Obama Is Playing Russian 'Reset' Politics with Syrian Lives
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.
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.
DeYoung's colleague David Ignatius further elaborated on this new-old stratagem:
"Obama's desire for Russian cooperation is one reason he has been cautious in responding to allegations that Assad has used chemical weapons. Obama talked by phone to President Vladimir Putin Monday, and an official said 'we still do believe there's a constructive role for Russia to play.'"
One way to politicize intelligence is to purposefully slow the investigation of war crimes in order to wield soft power leverage with a diplomatic adversary. (What price asphyxiated Arabs against the priority of the 'reset'?) Such thinking also shows how tenaciously committed the administration is to misreading intransigent regimes that have tried in vain to make their positions clear to the West.
The Putinists believe that all of Syria's rebels are terrorists. Threatening to arm those rebels is thus not likely to change the Putinists' view of the matter. The Russian Foreign Ministry has in the past blamed atrocities carried out by Assadist proxies, such as the Houla massacre, on the opposition. Most recently, Russia has facilitated and seconded the regime's propaganda about the supposed origin of a chemical attack in Khan al-Assal, Aleppo, by objecting to the U.N.'s demand for a forensic investigation that encompasses all of the targeted sites including those in Homs and Damascus. This suggests that the Russians, too, want to convince the world that it wasn't the regime that used sarin gas but its enemies - an allegation that would backfire if Obama took his own red line more seriously.
I almost felt sorry for Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov who once again finds himself having to beg to be understood. In a recent interview with Foreign Policy, he expressed himself "gratified" to discover that it was the Americans and Europeans who were the ones quietly unspooling their old preconditions about not engaging in "dialogue" with Assad. Lavrov also reaffirmed Russia's right to deliver anti-aircraft weapons and other lethal hardware to Syria and described his imminent visitor Kerry as "pragmatic," which is the same word Assad used to complimentarily characterize the United States's approach to his country as a whole.
What must the poor Russians do to show that they intend to play a destructive role in America's Syria policy? And what must it take for President Obama to realize that he's got as much international support on resolving the Syria crisis as he is ever going to get?
Many people otherwise sympathetic to what's happening in this luckless country believe that it's simply too late to do anything substantive because the opposition has been too 'radicalized' to ever possibly accept U.S. assistance in good faith. Jabhat al-Nusra has pledged its allegiance to al-Qaeda and Ayman al-Zawahiri (then un-pledged it, but whatever), and they're not even the largest franchise among Salafist-jihadist groups. Even if Obama did decide to run guns to the rebels, wouldn't he be enabling the nasties who want to wage sectarian holy war and then turn their attention to America when they're done?
Unfortunately, because we waited so long, 'blowback' is a more likely unintended consequence than it was a year ago and it is simply not possible to ensure that all weapons imported into Syria will stay out of the hands of the jihadists. Many of the Croatian arms have already found their way to Jabhat al-Nusra. (A way around this, of course, is to deny the rebels the heavy-duty hardware - namely anti-aircraft munitions - and instead do the work of neutralizing the regime's air power for them through some combination of aircraft and stand-off mechanisms.)
All this to one side, the administration's other stated objective of trying to put some "more skin in the game" by arming rebels is not so quixotic. Without overstating the case, there are still moderates within the ranks of the opposition, even if some have technically joined up with extremist elements. In many instances, "Islamists" make themselves known only when they believe that paymasters in Doha or Riyadh might be watching.
On a recent trip to Antakya, I met one such fighter called Abu Bashir. He belongs to a brigade known as the Mujahedeen of Jisr al-Shoughour and he was in Turkey to have some shrapnel removed from his arm and leg. Here's his group's declaration video, in which someone other than Abu Bashir says:
"Bismillah. Those who believe fight in the way of God. And those who reject faith fight in the way of tyranny. So fight the friends of Satan, sons of our great country. Because of the crimes of the Assad regime and their desecration of holy sites we have created the Brigade of the Mujahideen of Jisr al Shughour led by the civil commander Bassam al-Masri. And on this occasion we promise God and our people that we will defend the country and promise Assad's fighters that we will fight them anywhere we see them. God have mercy on our martyrs."
This is fairly mild stuff in comparison to what other rebel formations are putting out these days, but it nonetheless led me to inquire as to the patron or sponsor of Abu Bashir's katiba. Without hesitating he told me that it was the Muslim Brotherhood. This is how the conversation went from there:
"So you're Ikhwan?"
"Then why have you joined them?"
"Because I need to pay my men and coordinate with other brigades in Idlib and they are the ones to do this."
"And if someone else came along and offered to pay your men and coordinate with other brigades, you would accept them?"
I've heard some variation of this line many times in the past several months, chiefly among those who are more frustrated with America than irreconcilably opposed to America. The talk with Abu Bashir then moved to how problematic Jabhat al-Nusra had become for the country (as well as the regime's prior underwriting of the very same al-Qaeda agents now waging war against the regime). Then, an hour or so later, I saw Abu Bashir smoke the biggest joint I've seen since my college days.
The point is not that they aren't hardcore ideologues fighting in Syria but that not everyone who professes himself to be one is necessarily that. Many so-called "Salafis," for instance, could not tell you the first thing about the Salafi doctrine - they just joined Suqoor al-Sham because they wanted comrades with the highest level of discipline and battlefield experience.
Obama has been good on telling Americans to be tolerant and not judge by appearances, a key aspect of his outreach to the Islamic world. He might want to apply that logic in Syria, and realize that the U.S. still has allies ready to end the long nightmare of the Assad regime - they just need to be recognized as such.