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The Syria Solution: Obama Got Played by Putin and Assad

This, apparently, is how diplomacy happens these days: Someone makes an off-hand remark at a press conference and triggers an international chain reaction that turns an already chaotic and complex situation completely on its head, and gives everyone a sense that, perhaps, this is the light at the end of the indecision tunnel. 

Speaking in London next to British Foreign Secretary William Hague on Monday, Secretary of State John Kerry said that perhaps the military strike around which the administration has been painfully circling for weeks could be avoided if Bashar al-Assad can "turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week. Turn it over, all of it, without delay, and allow a full and total accounting for that.” 

The fact that Kerry immediately followed with, “But he isn’t about to do it, and it can’t be done, obviously,” didn't seem to bother anyone. (Probably because they were focusing on his other slip-up: calling the promised strikes "unbelievably small.")

The Russians immediately jumped on the impromptu proposal, calling Kerry to check if he was serious before going live with their proposal to lean on Syria. An hour later, they trotted out Syria's foreign minister, Walid al-Mouallem, who said he too was down with the proposal, which was a strange way to get the Syrians to finally admit they even had chemical weapons to begin with. Before long, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon, the English, and the French were all on board, too.

Meanwhile, back in Washington, the White House was just as surprised as anyone. Asked if this was a White House plan that Kerry had served up in London, Deputy National Security Advisor Tony Blinken was unequivocal. "No, no, no," he said. "We literally just heard about this as you did some hours ago."

So that's good. At least everyone's on the same page.

While the Russians are already cutting deals and drumming up promises from the Syrians—with whom, as they've insisted for years, they have no leverage—and as the world lines up on the off-ramp, the White House was still marshalling its case for a military strike, trotting out National Security Advisor Susan Rice, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and poor Tony Blinken, who was left making the case for two mutually exclusive things: "We'll talk to the Russians," he kept repeating even as he hammered on the intelligence and the need to degrade, deter, et cetera, et cetera.  

Last night, President Barack Obama, who, just over a week ago, had said he was ready to act, tells the nation's cable watchers that he's now discussing this bogus plan with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and that he's "going to take this very seriously" while also not letting up on the drumbeat of military strikes while. On Tuesday, Syria said it had accepted Russia's proposal and France said it would seek the UN Security Council's backing for the proposal.

This, in other words, is no light at the end of the tunnel. This, to borrow a phrase from a Congressional staffer at his wits' end, "is an unmitigated clusterfuck."

What happened was Kerry went off message and, as has been his wont as Secretary of State, off the reservation, and violated the cardinal rule of official press conferences: He answered a hypothetical question in a hypothetical way. He blurted out a pie-in-the-sky, hyperbolic idea—getting rid of "every single bit" of the chemical weapons scattered across Syria "in the next week"—but everyone seized on it as a realistic proposal. It's not. 

First, how do you deal with a regime that only admits it has chemical weapons under the threat of impending military intervention? Or that uses chemical weapons while a team of U.N. inspectors is there to investigate the prior use of chemical weapons, in the same city? 

Second, that handful of chemical weapons storage and mixing facilities are just the ones we know about, and, now that the U.S. has been loudly beating the war drum for weeks, Assad has been moving his troops and weapons around. If we thought getting to "beyond a reasonable doubt" with the intelligence on the August 21 chemical attack was hard, imagine us getting to "every single bit." 

Third, negotiating with the Russians and the Syrians about what "every single bit" and what disposing them mean will certainly take more than "the next week." Both Moscow and Damascus have all the time in the world, and the Kremlin, which has never met a legal norm it couldn't waltz around, will quibble and hair-split and insist that this is all done legally—whatever that means in Moscow. 

Fourth, the mechanics of disposing these chemical weapons are far from straightforward. Quoth the Times: "flying [the chemical weapons] out of the country is not as simple as picking up nuclear components—as the United States did in Libya in late 2003—and moving them to a well-guarded site in Tennessee."

Fifth, and most important, is the fact that Assad giving up his chemical weapons was only part of the stated objective. If you listened to the White House pitch closely, the point of the military strike was not just to stop Assad from using chemical weapons further on his citizens, and it was not just to warn other rogue leaders with their fingers on various triggers. Part of the goal was to force a political solution that would remove Assad from power. That is, even though the Obama administration has been insisting that it is not interested in "regime change," that disastrous cornerstone of the Bush era, it was, in fact, pursuing regime change, at least until Monday.

