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International Politics

Bye Bye Bashar (V)

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The Syrian Civil War continues to take a bloody toll of lives, with a level of human and material destruction that can be justly described as catastrophic. It is also irreparable: though property can be rebuilt and businesses restarted, the loss of lives and livelihoods will set the country back by at least a generation, assuming it even survives in its current form. The damage to the ancient state’s cultural heritage is enough to make any classicist weep. Syria is going through as thorough a razing as was ever inflicted by an invader, and it is being done by her own people.

Bashar al-Assad is all the while more entrenched and less vulnerable than ever. Thanks to the constant resupply of heavy weapons from his Russian patrons and to the timely migration of rebel jihadist forces into Iraq by the Islamic State, Mr. Assad has been able to conduct counteroffensives that have won his forces some critical ground against the Sunni-led insurgents. The insurgency is now on the defensive, weak and divided against itself; stalemate and a continued harvest of death seem the most likely outcomes for now.

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As dismaying as all of this should be, there is at least one bright spot. The Pentagon has announced[1] that 75% of the known stockpile[2] of Syrian chemical weapons has been destroyed, along with 100% of the precursor materials for the production of Sarin. It was the use of this deadly nerve agent on 21 August last year which nearly brought on US airstrikes against the Assad regime. An agreement was brokered with Assad through the auspices of President Putin, who certainly wanted to avoid the destruction of his client through US airstrikes, and the Syrians agreed to turn over their stockpile of chemicals to the Americans. The US then dispatched the merchant vessel USMV Cape Ray to Cyprus, where the mixed civilian and military crew has been busily engaged in neutralizing the deadly chemicals and rendering them, if not harmless, at least safe enough for transport to civilian waste processing facilities.

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At the time, I was among many people who considered the Obama Administration’s agreement to the Putin-Assad deal as nothing more than a face-saving means of getting out of the “red line” commitment to bomb Syria[3]. It was my opinion that the President had been played, or at the least had let himself be lead down this path in order to avoid the even less palatable option of bombing Syria. I saw it as a victory for Assad and a master class of Putin’s in diplomacy and geopolitics.

I was wrong.

The Syrian compliance with the agreement and the subsequent destruction of most, if not all, of their chemical weapons should be viewed as a tremendous accomplishment for the President. That it was achieved through diplomacy and not through unilateral military force must also be viewed as a wholly positive development in a world becoming increasingly unilateralist. Far from being led by the nose by his wily opponents, it is apparent that Mr. Obama found a credible commonality of interests in the destruction of these stockpiles: credible enough that he agreed to the deal and not just to save face.

  • Mr. Obama achieved his dual goal of eliminating Syrian chemicals, preventing them from falling into the hands of radical jihadists, and avoiding yet another Middle Eastern quagmire for US forces;
  • Mr. Putin had a greater interest in preserving Mr. Assad’s regime than in preserving his chemical weapons and permanently avoiding US intervention by pushing for compliance behind the scenes was the best way to achieve this. The Russians also had an interest in keeping these weapons out of the hands of jihadists: they could easily find their way from the Islamic State to Chechnya and then to some Moscow theater or metro station;
  • Mr. Assad undoubtedly came to believe that U.S. airstrikes actually were on the table, and with Russian urging, agreed to take that option off the table by giving up the weapons. Once it became obvious that conventional weapons alone would be enough to preserve his regime, and that the Russians would make sure he wouldn’t run out of those, then the chemicals were no longer necessary as an “ace in the hole” and could be safely traded away.

Does that mean that the Syrians have handed over every single last barrel and bomblet of chemicals? Maybe not some stocks may have been lost in the chaos of the civil war or deliberately held back by the armed forces. If so, they are unlikely to be sizable quantities which would run the risk of detection and Mr. Assad would be highly unlikely to use them. At this point, it seems likely that the only thing that can unseat him – barring acts of God – is a US-led intervention, and Mr. Assad will attempt to avoid that at all costs.

Mr. Obama has proven more far-sighted in this regard than his critics. Mr. Assad is without any doubt a cold-blooded murder guilty of crimes against humanity and worthy only of a gibbet. But those of us[4] who argued in favor of a military intervention to unseat him, whether it was for humanitarian or geopolitical reasons, got it wrong. Imagine the hawks in Congress[5] had gotten their wish and the President had ordered air strikes on Assad sufficient to topple the regime. How much worse would the situation be today? On top of the genocidal horrors being perpetrated by ISIS in Iraq, they would have a free hand and secure power base in Syria from which to exterminate the Christians, Kurds, Alawites, Shia, Druze and anyone else who didn’t fit into their barbarous caliphate.

The destruction of the Syrian chemical stockpile through diplomatic means is a major victory for the Administration, one that in any other circumstances and for any other President would be recognized as such. Not only are these dangerous weapons destroyed and prevented from being used against civilians or falling into terrorist hands, it is highly unlikely that Syria will be in a position to rebuild a stockpile in years if not decades. All of this accomplished without the violation of international norms, without involving US forces in another intractable mess, and almost without cost to the taxpayer. It may also prove beneficial in terms of negotiations with Iran over their nuclear program: Mr. Obama’s and Mr. Kerry’s position as good faith negotiators has been strengthened.

I haven’t had much praise for the President’s foreign policy recently, a fact that I’m sure keeps him up at night; but this time I’m going to admit to being wrong and congratulate the President and the Secretary of State on their achievements.

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Sources and Notes

[1] Jennifer Harper, “Mission Almost Complete,” The Washington Times, 12 August 2014

[2]Mary Beth Nikitin, Paul K. Kerr and Andrew Feickert, “Syria’s Chemical Weapons: Issues for Congress,” Congressional Research Service, 30 September 2013

[3] Fernando Betancor, “Poker Night with Vlad and Bashar,” Common Sense, 11 September 2013

[4] In my defense, I did argue that the US should intervene, but only if the UN gave a mandate and the Arab League agreed to supply the ground troops; two conditions I knew to be fantastically improbable

[5] Like Senators McCain, Graham and Rubio, Speaker of the House Boehner, and everyone in the Tea Party or near it, like Sarah Palin. Sean Sullivan, “Republicans Criticize Obama on Syria,” The Washington Post, 16 June 2013

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