Remember the photo of Obama and Russian President Putin shaking hands at the St. Petersburg summit last week? Putin had the barest trace of a smile on his face (it’s actually about as much as he ever smiles). It turns out that he and Obama, in their 20-minute one-on-one session, broached the possibility of calling off the threatened American strike against Syria in return for Syria yielding control of its chemical weapons to an international body that would supervise their destruction. With Syria’s agreement in principle to this idea, we could possibly be on the verge of giving both Obama and Syrian President Bashir al-Assad a way out of a crisis that neither appears to want.
It’s hard to make much sense of either US behavior or Syrian behavior. While it seems clear that at least one chemical attack did take place, and highly likely that Syrian government forces perpetrated that attack, it doesn’t make any sense for them to have done so, at a time when the government’s military position was improving, and when there was little appetite in the United States or elsewhere for an intervention in Syria.
The behavior of the United States toward Syria has been anything but sure-footed. The Obama administration expressed a clear preference for Assad’s departure, but long refused to do anything to help the opposition in the civil war. By the time they did decide to send modest military aid, radical Islamists had gained the upper hand among opposition forces, and we certainly didn’t want to help them.
Obama famously said that use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government would cross a “red line,” but then failed to act after the first such use, months ago. The second chemical attack seemingly forced Obama to move toward some kind of punitive military action. He affirmed his authority as commander-in-chief to carry out such action, and seemed on the verge of doing so, until he pulled back at the last minute and submitted the question to a Congress that is notoriously incapable of agreeing on anything. What right-wing Republicans and liberal Democrats may well agree on, however, is to reject intervention in Syria. Obama will be left swinging in the wind, on his own rope.
Here’s what I think is going on. I think neither Obama nor Assad really wants a confrontation about chemical weapons. But Assad inherited an inner circle from his father that sees nothing wrong with the most savagely repressive measures when confronted with an armed opposition threatening to remove them from power. Assad is a prisoner of his advisers.
Oddly, so is Obama. Since he first came into office, he has worked quietly and effectively to extricate the U.S. from the conflicts he inherited, in Iraq and Afghanistan, without actually declaring a policy of avoiding such involvements in the future. He has surrounded himself with advisers from the more interventionist wing of the Democratic Party, who pushed for involvement in Libya and again in Syria, on both humanitarian grounds and serving the national interest by getting rid of a ruler who has been a thorn in the side of both the United States and Israel. These interventionists thought they had Obama committed to a military strike, until he suddenly backed off and turned it over to Congress.
So you have both Obama and Assad seemingly locked into a course that leads to military escalation. Assad cannot imagine that even an ineffectual U.S. attack would be good for him, because it would increase the likelihood of additional escalation. Once it intervened militarily, the U.S. would not stop until Assad was removed from power. Obama faces the likelihood of a defeat in Congress (and in public opinion), after which he would have to choose between acting anyway, in total political isolation, or backing off and looking weak. Either way he would look foolish.
Now, Vladimir Putin is no fool. He knows he has leverage with the Syrians because he’s almost their last friend (save Iran). And he can see that Obama has backed himself into a corner. The offer to put the chemical weapons under international control allows both Obama and Assad to climb down from their high horses. It won’t definitively solve the issue of Syrian chemical weapons (“What is Assad hiding?” people will ask), but it will end the prospect of a military strike that would have helped neither side.
And Putin emerges as the peacemaker, indeed as the only adult in the room.
Tuesday, 10 September 2013