Obama's Erroneous 'Mission Accomplished' on Syria

By Michael Weiss

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.

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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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