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International Politics

Poker Night with Vlad and Bashar


The debate in the West whether to authorize or not a strike against the forces of Bashar al-Assad gets, in the words of Lewis Carroll, “curiouser and curiouser.”[1] Since the initial warning by intelligence agencies that chemical weapons might have been used in a large scale attack against civilians on the outskirts of Damascus, the Western response has been a deplorable mix of unseemly haste, blundering rhetoric, Olympic-speed backtracking, and a callous disregard for international norms that shows how low the New World Order has sunk in prestige since 2003 and how dangerous the rest of the XXIst century is likely to be.

Unseemly haste: As with Libya, the most bellicose calls for intervention came from Europe. London, Paris and Ankara were calling for a Western response almost before the ink was dry on the first reports. So quickly did David Cameron rush to place Britain at the forefront of military action, he didn’t realize that Parliament had tied his shoelaces[2]. Neither Mr. Hollande nor Mr. Erdogan has that problem[3]: the French Constitution allows the President of the Republic to order the military into action without the prior approval of the Parlement Français, while Mr. Erdogan’s AKP party has a lock on the Turkish Parliament, nor is he shy about confrontation, as the demonstrators in Taksim could attest to. Unfortunately, no one had yet thought to call for verification of the chemical weapons accusation by UN inspectors prior to rushing into action[4].


Blundering rhetoric: Eyes turned to Washington, since any strike would have to led by the US. Mr. Obama had already called the use of chemical weapons a “line in the sand”. Not wishing to let anybody down, and feeling the pressure on his credibility, the President promptly called for military action against Assad. Unfortunately, Mr. Obama had not stopped to count heads when he issued his call: as it turned out, he was able to muster even less support than former President Bush did with the “Coalition of the Willing” in his illegal invasion of Iraq[5]. In fact, the four European states who expressed support for the President’s call to action just after the G-20 summit – Britain, France, Italy and Spain – were promptly chastised by Germany[6] and the EU (in that order of importance) for “jumping the gun” on a unified EU policy, which is against the use of force.

Worse was to come. Russia had already said that it would veto[7] any use of force resolution against Syria, which is no surprise: Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has that tune on his iPhone and has been playing it for the past 2 years of the conflict. It is true that President Putin did state during a live interview[8] on Russian TV that he might reconsider his stance if the UN inspectors came up with definitive proof of a chemical attack by Assad’s forces – but he knows perfectly well that such findings are almost never “definitive” and that the Syrians were making sure they would not be so in this case.

It was bad luck for President Obama that the first major international event he could use as a platform to build support was the G20 summit, hosted by Russia in St. Petersburg. The already frosty relations, both national and personal, between the American and Russian presidents over the Snowden affair became positively artic during that miserable summit. It has become a strange, topsy-turvy world in which the Russians hold the moral and legal high ground by demanding a Security Council resolution (which they will veto) only after the report by UN inspectors (which will not be conclusive), while the American, British and French leaders somehow manage to appear both aggressively unilateralist and weak at the same time[9]. Meanwhile, the Russians continue to ship as many weapons and munitions to Assad as the cargo planes and airfields can handle, all in the name of “military purchases prior to the outbreak of hostilities.”


Olympic-speed backtracking: Now that wrestling has been reinstated in the Games, the IOC should consider backtracking as a possible candidate sport. Western politicos would have a lock on it. No sooner did President Obama find himself practically alone in calling for armed intervention, he broke all retrograde speed records to call for a Congressional resolution supporting the strike. This naturally took everyone by surprise, especially Congress. The US legislature has become accustomed to rubber stamping the military adventure du jour long after the fact, and only when the 4-year Caesar deigns to remember them. Mr. Obama was careful to note that he didn’t really think he needed any Congressional approval[10] (he does, at least if the Constitution is worth more than the paper it is printed on), but he thought it might be nice to give legislators something to do while the sequester was grinding along.

