical ingredient is missing –and the whole world can see this. It is clear to Secretary Kerry, to the Russians and to Assad, that the Obama administration is in no position to use force against Syria. It is obvious that the American people are strongly opposed to any use of force. Opinion polls reveal large majorities against any attack, however “small” and “limited”. Obama asked the Congress to stop debating a resolution about the use of force ostensibly because of the Geneva negotiations about to begin. But everybody knows that he used the negotiations as an excuse to stop a vote he would have lost. Again all this is in plain sight.

Kerry’s threats of swift US action in case of any cheating would be a lot more impressive if both the Russians and the Syrians would believe that Obama has not only the means but also the political backing and therefore the authority to carry out military strikes, if and when necessary.

Such an awareness would be a major incentive to act according to plan. Whereas, the perception that America would probably do nothing in case of Syrian misbehavior, is an inducement to cheat, or at the very least to delay and manipulate.

Who is winning?

More broadly who is going to “win” this political contest? I would say Assad. By eliminating his WMDs, Assad loses an asset, but not a critical one in his fight against the insurgents. Indeed, it is clear that even without WMDs, with Russian and Iranian supplies coming in, Assad will be able to continue his military effort against a far weaker insurgency. In the meantime he re-engages with the international community, proving that Syria is not a pariah state. In fact Syria is a legitimate government fighting nasty Islamic insurgents. (A half truth, at best, as the anti-Assad front is much broader, encompassing secular, pro-democracy  forces).

And where does all this leave Obama? With the WMD issue out of the way, America has no longer any excuse for attacking Syria. Of course, Washington could increase its support for the moderate Syrians insurgents, but it is not clear that Obama is really backing them, while the country is opposed to any strategy that might suck America into yet another Middle East conflict.

If we fast forward to 2014, Assad will be still in power, still strongly backed by Moscow, Tehran and Hezbollah. So, who is the winner?




Even Assuming Good Faith, Negotiations To Hand Over And Destroy Syrian WMDs Would Take Years

By Paolo von Schirach

September 12, 2013

WASHINGTON – To the non expert the Geneva get together between Secretary od State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov should provide an almost immediate clarification on the seriousness of the last minute Russian-Syrian proposal about handing Syrian chemical weapons over to UN inspectors. Here is the scenario. Acting in good faith, Kerry goes to Geneva. He listens to the Russian proposal. Then he huddles with his team, including technical experts, and makes a determination as to whether the Russian plan has merit, or is instead flawed. If it has no merit, then the conversation is over. Kerry reports back to Obama. The Commander in Chief, having determined that there is no diplomatic solution for the Syrian WMD  issue, goes back to the initial plan of punishing Assad for his use of chemical weapons through a limited military strike. If instead the Russian plan has merit, then all is well. Negotiations get started and soon enough the Syrian WMD stockpile will be accounted for and destroyed by international experts.

Clear options?

On the face of it, these are the two options. Simple and straightforward. Yes, except that it does not and will not work this way, for both political and technical reasons. Let’s look at the politics. First of all, let’s understand that, once Washington accepted the idea of a negotiated settlement, it will  be politically impossible –even with clear evidence in hand– to retreat from the negotiating table by stating that the Syrians do not really mean it. 

Think of it. Obama now knows that America does not want any war, not even a tiny one. The US Congress, quite adept at reading public opinion sentiment, is clearly leaning against any attack. And now that we have the opportunity to find a “peaceful solution” to this imbroglio it will be bad politics to let it go. Obama will not take the responsibility, whatever the evidence, to declare to America and the world that the Russians and the Syrians do not mean what they say. He knows that American public opinion will insist that all avenues possibly leading to a negotiated settlement should be explored. “Do not give up, Mr. President. Redouble your efforts. Try the impossible“.

Aware of the US political climate, if the Russians and the Syrians are even minimally smart, their strategy will be to look very cooperative –at least at the beginning. In so doing, they will for sure avert any US military strike, while at the same time buying good will. It is always possible to be devious later on, by dragging on and delaying. I suspect that this is exactly what will happen. Confronted with what will be presented to the world as openness and good will on the part of Assad, America would be in no position to break the talks for fear of political backlash at home and in the world.

Even though all experts know that it is very easy to keep this type of complex negotiations going even without any intention to come to a close, the burden of declaring the whole thing a sham would be on the United States. And in this US political climate those who “refuse to negotiate” will look bad.

How do you get rid of WMDs?…

Now let’s look at the substance. Handing over large chemical weapons stockpiles, while making sure that the factories producing them have been totally dismantled, would be an overwhelming task in ordinary circumstances. By that I mean that even if we assumed total good faith and complete cooperation on the part of the Syrian Government, disposing of chemical weapons is a complicated, lengthy, costly and dangerous exercise. And, of course, it would be extremely difficult to determine with absolute certainty that all stockpiles, factories, facilities and munitions are accounted for. Syria is a big country. The Syrians could be able to keep some stockpiles out of sight. Anyway, the point is that dismantling huge WMD arsenals is a very complicated effort.

…In the middle of a civil war?

