One way to tell how abrupt and unexpected was the change in plans toward Syria is the fact that no one seems completely sure who gets credit for the idea of having Bashar al-Assad give up his chemical weapons. It is being pitched as the Russian proposal, which is true enough. But it’s also true that the idea seemed to have been sparked by Secretary of State John Kerry at a press conference yesterday. Then again it is also true that no one expected Kerry to say that, least of all the president.
In fact, President Obama was pushing for military action yesterday as the administration sent out key players to make the case publicly. Susan Rice, the national security advisor, gave a major speech justifying the administration’s plans. Harry Reid, the Democratic Senate majority leader, compared Syria to Nazi Germany. He’ll now have to temper that indictment ever so slightly, one suspects. The New York Times attempts to reconcile this discrepancy by crediting both the Russians and Kerry. The Times describes Russia as leading this diplomatic initiative, but buried in the story is this acknowledgement of its provenance:
Mr. Kerry returned to Washington on Monday after first raising the idea in a dismissive way in London on Monday, making clear that the idea of Mr. Assad giving up Syria’s weapons seemed improbable.
I doubt this will get much pushback from the Obama administration. If the effort to secure Syria’s chemical weapons succeeds, the administration can credit diplomacy while playing up Kerry’s role. If the effort fails, the White House can recall that everyone knew Kerry didn’t mean for it to be a serious proposal anyway.
That raises another question: the consensus is that since the president had no idea this was coming the Russians are “saving” him from congressional defeat; why would they do so? The answer seems to be that they have nothing to lose one way or the other. This isn’t regime change; in fact it leans against it for the time being. It’s unclear exactly what the plan will be, as Max noted this morning, but it would depend heavily on Russian cooperation and at least partially on cooperation with Assad. The Russian government, then, looks like a bunch of geniuses who simultaneously prevented the expansion of war in Syria while keeping their preferred Syrian client in office, all the while banking some American goodwill.
What about the role of a credible threat of force? As the votes line up against it and Kerry insists any strike, even if authorized, would be modest and telegraphed, there hasn’t been much of a threat and it certainly hasn’t been credible. Are the Russians actually increasing the chances of a strike by giving the administration an excuse to argue that all other options have failed? Perhaps, but the mere scent of a diplomatic solution–likely to be drawn out–inspired relief in both parties’ congressional delegations as public support for such a strike continued to drop.
In the interim, Assad will have time to solidify his recent gains against the rebels and the Russians can continue to help Assad stack the deck. It’s worth pointing out that the Russian government is flatly opposed to removing Assad if it means he is replaced by his current opposition. As Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, whose stock is surely on the rise this week, told Foreign Policy for an interview published in late April:
Military solution can have only two options: The government wins, or the opposition wins. If the opposition wins on the ground militarily, I am afraid the people who have been selected for this national coalition, the people who compose the Syrian National Council, they will not be invited to Syria because the people with the guns, the extremists, would have the day….
So we really have to understand what we are doing when we support one side or another. The people whom the French and the Africans are fighting in Mali now, those are the same people which Europeans supported in Libya. Some of the arms used against the French apparently are the arms the Libyan opposition received from France. So we must take a broader look at the situation. We cannot say, well, Libya is not Syria, Syria is not Mali, Mali is not Tunis, Tunis is not Egypt. This is absolutely true. Each country is different, but the process which is under way in the context of this Arab Spring is certainly a comprehensive issue involving so many aspects that we cannot afford the luxury of just limiting ourselves at every given moment by a situation in country X, forgetting about the ramifications.
Lavrov’s position is that the West would regret Assad’s fall, and that recent history is sufficient to justify Russia’s decision that it will not let the West make its own “mistakes” anymore. This is different from the concern that the Putin regime opposes military action in Syria because it believes it was snookered into regime change in Libya and cannot trust the Obama administration. Lavrov has made it clear this isn’t really about trust; it’s about saving the West from itself and the world from the West.
That is not exactly a ringing endorsement of America’s reputation in the world right now. But as much as the Obama administration has bungled the Syria issue from the beginning, it should be noted that congressional Republicans were happy about this proposed chemical-weapons deal too. Indeed, the Russian support for it probably signaled the end of the possibility of support for military action, at least for the moment, in this Congress. If Obama got played by Putin, so did they.
Throughout this crisis, the administration did not appear to have anything resembling a strategy. Now would be a good time to formulate one.