So unexpected and crab-like a motion by the American President also shocked our potential allies, particularly Mr. Hollande, who had expected the missiles to be flying long before anyone in Paris got around to questioning him. With the ball back in Congress’ court, Mr. Hollande not only had to consider the possibility of the US backing out completely – and the catcalls of “chien americain”[11] were already flying thick and fast along the Champs Elysees – he heard the growing murmurs of his own Socialist parliamentarians wondering why the French President shouldn’t also call for a resolution[12]. One he might very well lose. Ankara and Riyadh looked on mostly with disgust.

Callous disregard for international norms: Throughout this foreign policy fiasco, the Western governments have managed to consistently undermine the key international legal norms which so many fought and died for during the First and Second World Wars. The architects of those victories fought to end “aggressive war” and unilateralism – and let us remember that Hitler used the excuse of the “mistreatment” of German minorities in Czechoslovakia and Poland to threaten and eventually start WW2. The United Nations and, later, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, were both American creations which sought to deter wars by international rules and collective security. Wars did not end, of course; but both organizations have been remarkably successful over the past 80 years. It is not in anyone’s interest to undermine them.

Dismissing the need for a Security Council resolution is folly. It gives carte blanche for any state to intervene anywhere with the flimsiest pretext. Far better to have gone to the Security Council with strong evidence of a chemical attack, frame the resolution, let the Russians veto it and then shame them for the callousness. Of course, first you need the evidence.

When the Chips Are Down

In the international poker game of the Syrian crisis, President Obama was dealt a pair of fives, got nothing when he discarded, decided to double down on his bet and was just called again by Putin and Assad. Strangely enough, Putin doesn’t even have a pair in his hand: the Russian President’s posture is even more a bluff than Obama’s.


Russia is supplying Assad with all the arms and munitions he needs to stay alive, but not enough to win. Russia is also running international cover for the Syrians: blocking the Security Council even while lambasting the unilateralism of the West, sending warships to the Syrian naval base of Tartus[13]. They are also, undoubtedly, providing “technical assistance” i.e. operating, the more advanced launchers and radars of the Syrian air defense network.

That’s about all they can do, even if they wanted to do more. If the United States decided to launch a cruise missile strike against Syria, the Russian bluff would be called: Russia has neither the desire nor the capability to confront the US militarily. If the Mr. Obama decided to invade Syria, there is not a damn thing Mr. Putin could do about it except protest[14]. Yet Mr. Putin is doing a far better job of playing his weak hand than Mr. Obama is at playing a stronger one.

Not willing to have his bluff called, Mr. Putin has prudently provided the hapless American President with a face-saving way out. The Russians seized on an unscripted remark by Secretary of State John Kerry to propose having Syria turn over its chemical arsenal for international inspection and destruction and thus avoid US strikes[15]. After the initial surprise, the proposal was eagerly seized upon by both the Syrians and the Americans[16]. State Department officials were quick to point out that this concession by Assad only came after the threat of retaliation, thus branding the Administration’s misadventures as successful crisis management. Let no one be shocked if the next six months are spent arguing about the shape of the negotiating table. There might eventually be a charade of destroying a few barrels of ancient mustard gas, but no one over the age of five can doubt that this is yet another trick won by Vladimir and Bashar.


Mr. Assad has the best cards of the lot, even though his back is against the wall. Short of a full-scale invasion of Syria, which Mr. Assad knows is almost unimaginable under any circumstances, his regime will survive anything the Americans throw at him. The Russians can make good his losses in equipment; and his troops will be shielding themselves amongst the civilian population. Mr. Assad also has the option of retaliating against his attackers: Syrian and Iranian intelligence could inflict pain through digital means as well as tried-and-true methods like car bombs. And if the Americans went all out with their air campaign, and things got really bad for the regime, he could turn over his chemical arsenal to terrorist cells. Anyone care for a chemical attack in Amman? Istanbul? Paris?

If the Americans fold, as it seems increasingly likely we will, then expect further “unconfirmed reports” of civilians and rebels dying in convulsions from sarin gas attacks.

Damage Control

What can we take from this tragic farce being played across the world’s stage? There is nothing flattering to say about anyone, in truth.

The entire Syrian crisis has been amateur hour for the Administration. President Obama has blundered badly: first, when he drew a “line in the sand” regarding chemical weapons use without considering the consequences should Assad call his bluff. However, when Assad did call his bluff, he made an even more grievous error. It would have been easy enough to back away from the “red line” statement by calling for confirmation by UN investigators on the ground. If the inspections found anything less than conclusive, everyone could have pretended that the line had never have been crossed.