Keeping this in mind, imagine conducting the very same effort while dealing with an uncooperative Assad who is  protected by an instinctively hostile Russian Government. And imagine that this undertaking will be carried out by UN experts who will have to operate in a country in the middle of a chaotic and bloody civil war. Can anybody seriously believe that the international community will be able to dispose of all these weapons –in these circumstances?

This is essentially an impossible task.

America will get nothing

So, let’s review the situation. Lacking political support for a military strike, Obama is forced to accept very unpromising negotiations without the opportunity to get out of them, because this would be interpreted as unwillingness to give diplomacy a chance. Given all this, even in the most optimistic scenario, it would be impossible to  have a quick  resolution to this WMD issue, just because it is extremely complicated. The net outcome of all this is that Assad’s open violation of the ban on chemical weapons will go unpunished. The whole world will see that America talks big and in the end does nothing.  

No negotiated end to the civil war in Syria

Of course, in an ideal world, this US-Russia Summit in Geneva could become the opportunity to launch a comprehensive negotiation aimed at bringing the Syrian civil war to an end. But this would assume that Assad is ready to give up a lot. And why should he? He is winning. The rebels are not advancing. America is not helping them in a meaningful way. Whereas Assad can count on continuing military assistance and more from Russia, Iran and Hezbollah. As he is ahead, why should he make any concessions? Conceding, in principle, to give up WMDs  is a clever political ploy. Assad knows that this process will require years. In the meantime he is free to continue his war and finish the rebels.

 




Unless Assad and The Russians Are Convinced that The US Means Business, They Will Use Any Negotations About Surrendering WMDs As A Dilatory Tactic

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!

Bogus negotiations?

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.

Divided America

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.




What Is the Point Of Giving “Equal Time” To Syrian Dictator Assad on CBS?

By Paolo von Schirach

September 9, 2013

WASHINGTON – What is the point of airing an interview with Syrian President Bashar al Assad, right before a crucial congressional vote on launching a military strike against Syria? Sure, we know that our “fairness” obsessed culture insists on always presenting “both sides” of an issue. And so, interviewer Charlie Rose and the CBS network can say –with a straight face– that, now that America has heard Obama’s arguments for a military attack, it is only fair that we should also listen to what the accused has got say in his defense. After that, having listened to both sides, the US Congress can decide having gained all the necessary elements, and therefore with a better grasp of the issues.

Let’s hear it from “both sides”

I only wish it were so. In domestic politics on balance this is the correct approach. Yes, let’s hear from both sides –always. But the huge difference is that in domestic politics, while advocates of this or that policy can and will stretch and obfuscate the facts in order to advance their position, as a rule they cannot get away with outright lies, especially big ones. Or at least they know that, whatever they will say, this will be investigated, and their lies will be eventually exposed. In other words, a free society with multiple interest groups and free media create an environment in which  facts still matter.

Autocrats say whatever they want

Well, none of this applies when interviewing an autocrat on his own turf. The autocrat can say whatever he wants. You do not expect Syrian state media to accuse him of telling lies, right? This being the case, what was Charlie Rose expecting? Was he hoping that Assad would finally “come clean’, admit his government responsibility for the August 21 chemical attacks against civilians and ask for forgiveness? I have no idea as to what CBS was trying to accomplish by giving free air time to a dictator responsible for horrible crimes.

Assad does not fit the profile

Thanks to this interview, the superficially informed American TV viewers will be pleasantly surprised. They were told about Syrian butchers and thugs who killed tens of thousands of women and children. Well, to begin with, Assad certainly does not fit the Hollywood profile of the mean looking, crazy dictator in military garb who shouts about death and destruction. On the contrary, they will watch a rather urbane looking, reasonably articulate Syrian President who until just a few years ago was practicing as an ophtalmologist in London. Hardly a Hitler-like profile. In this interview, this nice looking doctor, without any bluster or arrogance, calmly says he is innocent and that he knows nothing about chemical weapons. I am sure that this contrast between what a bloodthirsty dictator “should look like” and the soft-spoken Assad will make an impression. It will make many Americans think that “may be this affable guy is not all that bad”.

Nice looking doctor

Beyond the good PR packaging –something that will definitely work in Assad’s favor– if we look at the content of the interview, we know that in a Western setting outright lies articulated on TV by a democratically elected leader would be challenged. They would have consequences.

But this is not a Western setting. Here an US network gave Assad, free of charge, a great PR opportunity to speak directly to undecided American Congressmen, so that they may be convinced that this nice looking leader, trained as a doctor, may actually be telling the truth.

Legitimacy, free of charge

Once again, the net outcome of this interview is that a dictator is treated as a legitimate Head of State. The same dictator is offered a major media platform from which he countered the allegations made by the US Government. Didn’t it dawn on CBS management that, via this interview with Assad they were becoming an instrument of Syrian propaganda?

Beyond the hope to grab higher ratings through a sensational exclusive interview with a foreign leader right at the center of a major national security debate, there is nothing to be gained by treating tyrants (who lie as a matter of course) just as if they were elected democratic Heads of State whose words and actions are constantly monitored by a diverse civil society and free media.  To give free air time to Assad, right before a difficult vote in the US Congress, was a bad idea.

Whatever you may think about the wisdom of any US military intervention against Syria, you just do not give “equal time” to autocrats who can lie, obfuscate and manipulate at will.