What a clown-fest. I’ve wanted to update my latest Syria blog, but one bizarre thing after another kept occurring. First, Secretary of State Kerry gave an impassioned speech on why we should immediately strike Assad, and, as I said in my last blog, I agreed with him (yes, that’s past tense). Instead of using his legal powers as president to strike, as Kerry implied would happen, President Obama backed up and asked congress for permission. Secretary Kerry, in an odd choice of words, scared the pants off of Assad by saying the strike would be “unbelievably small” and wouldn’t be targeted at Assad or designed to alter the balance of power. President Obama immediately followed that up with the statement “We don’t do pinpricks” – leaving me to believe that a pinprick is NOT unbelievably small. Finally, someone asked Secretary Kerry what it would take for the US to not strike Syria. He said that Assad must turn over all of his chemical weapons to an international force – then said that would never happen. Immediately, the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, stepped up and said that’s a great idea. Syria followed suit by saying they would do it. Kerry slapped his forehead in aggravation.
I’ll get to Putin’s offer in a second, but first I’d like to discuss the potential strike. In an earlier blog I stated that I would support a strike in retaliation for Assad’s use of chemical weapons because we needed to deter both his future use as well as reinforce our credibility with other despots around the world. I still believe that doctrine, but unfortunately, the time to successfully execute has passed.
Coercive diplomacy requires two things: The capacity to strike what the opposition holds dear, and the will to use that capacity. Both of these have to be known and believed by the opposition. In other words, the enemy has to believe that we will attack, and that we have the ability to cause pain. We’ve lost that edge in Syria.
If Obama had struck immediately (well, relatively quickly, without a bunch of public dithering), it would have sent a clear signal. Instead, by back-pedaling from his very own red line and asking congress for permission – only to have congress get pounded by constituents against a strike – he’s sent the very opposite message than what he wanted. Instead of sending a signal of strength, he sent one of weakness; precisely showing that neither the president nor the U.S. government has the will to strike, and no military option will alter that at this stage. Everyone from North Korea to Iran now believes they can escalate with abandon because we’ll signal long before we strike with massive hand wringing and debate. Hitting Syria at this stage to deter future chemical weapons usage is an utter waste of time. Like reprimanding a dog three days after he urinates on the carpet.
On top of this, as stated above, coercive diplomacy requires the threat of force to be applied to something the opposition holds dear. In Syria’s case, the only thing Assad holds dear is himself. By publicly stating that we will not do anything that would cause his fall, we’ve defanged ANY coercive elements of our strategy. To be clear, even if we struck in a timeline that showed resolve, I do not think we should have targeted Assad (as I said in a previous blog), but telling your missiles what to hit and telling the opposition what you WON’T hit are two different things. There was no reason for Assad to know we didn’t have him on the target deck. Let him sweat, and after the strike, think he’d escaped by the skin of his teeth.
To juxtapose the Syrian strike fiasco, one only need to look at Operation Eldorado Canyon. In 1986, Libya’s Qaddafi blew up a Berlin discotheque frequented by American servicemen, killing several. Ten days later, President Reagan destroyed five targets in Libya in a joint Air Force/Navy strike package. The first time the American public heard about it was when President Reagan gave a statement from the oval office, explaining what he had done and why, while the smoke was clearing and some of the strike package was still in the air returning to base. There was not a country on earth that didn’t believe Reagan would strike again if United States’ interests were attacked.
Well, thank goodness that whole debate is a moot point now, because Assad is going to give all of his chemical weapons up in a deal brokered by that peacenik Vladimir Putin. Being the statesman that he is, Putin lectured us on our use of force in an OP-ED in the New York Times, saying that violence doesn’t solve anything. Well, unless you don’t count getting elected to be president of Russia.
This is the same guy who executed a false-flag operation against his own people, conducting four terrorist strikes in Moscow, then blaming them on the Chechens, stirring up enough Russian nationalism to get him elected, then proceeding to go to war in Chechnya. Under his direction, the Russian army leveled the capital city of Grozny, pounding it with artillery and airstrikes, killing anything that moved – civilian or otherwise. In 2003, the United Nations declared Grozny the most destroyed city on earth. All under the peaceful leadership of that prior KGB man, Vladimir Putin. He takes affront at American exceptionalism, but his history is much closer to Assad the elder’s bloody reign, with Grozny a close reflection of the destruction of the city of Hama in 1982 (with deaths of upward of 20,000 civilians), than it is to any civilized society. You can rest assured whatever he’s planning with Syria, it has absolutely nothing to do with any humanitarian notions.
