Obama Is Playing Russian 'Reset' Politics with Syrian Lives

By Michael Weiss

When asked the inevitable question about Syria and transgressed 'red lines,' President Obama gave this response at his April 30 press conference: "If we end up rushing to judgment without hard, effective evidence, we can find ourselves in a position where we can't mobilize the international community to support." Yet it has been precisely members of the "international community" that have embarrassed the White House in the past several weeks by going public with their own intelligence agencies' findings about the use of chemical weapons in Syria.

Presumably that same community is therefore aware of the consequences that derive from such evidence. It's not a secret that Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, Kuwait, Jordan, Britain, France, and even Israel have already intervened in Syria in some form or another and have done so without the United States. This renders the word 'unilateral,' now being trotted out by the anti-intervention camp to silence any talk of a no-fly zone or direct military action, more applicable to the administration's current disposition than to the one its allies encourage it to adopt.

So where does Obama stand and where is he headed? The short answer is nowhere - at least for now. Fred Hof, who used to coordinate Syria policy for the Obama Administration, has suggested that the White House is not making itself a hostage to a "comprehensive" U.N. chemical weapons investigation which will never take place because the Assad regime won't allow it. Rather, if you read the administration's messaging carefully, Hof writes, it is indeed pursuing alternative means of fact-finding and authentication. Exhibit A is the White House's April 25 letter to John McCain and Carl Levin, which claimed that, even though the "chain of custody" of chemical weapons was as yet unknown, the government was highly skeptical that any party other than the regime deployed them in Syria. The letter went on to state that the White House was "also working" with allies, friends, and the Syrian opposition (i.e. going around the U.N.) to "establish the facts."

Yet this letter was then belied by Obama's own comments five days later in which he said that he still had no idea who used chemical weapons (so it might have been the rebels after all?) or how or when they were used. It hardly matters anymore that 'who,' 'how' and 'when' were never relevant to the president's August 2012 policy, which made utilization and mobilization of chemical weapons the triggers for changing his "calculus" or "equation" on Syria. Obama has just created the possibility that America's supposed investigative partner, the Syrian opposition, might in fact be the real perpetrator. This will not only further alienate the very people whom the president has designated the inheritors of a post-Assad state, it will give Iran, Hezbollah and Russia stronger strategic coherence in framing the conflict, and of course it will give Assad a license to dip further into his non-conventional arsenal. General Salim Idriss, the head of the Supreme Military Command of the Free Syrian Army, was forced to respond with a letter of his own to Obama in which he tutored the leader of the free world in the lessons of totalitarianism.

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The administration's wavering over the WMD question has form. For well over a year, its favorite fall-back position whenever it finds itself in the soup on Syria is to profess to be 'working with' an opposition that it subtly reminds the world is not all that scrutable or trustworthy to begin with. You can't really blame Syrians for suspecting that Washington is secretly supporting Damascus (every rebel I talk to these days thinks so) and that the real American policy is to keep people it doesn't like busy killing each other indefinitely

Even the unsentimental realists now applauding Obama's "prudence" - while also telling him that the use of chemical weapons is of no consequence to U.S. interests - must think it a colossal waste of time and money to run humanitarian aid to revolutionaries it doesn't want to help who reside in parts of a country that are still susceptible to being bombarded by MiGs and Scuds, let alone nerve agents.

Among Obama supporters who can see the administration is in disarray, there is still a rush to apologize and defend. Much of the president's policy muddle, we're told, is the lingering trauma in foreign policy caused by his predecessor. Obama came to office promising to end wars in the Middle East. He also vowed to be the un-Bush. Both are admirable goals but not when taken to the point of absurdity or at the expense of an overcorrection that sees the follies of Iraq repeating themselves ad infinitum, regardless of wholly divergent circumstances. Remind me again when Iraqi rebels clashed with Saddam's Republican Guard in and around Baghdad in 2002, or blew up Tariq Aziz in his office in advance of "shock and awe."

The failure to adjust one's thinking in light of new historical developments is a sign of ideological sclerosis, not progress. Many in Washington are beginning to grasp this. One disgruntled official in the State Department has said that the administration has been "borderline isolationist" in its thinking on Syria. This is actually slightly fair to Obama given the starring role that he has granted, and continues to grant, Russia. The Washington Post's Karen DeYoung reported yesterday that the president may be considering the provision of "lethal weaponry" to Syrian rebels, although a "political solution" to a conflict that now includes weekly reports of chemical agents being deployed is still apparently his preferred resolution. The real purpose of this vaguely provocative, anonymously sourced, and no doubt leaked article is to pressure Vladimir Putin into abandoning his copper-bottomed support for Bashar al-Assad. Secretary of State John Kerry is due to arrive in Moscow in the coming days and Obama has a one-on-one meeting with Putin scheduled for June. In other words, this is to be the absolute last chance - and this time we really mean it - for the Russian strongmen to get on the right side of history, even as they engage in a campaign of repression against their own opposition and civil society, which Human Rights Watch has called "unprecedented" in the post-Soviet era. Surely an excellent time for compromise and accommodation.

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Michael Weiss is special project manager at the Institute of Modern Russia. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldweiss. Reprinted with permission.

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