Obama's Weak Defense on Syria

By Michael Weiss

Anger and defensiveness are not attractive qualities in a colleague or spouse, but when in evidence in a president they reflect something worse than an expression of subconscious guilt or self-criticism. They indicate that a national lie has come undone and that those paying the price for it are everyone but the angry and defensive.

Barack Obama wants us to know that his foreign policy has been as good as good can be. Speaking in Manila this week at the close of his anticlimactic tour of Asia, the president was described by the New York Times as “visibly frustrated” and “stung by criticism” of his handling Syria, Ukraine, and pretty much everything else. When asked if his tough talk about protecting Japan in the South China Sea wasn’t perhaps just another case of “red line” bravado, the president acted as if he’d just been solicited to serve as postmaster general in the next Clinton administration: “The implication of the question I think is, is that each and every time a country violates one of those norms the United States should go to war, or stand prepared to engage militarily, and if it doesn’t, then somehow we’re not serious about those norms. Well, that’s not the case.”

Except that in the case of Syria, it was most certainly the case. The president himself mandated a military response to the crimes of Bashar al-Assad in the event that they included the use of chemical weapons, and the United States only prepared to “engage militarily” for that uncommon atrocity after a dozen or so “small-scale” chemical attacks (all registered by U.S. signals intelligence) had preceded the unignornable one in Ghouta on August 30, 2013. Moreover, a Nobel laureate accustomed to being congratulated for his eloquence can be expected to do better than “norms” in describing the asphyxiation of 1,500 people by nerve agents in a capital city. 

But then, Obama thinks that he has succeeded where everyone else – particularly those “in an office in Washington or New York,” as he churlishly categorized his growing chorus of critics – are certain that he has failed: “The fact that we didn’t have to fire a missile to get [the removal of 87% of Syria’s chemical stocks] accomplished is not a failure to uphold those international norms, it’s a success. It’s not a complete success until we have the last 13 percent out.”

There are several problems with this performance assessment and this tone of voice, as even the New York Times had to concede. The first is that Assad has not stopped using chemical agents on civilians even as Obama delivered peace in our time without firing a single missile at Syria. In fact, as the deadline for the removal of Assad's chemical stocks has approached, the dictator has increased the use of them.

“Dr. Ahmad,” the pseudonym of a source employed by Britain’s Daily Telegraph, collected forensic samples from almost half a dozen sites of chlorine bomb attacks that were delivered by regime helicopters on Kafr Zita, Talmenes, and other towns and villages in Idlib and Hama provinces in the month of April alone. Now, unless Seymour Hersh is ready to establish that Al-Qaeda has now been equipped by Turkey with aircraft in order to drop such bombs, the regime’s culpability here is prima facie convincing.

And the actual, as opposed to rumored, use of chlorine has been proved in a laboratory, forcing an awkward confirmation by Western governments. According to Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, a chemical weapons expert at Secure Bio, a UK-based consultancy, Dr. Ahmad’s “was a perfectly executed collection of this sort of material. The samples were kept along the rules that the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the international body, require and they were presented in perfect condition that we may test them.” Nor was Dr. Ahmad’s mission to deliver this evidence into western hands and thereby attest to ongoing barbarism in his country. It “ran the gauntlet of kidnapping by criminal gangs, arrest by Syrian government troops, targeted assassination, shelling, and air strikes,” as the Telegraph’s Ruth Sherlock reported.

Had Dr. Ahmad or Bretton-Gordon appeared on “Meet the Press” or written an op-ed in the Washington Post, Obama would have only labeled them warmongers insufficiently impressed by his pragmatic leadership.

There are other problems with the president’s self-praise. The continued manufacture or use of chemical weapons is a clear violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention, which Damascus joined in consenting to the U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing the disarmament of its chemical arsenal. Damascus has also serially violated the resolution itself by missing subsequent deadlines: the entirety of its stocks was to have left Syria by April 27 – an amended date to accommodate for prior delays – and yet, as of this writing, there is still around eight percent remaining. And the best that the U.S. government can come up with is to throw up its hands. Here is State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki: “We’re continuing to press through with our international partners for them to meet the deadline.”

But the only “international partner” that matters is the Kremlin, members of which the United States has now sanctioned for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Vladimir Putin has also reportedly cut off all communication with the Obama White House, so who is going to “pressure” Assad to do anything?

There is more bad news to furnish the Times with unflattering adjectives for the lame duck commander-in-chief. Western and Israeli intelligence have suggested that Assad has not disclosed his full chemical arsenal and still retains the ability to deploy nerve agents. “We are convinced, and we have some intelligence showing, that they have not declared everything,” one Western diplomat told Reuters this week, citing findings from Britain, France, and the United States. How much is left? “It’s substantial,” the same source said. But why spoil a nice story?

In Manila, Obama disingenuously equated hawkishness on Syria with the deployment of U.S. troops there, an option that no one has advocated, including all of his former cabinet officials who embarrassingly accuse him in the New York Times of having laid an egg in the Levant. “They themselves say, ‘No, no, no, we don’t mean sending in troops.’ Well, what do you mean?” was Obama’s seemingly serious gotcha question.

Well, one thing they mean is the training and arming of Syrian rebels. Previously, Obama has also derided this option as foolhardy and naive: “When you have a professional army that is well-armed and sponsored by two large states who have huge stakes in this, and they are fighting against a farmer, a carpenter, an engineer who started out as protesters and suddenly now see themselves in the midst of a civil conflict – the notion that we could have, in a clean way that didn’t commit U.S. military forces, changed the equation on the ground there was never true,” he told Jeffrey Goldberg as recently as March.

If arming farmers, carpenters, and engineers cannot “change the equation on the ground” in Syria, then what the hell is Obama doing sending TOW anti-tank missiles to them and instructing his White House press apparatus to declare that the purpose of this belated campaign is to “change the equation on the ground” to better position the Syrian opposition for the next, as-yet-unscheduled round of Geneva peace negotiations? What can one say of a president so befuddled and irritated by his own failures that he’s even become an enemy of his own stated foreign policy prescriptions?

Michael Weiss is a columnist at Foreign Policy and a fellow at the Institute of Modern Russia. He tweets at @michaeldweiss

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