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them – but had Putin withdrawn support from Assad from the beginning of the civil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.
So even then it may be difficult to affix definite blame –
although it is apparent that the attack was launched against the Damascus
suburbs from which the rebels launch attacks against the heart of the regime
itself. One question no one seems to be
asking, however, is why the rebels would lob such poisonous weapons against the
people who shelter them. Simply to draw
the US into the conflict? Thumb their noses at the Russians or Iranians? Of
that I am skeptical.
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
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
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
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.
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
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.