Opinion: U.S.-Syria policy must look beyond crisis

September 14, 2013


When someone throws a drowning man a life preserver, he can’t afford to question his rescuer’s intentions.

Thus, this week President Obama eagerly grabbed a lifeline thrown by the Russians: a proposal that international monitors take control of and destroy Syria’s chemical arsenal. Moscow’s offer gave the president an excuse to postpone a congressional vote on authorizing a military strike against Syria — a strike meant to punish Bashar Assad for crossing a chemical-weapons “red line” by gassing civilians. The Kremlin saved Obama from public humiliation since he was almost certain to lose the vote.

Clearly Vladimir Putin, whose relationship with Obama is famously frosty, has no interest in doing him favors. Moscow’s gesture was meant to help its ally Assad by preventing a U.S. strike that could have benefited the Syrian opposition.

Yet this breather offers Obama one more chance to reshape an incoherent Syria policy — on Assad’s chemical weapons, and beyond.

On chemical arms, Obama must decide what he wants to make out of this new diplomatic opportunity.

Most experts doubt Assad will willingly turn over the bulk of these weapons, which will be difficult to find because he has now dispersed them, and even more difficult to destroy. Carrying out such a project in wartime could take months or years.

“We’re just going to have to see how serious the Russians are about telling the Syrians: ‘You have to do this,’” says Ryan Crocker, the veteran diplomat and former U.S. ambassador to Syria. “It will take an ‘or else.’” Even with pressure, collecting the huge stores of Syrian poison gas may be an impossible task.

Crocker, now dean of the Bush School of Government at Texas A&M;, adds, “Most likely Putin and Assad are just playing for time, figuring the more time goes by, the less likely a strike.” Some Syria experts think Assad will try to play out the inspection game until 2014, when he wants to hold new presidential elections. Murhaf Jouejati, a Syria expert at National Defense University, says: “He’s going to cheat, lie, and ‘win’ the election, thumbing his nose at the world. Russia will help him.”

In other words, the new Syria diplomacy might well prove a sham.

To prevent this, the administration will have to insist on deadlines for any project to collect chemical arms. Obama’s team will need to use skilled behind-the-scenes diplomacy — not bluster and public denunciations — to rally broader support for a tough U.N. resolution that holds Assad accountable for crimes against his people. This should be the moment to isolate Assad — and the White House should make public the intercepts that prove his commanders ordered the strike.

Ironically, Iran could play a key role here. Iranian officials have a deep aversion to the use of poison gas, which Saddam Hussein used to kill tens of thousands of their countrymen during the Iran-Iraq war. Tweets and interviews from top Iranian officials have denounced the use of gas in Syria, without pointing a finger at the rebels (as Putin did). Some officials have openly held Assad responsible for the gas attacks.

While it still backs the Assad regime, Iran clearly wants to avoid another massacre by sarin. Behind-the-scenes contacts between Washington and Tehran, even indirect, might pave the way for a plausible project to control the bulk of his chemical weapons. That, in turn, could reduce the risk of such weapons falling into the hands of jihadi or other radical groups — something in which Moscow also shares an interest. (Rather than risk retaliation from Israel, Iran might even want to keep Syria from passing them on to Hezbollah.)

In other words, diplomacy over Assad’s chemical weapons might produce some useful results.

But, if the near-debacle over red lines proved anything, it’s that the White House needs a Syria strategy that goes beyond such immediate crises. Obama also needs to reconsider when and whether he would use force.

Russia wouldn’t have thrown out the idea of curbing Assad’s weapons without the threat of a potential U.S. strike — even though Secretary of State John Kerry insisted it would be “unbelievably small.”

Any further Syrian diplomacy will languish without such pressure behind it.

If Obama doesn’t want to use military strikes, he must revisit the issue of arming more moderate rebels. Otherwise Syria is headed for a division between a rump Assad state and so-called emirates run by well-armed radical Islamists who have squelched moderates with fewer weapons. Refugee flows will continue to flood Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, and Iraq.