By doubling down, the President has put his credibility on the line. Let’s be clear about a few things: first, it is NOT the world’s credibility that is at stake, as much as Mr. Obama might wish it were; second, it is his personal credibility in play –as a statesman – not that of the United States. Four years from now, the US will still be the world’s hyperpower, and the new President will not lack for credibility. Regardless of the outcome of the Congressional vote, President Obama has been shown to be inept at managing foreign affairs. There was no credibility gap until Mr. Obama created it by his own ineptitude.

Let’s not exaggerate the “credibility gap” either. For one thing, it is always the argument of last resort, when politicians have no actual evidence or arguments to present. It is the equivalent of “trust me on this one.” Some “experts” point to this fiasco as incontrovertible proof that the US is in terminal decline; that no one takes us seriously now. That is ludicrous. Just remember that 30 years ago, an attack by the United States against the Soviet client state of Syria would very likely have started World War 3. One journalist has openly accused Mr. Obama of deliberately undermining US national interests and calls for a latter day Reagan to resuscitate the US military and prestige[17], though there is no need to search for conspiratorial explanations when ordinary incompetence will answer. Former President Reagan did that, of course, through massive fiscal deficits and by taking on military heavyweights like Grenada, Panama and Libya. At least Mr. Obama has dealt with Libya: perhaps he should invade another small Caribbean island to quiet his critics while he sorts out a plan for Syria.

The President has shown some good instincts: the reset with Russia and strategic arms talks, disengagement from the Middle East and the pivot to Asia were all strategically sound. So far, however, the Mr. Obama has been lacking in execution and consistency. The reset with Russia faded quickly and with a whimper; the disengagement from the Middle East was hijacked by France and Britain in Libya and almost again in Syria; and the pivot to Asia has been mere rhetoric so far. The Chinese can count Congressional junkets as well as they can warships, but the latter carry far more weight in their calculations. A consistent theme throughout is the President’s belief that merely saying a thing is the same as doing it. This error led directly to the “red line” misstep.

Mr. Obama has also done significant damage of an institutional character. Firstly, by dismissing the importance of the Security Council and stating that a use of force resolution is not necessary. Of course it is true that Russia is blocking the Council; as the US might wish to do in the future. Even so, undermining the very international bodies which provide a guarantee against unilateral military action and aggressive war for the rest of the world is the surest way of making the world less secure, and more costly to manage for the global hegemon (that’s us).

Secondly, the President has damaged the already miniscule role that Congress has in foreign affairs. Calling for a Congressional resolution while declaring that the President doesn’t actually need one, and then when the vote looks dicey, saying that you might order the strikes regardless of the outcome is not only extraordinarily incompetent, it is the definition of undemocratic and unconstitutional[18]. If the elected representatives of the American people tell you, Mr. President, that you can’t go to war with Syria (what else would you call bombing another sovereign nation?) then you ignore them at hazard to your office[19].

Looking Back to See Ahead

The Syrian Civil War began as a vicious and confusing melee between Sunni rebels against the Alawite-dominated government of Bashar al-Assad and was complicated by the mass infusion of foreign jihadists who made a “freedom fighters vs. tyrant” narrative impossible. From the start, it had a deadly sectarian character, since the Shiite Alawites are allies of Iran and Hezbollah, even though Assad’s Baath Party is nominally secular, while the rebel factions are all Sunni. No surprise then that Sunni mujahidin from Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, the Arabian Peninsula and elsewhere have flocked to the fight, with a great deal of support from the Wahhabi-dominated government of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. Just as the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 breathed new life into Al Qaeda after the beating it took in Afghanistan, so now the Syrian conflict and the explosion of sectarian hatreds is once again providing fertile ground for the recruitment of new foot soldiers for Al Qaeda and its splinter organizations.


