Negotiating With Assad Without A Stick Is Recipe For Disaster Obama has no authorization to carry out a military strike. Assad knows this. He will make a mockery of any diplomatic process aimed at surrendering WMDs

By Paolo von Schirach

Related story:

September 11, 2013

WASHINGTON – I argued that the only way to ensure that the Russian last minute proposal to place the entire Syrian chemical weapons stockpile under UN control is not a joke is to keep the pressure on Assad via the threat of swift military action. (See link above to a related piece).  This should have been the American stand: “We shall hold our fire. We are prepared to see if you really mean business. But the minute we see that these negotiations about surrendering your WMDs are just a sham, a way to buy time,  we break off and go back to “Plan A”, that is bombing you until it really hurts”. This would have been the only way to induce the Syrians to be serious.

How it should have been

Obviously, in order to create this set up, (carrot: negotiations; stick: devastating military action), President Obama would have needed the strong political backing from the US Congress he sought only a few days ago. This is the way it should have worked:

–Obama proclaims the need to punish Assad for his flagrant violation of a century old ban on the use of chemical weapons.

–The US Congress, with a large bipartisan majority, endorses the President

–Public opinion polls reveal that a sizable majority of Americans (say 60%) favor punishing Syria

–As America gets ready to strike, the Russians try to rescue their friends in Damascus by offering a negotiation leading to the surrender of chemical weapons

–Obama says to Moscow: “Alright. We are willing to give Assad this last chance to come clean. Still, do keep in mind that if you are trying to make us look like idiots, it takes me only minutes to terminate bogus negotiations and go back to military action

–And, in case you haven’t noticed, the whole country supports me”.

Carrot but no stick

Well, this is how it should have been. But it is not so, not by a long shot. Obama was about to lose the vote in Congress. It is clear that most Americans, whatever their motivations, are dead against military action against Syria. Given this highly unfavorable domestic political context, it is highly unlikely (make it impossible) that Obama would have ordered a military strike, knowing full well that most of America opposes it.

Therefore, lacking political backing, Obama has no stick to use against Syria. Again, everybody can see that.

Obama saved by Moscow?

That said, in a bizarre fashion, from a domestic politics vantage point, the opportunity to start the “negotiations” with Russia and Syria is a political life raft for Obama. He used the need to explore the opportunity for a “diplomatic solution” as a clever excuse to postpone a vote in Congress that he would have lost, possibly by a large margin.

So, thanks to Moscow, Obama avoided utter humiliation at home. Anybody can see this. Indeed, if Obama knew that he had the votes, he would have pressed the Congress to approve military action, using this permission as the credible big  stick that would have persuaded the Syrians to be serious at the negotiating table.

Whereas now the whole world knows that there will be no congressional authorization on the use of force, and therefore no military action against Syria. Obama has no stick.

“Crisis” ends in humiliation

If you think that, under the circumstances, Assad will negotiate in good faith about surrendering his own chemical weapons while he is busy fighting a civil war, then you are ready to believe anything.   

So much for President Obama’s “red lines” and for his high-minded determination to act when basic norms of international law have been broken. So much for US credibility.

As I said at the beginning of this “crisis”, since the chances of US action are minimal to zero, Assad can take a well deserved break and go fishing.



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