By Patricia H. Kushlis
For such a small country, international concern over the civil war in Syria is outsized. As they say in real estate, however, location is everything and Syria borders on any number of countries in the Middle East from Turkey to the north to Lebanon and Israel on the south. It also provides a small supply base for the Russian Navy – its only one in the Mediterranean.
For the Russians, support for the Assad regime is perhaps a dying fling at an attempt to influence the outcome of a power struggle in the Middle East and, hence, retain the country’s position on the world stage as a major, as opposed to a minor, player. It’s a risky move but the Russians have, for the most part, been playing a weak hand well and let’s face it, a war in the Middle East would raise the price of oil – which, in turn, would benefit the Russian state.
It’s true, Russians don’t like Salafists – and who can blame them – but had Putin withdrawn support from Assad from the beginning of the civil war – instead of digging in in a seeming anti-American pique – perhaps moderate Syrian Sunnis would have prevailed two years ago, Assad would be back in London having reopened his ophthalmology business and the Middle East would have lost one of its many tinder boxes and the potential for further Islamic radicalization on the borders of Turkey, Israel and Lebanon.
Instead, the US is now being blamed for “going it alone” to rid Assad of chemical weapons. There’s no doubt that he has them; there remains, however, doubt among skeptics that he used them, or some somewhat less deadly chemical agent, against his own people early morning August 21.
Since the Syrians never signed the International Chemical Weapons Convention of 1997, I suppose Assad does have some legal grounds for attempting to exempt his regime from its strictures. But both the US and the Russians signed on (in fact, my former agency was a major casualty of the ratification of the agreement reached between the Clinton administration and once powerful Senate Foreign Relations Chair Jesse Helms). Both countries have been destroying their stockpiles carefully and deliberately over the past decade ever since. Even the Israelis have signed - but not ratified - the agreement.
Meanwhile, the propaganda war operates at full tilt.
First Assad denied use of CW; then, in a turn around, he placed the blame for their use on the rebels. No one will know for sure what the true story is until the UN team sent to investigate the alleged atrocity has completed its laboratory analysis of the samples collected on the ground after the attack. And the team will only be able to assert what was, or wasn’t used – not apparently which side used what.
The initial UN inspection report could come shortly.
I suspect that the Obama administration has “right on its side” in its accusations against Assad. The NSA, as Snowden has shown the world, has ears. Yet as UN and Arab League Special Envoy for Syria Lakhdar Brahimi observed earlier last week, Obama is not the trigger-happy George W Bush who led the US and its allies down the garden path in 2003 using WMD as a pretext for invading Iraq and overturning Saddam Hussein. In fact, of course, American inspectors in the aftermath found no WMD.
That specious claim turned out to be a costly figment of the Bush administration’s overactive imagination but also effective propaganda warfare at home and abroad. In the long run, it also has made the world and many Americans chary of the findings of US intelligence something that did not occur before 2003 except in the hearts and minds of Soviet disinformation specialists.
Stepping back from the red line
I was surprised to learn last week of the Obama administration’s seemingly sudden “rush to war” or at least its loudly proclaimed intent on imminently launching a limited, putative strike against the Syrian regime in a mostly “go it alone” action without at least waiting for the UN inspectors’ report or gaining Congressional support. This was reminiscent of Obama’s reckless predecessor – not Bush 43’s far more cautious and worldly-wise father George H W Bush when he was US president at the end of the Cold War.
That Obama stepped back from the brink Saturday and announced plans to seek Congressional approval before proceeding with military action was, in my view, smart politically.
Gulf War I
George W H Bush and his Secretary of State James Baker moved deliberately and painstakingly over months of delicate international negotiations. They also obtained Congressional approval for their actions. This gave them time to get their troops, equipment and battle plan in order before launching the US-led invasion of Iraq in 1991. Their objectives were clear and limited: to rid Kuwait of the Iraqi troops that had invaded the country in August 1990.
Bush and Baker painstakingly rounded up support – over months – international financial, military and moral – from 34 coalition partners that included the Soviet Union. And they succeeded in their goals. Furthermore, there was no questioning US intelligence findings: Iraqi troops occupied Kuwait.
Yes, times were different then.
The US-Soviet relationship – as exemplified by the good personal relationships forged between leaders Bush and Baker and Gorbachev and Shevardnadze – was far more cordial than any relationship US presidents have developed with the prickly Russian President Vladimir Putin who put the US on notice just this past spring that he distrusted the US and preferred to play the spoiler.
Whether it’s because Putin considers himself to have been slighted by the US – face it, the bilateral relationship is no longer as important as it was 30 years ago – or that Obama was clearly more comfortable dealing with former Russian interim President Dmitri Medvedev, or more fundamentally that the Russians still smart from loss of empire, the bottom line is that the Putin government has gone out of its way to throw up obstacles to US actions in the international arena since his return to the office in March. The result renders the Security Council impotent.
The fact that David Cameron failed to deliver a vote of support for limited military action in Britain’s House of Commons late last week has also complicated the picture.
But will the “punishment fit the crime?” And will a putative air strike against the Damascus regime’s forces stop Assad from again using chemical weapons domestically?
Taking out CW stockpiles by aerial bombardment is likely to release deadly chemicals into the air thereby poisoning more people and contaminating the land. This will take decades to clear. Furthermore, there’s no certainty that the US knows where all Syria’s CW stockpiles are. The question is now what – and whether - the US military has the capability of destroying enough of Assad’s military hardware and infrastructure to influence his future behavior just through a limited strike.
On April 1986, the Reagan administration did something similar against Libya’s Gaddafi in response to his Berlin disco bombing. This action was a military success but did it represent a long term diplomatic one? That's questionable.
Can the US change the military equation in Syria from the air and if so tilt it in whose favor? Will the Russians and Iranians simply resupply the Assad forces with whatever weapons lost in the bombardment? And are there better options that have yet to be explored?
Meanwhile Syrian refugees – especially children - continue to pour across the borders into neighboring countries – the UN reports one third of the Syrian population has been displaced from their homes. These are questions that should weigh heavily on America’s leadership over the next few days. I’m afraid that there is no easy answer.