This narrative should be chaotic enough to convince anyone who doesn’t already have a big stake in the game to avoid entanglement in this pandemonium. For the most part, and for a long while, it did: the West decried the violence and bloodshed, wrung its hands, called Bashar al-Assad a butcher and worse (he is indeed all of that and more) but no one thought of intervening in any meaningful way. No vital US interests are at stake; quite the opposite, the US can only lose by involving itself further in Syria.

Unfortunately, President Obama has been dragged, reluctantly at first, back into the quagmire. In allowing himself to be, he has demonstrated a regrettable lack of consistency in his foreign policy and his own questionable judgment in crisis management. With a vast range of policy options at his disposal as well as the moral high ground, the President has managed to select the ones most damaging to his Administration and to the prestige of the international system. The Administration has gotten by on Syria with half-measures and expedients: this lack of vision has finally caught up with the President.

If the past few weeks have taught us anything, it is that the Syrian Civil War is a powder keg which must be sealed off and allowed to burn out[20]; that those politicians who talk most about war are those least willing to send troops; that the international institutions that underpin a peaceful world order are in disrepute and shambles; that President Obama can’t bluff worth a damn; and that I’m never playing for big money with Vladimir or Bashar.

Sources and Notes:

[1] From “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”

[2] Winnett, Robert, “Syria Crisis: No to war, blow to Cameron,” The Telegraph, 29 August 2013

[3] “Erdoğan must consult Parliament on Syria,” Hurriyet Daily News, 5 September 2013

[4] The argument for not waiting was that the Syrian government had already been actively bombarding the area of the attack in order to destroy evidence of the attack, and that the chemical agents would naturally degrade before UN inspectors could conduct a thorough inspection: even assuming that Assad’s government allowed them access.

[5] The 2003 US invasion of Iraq was supported by 48 nations; according to a White House press release, only 33 nations are in favor of a strike against Syria. Precisely because of the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the subsequent multi-year fiasco, no one is all too keen on joining the US on an intervention which it is calling for with such evident reluctance.

[7] So has China, lest anyone be tempted to condemn them the next time the tanks roll in Lhasa or Sinkiang.

[9] Volkery, Carsten, “Failure On All Fronts: No Progress from G-20 Leaders,” Spiegel Online, 6 September 2013

[10] Lee, Carol and Entous, Adam, “Obama to Seek Congressional Vote on Syria Strike,” Wall Street Journal, 31 August 2013

[11] American lap dog

[13] Rudnitsky, Jake and Meyer, Henry, “Russia Boosts Mediterranean Force as U.S. Mulls Syria Strike,” Bloomberg, 4 September 2013

[14] There would undoubtedly be reprisals against US business interests in Russia, and some US diplomatic personnel might be expelled from Moscow.

[15] Gearan, Anne, “Candid remark from Kerry leads to Syria disarmament proposal,” The Washington Post, 11 September 2013

[16] Gearan, Anne, DeYoung, Karen and Englund, Will, “Obama sees potential ‘breakthrough’ in Russia’s Syria proposal,” The Washington Post, 9 September 2013

[17] Podhoretz, Norman, “Obama’s Successful Foreign Failure,” Wall Street Journal, 8 September 2013

[18] Article 1, Section 8 of the US Constitution assigns to Congress exclusively the authority to declare war. Legally, a war is still a war whether there is a declaration or not. The President can use his authority as C-in-C of the armed forces to order an attack without Congressional approval only in response to an attack against US forces or territory or to forestall one that is imminent and evident. Neither is the case with Syria (or most past US interventions) and yet this Constitutional requirement is observed only in the breach nowadays.

[19] It is certainly a “high crime and misdemeanor” to start a war without Congressional authorization and to continue it without securing the approval of the representatives of the American people. This is an impeachable offense: James Monroe, Fifth President of the US, got into very serious trouble with Congress for supposedly encouraging General Andrew Jackson to invade Florida, then a colony of neutral Spain. Jackson had exceeded his orders, which were only to recover runaway slaves and punish rebellious natives, not occupy Spanish forts; but Congress was far more prickly back then regarding its prerogative to authorize military actions.

[20] Though I continue to maintain that an armed intervention would be feasible and desirable so long as it was led and manned by the Arab League, Turkey and other Moslem states like Pakistan, Indonesia, Morocco. That is, of course, a fantasy.

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