Obama's Erroneous 'Mission Accomplished' on Syria
It’s an odd sort of president who demands credit for selling a humanitarian catastrophe to two countries committed to furthering it. Yet that’s the sort of president the United States has got.
Fresh from his latest attempt in Manila to congratulate himself on brokering a deal to remove Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons, Barack Obama has been given the one thing he hates most by the international press: inconvenient details which sully his otherwise cracking narrative.
Detail number one: the Assad regime is withholding 27 tons of sarin precursor chemicals as “leverage,” to quote the Washington Post, in an ongoing argument with the West about the fate of its chemical manufacturing and storage plants. According to Robert P. Mikulak, the US envoy to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), “12 chemical weapons production facilities declared by Syria remain structurally intact” and “the Assad regime has delayed the operation at every opportunity.” Nor, Mikulak told the Post, are these facilities in rebel-held or rebel-interdicted hot zones: they’re fully under the control of Damascus in the network of tunnels and buildings which the regime built to conceal its chemical weapons program in the first place.
Detail number two: the regime is still using chemical weapons against the people of Syria. Building on superb investigative journalism in Britain’s Daily Telegraph, Human Rights Watch has now concluded that chlorine bomb attacks, all delivered by helicopters – a weapon of war which, if the Syrian rebels had them, would mean an end to the war – struck the towns of Kfar Zeita, Temanaa, and Telmans, killing at least 11 people and wounding 500 more. All of these attacks, the watchdog notes, occurred in April, the very month the regime was due to have relinquished the last of its chemical stocks to the OPCW.
This demands immediate multilateral action, right? Except that it doesn’t, because Obama’s big diplomatic breakthrough in ensuring peace in our time was hastily cobbled together with a Russian booby-trap.
Under the terms of UN Security Council Resolution 2118, which theoretically took away Assad’s chemical weapons, stipulates the ability of member states in “the event of non-compliance with this resolution, including unauthorized transfer of chemical weapons, or any use of chemical weapons by anyone in the Syrian Arab Republic, to impose measures under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter.” Chapter VII encompasses, but not does not necessarily mandate, military action. But to even invoke it requires a second UN Security Council resolution which will never happen for two reasons.
The first is that actionable non-compliance is further elaborated in Resolution 2118 as being “of particular gravity and urgency.” Russia, a member of the Council, still denies that Assad ever used chemical weapons in Syria, even as Vladimir Putin was the one to float the bright idea of getting rid of Assad’s chemical weapons as a way to stave off US airstrikes on regime installations following Assad’s use of chemical weapons. The Kremlin will likewise never admit that Assad has dropped chlorine on anybody or that he is withholding his sarin precursors from the OPCW; much less will it allow that these violations constitute non-compliance “of particular gravity and urgency.” After all, they will say, 92% of the deadly toxins have been taken out of Syria.
The second reason Chapter VII will never be considered relates to the first: Russia has sanctioned US officials in retaliation against Washington’s sanctioning Russian officials and state institutions over Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. And the Security Council barely functions when two of its member-states are not sanctioning each other.
Detail number three: it appears that Iran is the country supplying Syria with its chlorine bombs and was doing so at a time when America was offering economic inducements to Iran. According to another report in the Telegraph, Western security officials believe that Iran had ordered 10,000 chlorine canisters from China, which were subsequently loaded onto Russian-built Ilyushin 76 Syrian military cargo planes and shipped to Damascus from Mehrabad International Airport in Tehran. “Many of the flights,” the newspaper’s Defense Editor Con Coughlin wrote, are “in breach of the UN sanctions imposed against Iran” and “took place while Iranian negotiators were taking part in talks in Geneva over Iran’s nuclear program.” Those talks have been hailed by the Obama administration as another “breakthrough” in international diplomacy to prevent or delay Iran’s acquisition of the bomb.
Not that anyone in the White House cares, but to see why nothing will happen even if it is definitively proven that Iran violated UN sanctions, I refer you to the second part of detail number three.