A narrow U.S. focus on chemical arms gives Assad carte blanche to slaughter his people by all other means possible. It virtually guarantees that Syria will implode in a way that threatens its neighbors.

Putin has (unwittingly) given Obama the chance to reconfigure a strategy that deals with the wider Syria problem. Time is short.

— Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.


pinecreek 4 years, 6 months ago

Obama's Middle East policy is in shambles. An opportunity to bring Assad down (admittedly for possibly worse replacements) has been missed. Iran continues to produce nuclear materials for future weapons development--unchallenged and apparently unstoppable. Hezbollah gathers more money, weapons and capability to threaten Israel, Jordan and others. Egypt and Libya are descending into political darkness. Afghanistan is falling back into Taliban control. Iraq is being destroyed from the inside out. It's just a matter of time until the Gulf states are pulled into this vortex of chaos. Obama runs from every opportunity, leaves virtually every ally uncovered, has no viable strategy or plan while Putin runs circles around him. The most inept practitioner of foreign policy since Jimmy Carter, on display for the world to see--welcome to the Big Show Mr. President. Too bad you're not qualified to play in this league.

Trumbull 4 years, 6 months ago

What you describe above is exactly why we need to stay out. You describe chaos that will never be solved by US military intervention. It would be insane to think we can effect change. Twelve years and probably 12 Billion dollars in Iraq and Afghanistan is proof enough for me right now.

weeslicket 4 years, 6 months ago

the most inept practitioner of foreign policy during my adult life is still president george w. bush. after taking us into war in afghanistan, that president then led us -- falsely -- into war in iraq. results included massive loss of life and US treasure; and emboldened regimes in iran (with hezbollah) and north korea and also russia (plus syria) and china; and the long term diminishment of US global status, including the real and practical ability to respond to crises elsewhere in the world. and of course economic chaos here at home.

also please remember that president obama ran against senator mccain, who has consistently argued for taking us actively (i.e., kinetically, as in boots on the ground) into every possible conflict available. also please remember mitt romney, whose foreign policy seemed to be something like "i'll just say things louder".

Joe Blackford II 4 years, 6 months ago

I would remind chickenhawks that it was Bush I who dismantled all of our tactical nuclear weapons, including the Reagan stockpile of neutron bombs.

Science fiction author Isaac Asimov stated that "Such a neutron bomb or N bomb seems desirable to those who worry about property and hold life cheap."

hold life cheap -> that surely represents the apparent strategy of terrorists around the world. We're finding our Military's tactics less than adequate to deal with this mindset. Why won't they stand up & fight us fairly? Isn't that what the Redcoats muttered when picked off by Revolutionaries while marching in the woods?

I shudder to think what type of morass a Pres. McCain would have brazenly entered into with actions against Syria, Hezbollah & Iran in 2009.

NOTE: I wore a black armband to Andover HS on 15 Oct 1969. Principal Feris Razook met me at my locker with a forcible grip on my arm, saying "we won't have any students wearing that." In 1971, Rep. Joe Skubitz gave our graduation address, with encouragement to volunteer for the armed services.

Ken Lassman 4 years, 6 months ago

I was not aware of the role of extreme, prolonged drought in Syria in the days leading up to the current oppression by Assad of his own people. Perhaps this is what we have to look forward to in coming years as prolonged drought frequency rises due to climate change: http://motherboard.vice.com/blog/climate-change-warmed-syria-up-for-war

Trumbull 4 years, 6 months ago

"The Kremlin saved Obama from public humiliation since he was almost certain to lose the vote"

Rubin is a good analyst. But here I disagree. Look at the quote above. Why are we worried about embarrassment? Why do we say, "The US will appear weak if we don't flex our muscles?" Why are we worried about image? This is flawed and shallow thinking. The same kind of logic that wastes human life and has caused un-repairable harm in most all of the places we stick our noses and intervene.

The US should not be concerned about image or embarrassment. The focus of our concern should be about the bottom line. The bottom line is confiscating these chemical weapons right now. This diplomatic chance offered is one that should be taken. I sure am glad that this administration is not listening to these beat writers.

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