Even if the deal is cynical, is it something we should consider? Yes, by all means we should consider it, but realistically, there’s little chance Assad is going to give up his chemical weapons – especially as a result of our pathetic wafflely-diplomacy. Think about it – do we honestly believe that Assad has all of the sudden decided to turn over his best strategic asset because we threatened him with an “unbelievably small” tactical strike that will – by our own words – not harm his hold on power at all? Especially when every other country on earth has backed away from doing anything about his chemical weapons usage? At the end of the day, he slaughtered over a thousand people and all he got for his trouble was Britain saying they didn’t give a shit, Germany saying there’s no way they’ll strike anything, and the US saying we’ll have to quibble for a while before blowing up a bunch of things that don’t matter to him. That’s what has him ready to throw in the towel? Really?
If anything, Assad has looked at the past and realized one of the few things keeping him in power are precisely his chemical weapons. One of the primary – and smart – reasons we haven’t conducted “regime change” with him like we did with Qaddafi is because we’re afraid of those weapons ending up with a bunch of fanatical jihadists. If he relinquishes his weapons, he loses that edge, and as I said before, his survival is the only thing he holds dear. In fact, I’m sure he’s looking at recent past history. Under President Bush, we convinced Qaddafi to give up all of his WMD capability, verified by international inspectors. Fast forward ten years, and President Obama is launching airstrikes to remove him, regardless of the jihadist rebels and regional chaos that would follow his fall. Assad knows full well that if Qaddafi had kept his WMD, there would never have been any NATO airstrikes because the west would have feared the consequences. With the WMD out of play, the west could pretend to be humanitarian by dismantling Qaddafi’s regime, and then allow the country to fall into chaos without worrying about the aftermath. After all, it’s way, way over there and not something that can affect us. Throw WMD in the mix though, and we’d spend a little more time debating the outcome before slinging missiles.
No, if Assad’s learned anything, it’s keeping his weapons (and using them), only garners a potential pinprick, but giving them up guarantees his eventual fall.
On the other hand, talking about giving them up gets him the best of both worlds. If the U.S. was reluctant to strike before, it will never hit him if he’s promising to remove all of his WMD. All he has to do is stretch out the time – and that’s something he’s doing beautifully. For anyone out there who thinks the international community will “step in” if he doesn’t pony up the goods, Assad has a little bit of history to fall back on. His staunch ally in his fight is Hezbollah, a terrorist group from the border state of Lebanon. That country went through a traumatic fifteen-year civil war (in case you think Syria will be over swiftly), and at the end of it, a UN resolution was made for the disarming of all militias. Everyone did so, except for one: Hezbollah. Today, Hezbollah is better armed than the Lebanese Armed Forces, and has no intention of giving up their weapons. Has the world community stepped in to enforce the resolution? Hell no. Instead, they’ve turned a blind eye to Hezbollah traveling to Syria and fighting for Assad. So what makes anyone think that Assad hasn’t learned a lesson from that? He’s a survivor, and the precedent has been set.
As for Russia, all Putin wants is to poke the United States in the eye, and this they’ve gleefully done with Snowden and now Syria. Russia wants to return to the days when the USSR was the other 800-pound gorilla. A time when what they said mattered on the world stage. Luckily for Putin, Obama’s doing his best to get him there.
Given that it’s ludicrous for us to believe Assad will give up his chemical weapons in good faith, do I think we should pursue the Russia/Syria initiative? By all means, if it keeps this administration from flinging useless tomahawk missiles around – or worse – conducting regime change in Syria without a moments thought to what will follow, like we did in Libya.
If that’s my option, I hope we pursue this for as long as it takes – and it will take forever, trust me. Then again, who knows? Maybe Assad will pull a Qaddafi and give up his weapons. Stranger things have happened, starting with Russia lecturing the US on human rights.