Detail number four: while Putin was annexing Crimea, he was also arming Assad. IHS Jane’s Defense Weekly has observed that, beginning in February, the regime started using long-range Russian-made Smerch and Uragan rockets, which it badly needed because its own supply of Scuds had been steadily depleted over the last three years. The Syrian Air Force has also increased its use of MiG-29 fighter jets, which are quite good at strafing ground targets. According to Ruslan Pukhov, an advisor to the Russian Defense Ministry who was interviewed by Bloomberg, Moscow has given Syria a “lifeline” in ammunition and spare parts to ensure Assad’s war machine continues unto victory.
As usual, Fred Hof was right when he commented that the crisis in Ukraine was inextricably linked to the one in Syria.
Putin’s takeover of Crimea and his continued efforts to arm and finance separatists in eastern and southern Ukraine – some of whom are avowed Russian nationals or Russian spies – has boosted Assad’s fortunes.
The Ukrainian port of Oktyabrsk has lately been sending regular shipments to Syria, according to maritime records. Bloomberg quotes Jeremy Binnie, a Middle East analyst for IHS Jane’s Defense Weekly, who says that these consignments likely consist of spare parts for T-72 tanks and Mi-24 attack helicopters, plus other military equipment.
One reason Putin wants control of eastern and southern Ukraine is that this is where crucial materiel for Russia’s own military-industrial complex comes from, and the Black Sea is the body of water through which Rosoboronexport, Russia’s state arms dealer, likes to ship weapons and hardware to any number of rogue regimes.
Moreover, Putin no longer even has to pretend that he’s interested in peace or compromise or reconciliation or boondoggles in Switzerland. Fyodor Lukyanov, the head of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy in Moscow, believes that “Assad’s victory over insurgents will change everything in the Middle East for Russia.” And so it will, with America’s help.
Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has been able to rely on the good word of US Secretary of State John Kerry that America will never, ever provide Syrian rebels with MANPADS, or surface-to-air missiles, which might actually tilt the war in their favor. And it scarcely matters that, as Syrian opposition member Mohammed Alaa Ghanem has written, there are ways to control these missiles remotely or that about 6,000 of them are currently in the hands of enemy non-state actors including Al-Qaeda, Al-Shabab, and Hezbollah. To Obama, the prospect of so much as 20 more going missing or winding up with jihadists outweighs the benefit of stopping the carnage of Assad’s barrel bombs.
The chutzpah with which this administration therefore declares “mission accomplished” even as the fucked-pooch nature of its Syria policy becomes undeniable to all but its most loyal apparatchiks raises an interesting question: is the United States simply incompetent or is it disingenuous?
By now I should think it’s obvious that the president has got one foreign policy objective for what remains of his second term in office: he seeks to ink, at almost any cost, a permanent agreement with Iran, the letter of which will relate to resolving a decades-long nuclear weapons program, but the spirit of which will represent so much more than that.
Facing an incipient second Cold War with Russia – which he denies exists – Obama wants to end the current one with the Islamic Republic as a prelude to reducing America’s overall involvement in a chaotic Middle East.
The chaotic Middle East has noticed, which is why Saudi Arabia is already adjusting its own foreign policy to keep up with America’s geostrategic volte-face. My colleague Tony Badran has spent well over a year using his column at NOW to painstakingly outline the myriad ways in which this pivot-toward-Iran hypothesis is proving empirically sound. And Obama himself has come close to saying that this is exactly his plan in a series of interviews with sympathetic liberal journalists.
If he is successful, so his reasoning must go, then he will have had his Nixon-in-China or Reagan-in-Helsinki moment – a legacy which will make all the embarrassing failures and all the grieving widows and mothers hitherto worthwhile. Not that he doesn’t face resistance even from within his own cabinet. His Secretary of State disagrees with him. And those nettlesome never-again types who continue to work for him (they never do resign, do they?) to provide him with plausible cover that he really is a humanitarian deep down can always take comfort in wringing their hands over Syria or advancing painful Rwanda analogies. Such daring may mildly antagonize the boss, but damned if it doesn’t also make for a great memoir pitch circa 2016.
Still, we have only ourselves to blame. Obama always promised his would be a “transformative” American presidency. He’s delivered.