On August 21, just hours after the sarin attack in Ghouta, a Damascus suburb, had occurred, Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest spoke of the failure of international pressure to achieve a key administration goal: "We've seen evidence and indications that the Assad regime is feeling that pressure, but you're right that we have not—that it has not resulted in the outcome that we would like to see, which is Assad being completely removed from power," Earnest said. "That’s not just the preference of the United States of America, that’s the will of the Syrian people and that’s why it's important." This was what Senator John McCain managed to pry from General Martin Dempsey during the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing last week, that the goal of a military strike was "to change the military equation on the battlefield," and what he worked into the committee's resolution to authorize the use of force in Syria. This, the administration has insisted, was what made the military option so important: creating the opening for a diplomatic solution.

Well, on Monday, the administration argued, correctly, that the threat of a strike has done just that. "I don't think we would have gotten to this point unless we had maintained a credible possibility for a military strike," Obama said in an interview with ABC, adding, "and I don't think now is the time for us to let up on that." But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has already scrapped the vote on the authorization of the use of force. And, given how bleak the vote count was looking pre-Kerry gaffe, and given how audible the sigh of relief from the Hill was, it's clear to everyone that the jig is up. Now that there's a semblance of a diplomatic option, the military option has evaporated. "The momentum is moving against us," said one Senate staffer. "We’re on track to lose this thing. Our folks are dropping like flies."  

There are two clear winners in this slow-motion train wreck, and they are not Obama or Kerry. They are Assad and Putin. Both wanted, for their own reasons, to avert a military strike, and a military strike was averted. Putin insisted on a diplomatic solution while doing everything to make a diplomatic solution impossible, and now he gets his phony, unenforceable diplomatic solution. Assad wanted to go on killing his opposition, and he will continue to do so.

Obama, on the other hand, found himself constantly check-mated, either by his own hand, or, this time, by Kerry's. First, he drew a red line on chemical weapons, seemingly by accident. Then, he all but ignored chemical weapons use by Assad until the evidence forced itself on the world. Then he agonized on whether to act, while Dempsey and the Pentagon rolled him, leaking their military plans to anyone who would listen, "probably," said one insider, "because they didn't want to act." Then, he talked about how limited the strikes would be, all while Assad moved his men and his guns into residential areas and the Russians moved their ships in. Then, out of nowhere, he decided to take it to Congress. "The president says that he’s going to launch strikes and then, suddenly, he’s going to Congress. It's probably one of the more incredible things I’ve ever seen," McCain told me. "We were all dumbfounded," said another Senate staffer.

Then came the persuasion of Congress, a legislative body that can't even pass a farm bill, or a gun-control measure favored by a crushing majority of the American people. The president didn't call Congress back, so instead, congressmen and senators got spend nearly two weeks marinating not in the intelligence, but in the vehement opposition of their constituents. Those that were in town—like the members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee—were rushed through the process of putting together a resolution before they even heard the classified briefing. Others, relative moderates like Republicans Saxby Chambliss and Kelly Ayotte who would normally support such a measure, complained that the briefings were vague and short on specifics. 

Obama, meanwhile, took off for Sweden, and, as the town halls roiled with anger, put off his address to the country for the following week. While abroad, he managed to further humiliate himself in the eyes of Putin, who already sees him as weak. Obama, having just called off his bilateral summit with Putin because Russia granted asylum to Edward Snowden, went ahead and met with Putin anyway. It was a pointless meeting—"We both stuck to our guns," Putin said afterwards—but in Russia, the message was unmistakable: Putin is stronger, and Putin won. 

Meanwhile, back home, the nays fell into place and the yeahs became fewer and fewer, and the talk in Washington was about what Obama will do if Congress says no? Or if the Senate says yes but the House says no? And just when it couldn't get any more discombobulated, Kerry opened the door to a nonsense Russian diplomatic solution, just three days after Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., said publicly it would be naive to count on Russia diplomatically. 

As it stands now, Russia and France have taken the lead on working out a plan to get Assad to hand over his chemical weapons, a lead Obama seems all too happy to relinquish. Hammering out the details will take a some time, and, while they're at it, Assad will still have his chemical weapons but will no longer be under the threat of a U.S. military strike. (Who knows if he'll use them, but he certainly hasn't let up on the conventional shelling.) Putin has succeeded in throwing sand in the gears of the American political process and separating the U.S. from its allies, and the current American handwringing over Syria seems likely to grind on for weeks. And a pro-Assad paper ran with the following headline this morning: "Moscow and Damascus Pull the Rug Out From Under the Feet of Obama."

Meanwhile, the president is supposed to address the nation tonight. He was supposed to make the case for military action, but his advisors spent Monday night frantically reworking the speech. What will he say? What can he say?