The Spin on Syria

by John Lawrence

It is difficult to remember a foreign policy incident with as many frequent, unpredictable and confounding turns as the recent developments on the road (or at least the flight path) to Damascus.  Not only are the known events perplexing in their sequence and substance, but the pieces of the story that are currently classified – and may well be for some time – are bound to make the eventual explanation even more difficult to decipher.

But let’s try.  With the caveat that much of what follows may be completely inaccurate or unprovable within our lifetimes.

The initial challenge is to separate the wheat from the chaff, or rather, the truth from falsity (or exaggeration, or spin, or fabrication).  A key factor to keep in mind, however, is that everyone involved is likely telling you only what they want you to know, and what makes them look best.  There is much happening beneath the surface.  I say that not because I am privy to any private information, but because what is on the surface cannot possibly be the entire story.

President Obama’s critics have been having a difficult time (so has he, but more on that later).  On the one hand, some Republican legislators have been pushing for a punishing blow to teach Syria’s Assad a lesson for his illegal and inhumane use of chemical weapons (Intelligence Chairman Mike Rogers, Speaker Boehner and Majority Leader Cantor).  Other Republicans (Sen. John  McCain and Sen. Lindsay Graham) have called for even greater U.S. intervention in the form of massive aid to the Syrian rebels.  All of these Republicans fault Obama for failing to take aggressive action, even though they know there isn’t a chance a majority of Republicans would have voted to support such a decision.  Obama’s deal with Russian President Putin not only saved Assad from an immediate American strike, but saved Republicans from showing, once again (as though it were necessary) how unmovable are the rank and file members by the entreaties of their leaders.

Prior to Putin’s endorsement of international inspection and destruction of Syrian chemical weapons (which both Syria and Russia finally acknowledged do exist), I was skeptical of the public explanation for how events had unfolded.   Subsequent developments only confirm that suspicion.  What really happened during that supposedly impromptu discussion between Obama and Putin at the G-20 meeting in St. Petersburg?  Why did Obama continue to push the prospect of military intervention despite clear indications that the votes were not there in the House and possibly not even in the Senate?  And why did the bipartisan congressional leadership (other than the always contrarian Mitch McConnell) emerge from a post-G-20 meeting with the President to announce enthusiastic support for a strike they probably knew could not be sold to their members?

My suspicion is that Obama returned from the G-20 with something more than an  expectation that Putin would call on Assad to open Syria to inspectors and agree to destroy his chemical weapons.  If so, it was in Putin’s best interest to have the U.S. political leadership maintain support for a punitive attack with or without congressional authorization (the latter almost unthinkable if Congress were to vote no).  Putin paid no price politically for appearing to press Assad toward capitulation in the face of U.S. military retribution: he likely knew the Congress, and the world, would breathe a huge sigh of relief if any reason were given for Assad to give in.

Of course, Putin’s action was not driven by the U.S. threat (a nice storyline for the Administration, but highly unlikely) but by the foremost consideration in any politician’s mind: what’s in my best interest.  In Putin’s case, as in Obama’s, Assad’s use of chemical weapons probably crossed a red line by embarrassing Putin on the world stage for supporting a mass murderer who violated international agreements on weapons of mass destruction. Moreover, Putin may well be concerned that Assad is maintaining insufficient control over the WMDs and that, should the rebels gain an upper hand with or without U.S. military support, sarin and other horrific weapons could fall into the hands of militants who have plans for extending extremist disruption within Russia itself.

Putin had to find a way of ridding an undependable ally from using or losing his chemical weapons without simultaneously looking like he was walking away from his ally who provides him a crucial warm weather naval base.  Here, then was the making of a deal: no U.S. military strike, Russia strong arms Assad into giving up his WMDs, and Assad remains in power, at least temporarily while Russia buys international goodwill for whatever comes next, including retention of its naval base if Assad goes the way of other Middle Eastern strongmen of late.

Now it goes without saying that all parties involved would dismiss the idea of this scenario being pre-wired at the G-20.  However, it is inconceivable that we could move from an imminent votes to authorize a strike against Syria to an off-hand proposal (and immediate dismissal) of international confiscation from Secretary John Kerry to a Russian plan, to U.S. acceptance of a Russian plan within the space of a day or two.  It takes longer than that to agree on the seating chart at a state dinner.  Something was cooking in St. Petersburg, and it most assuredly wasn’t shashlik.  (Let it be noted that Kerry’s dismissal of his own inspection/confiscation plan and subsequent embracing of the Putin proposal unfortunately resembled a “for it before I was against it before I was for it” jitterbug that the former presidential nominee probably wishes he could have avoided.)

Now, it is true, President Obama does look like he was wandering around without much of a Syria strategy, although at the moment, it is possible he achieved his objectives without firing a shot.   Perhaps, to some extent, Putin did save the day (though only for Putin’s own self interest; he would have been happy to have Obama wander right into an international crisis in Syria).  Most problematically, Obama yet to make  a convincing case that Syria’s use of sarin gas presents a greater imminent threat to U.S. national security than, say, North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons.  That is not to say the evidence isn’t there, but if it is, the President simply never made the sale, at least not to the public.  Perhaps there is intelligence showing a planned Syrian threat to Turkey, a NATO member, or to Israel, which certainly would explain the legions of AIPAC members flooding Capitol Hill in support of action against Assad.  But to the mass of Americans, skeptical about military overreach, the immediacy of the threat did not exist, even though there was universal condemnation of Assad’s action.   Moreover, if there was truly international outrage at the violation of international law, it was decidedly tempered, which further diluted voters’ belief the Syrian action, however heinous, warranted unilateral U.S. retaliation.

Yet Obama deserves recognition for asking Congress for authorization to use force, even if he did so believing Congress would refuse (which seems unlikely).  More likely, he did not have a good read on the congressional response but wanted some company in the trenches should the bombs start dropping.  Surely if he wanted to build support for a strike, it was unwise to announce a future congressional vote while Members were in their districts, unable to receive classified briefings, and getting carpet bombed by constituents who were unpersuaded a third Middle East war was justified.  Still, future presidents will have a harder time taking unilateral action given Obama’s decision, which was consistent with his past statements about the desirability of seeking support from Congress for military action.  His decision to seek such a vote with respect to Syria, as contrasted to the unauthorized intervention in Libya, suggests the immediate danger of repeated sarin usage in Syria was not as great as may have been portrayed, allowing for time for a congressional debate.

Republican leaders may well have played along with the Obama-Putin strategy because they wished to avoid a congressional vote that would make them culpable for whatever emerges in Syria.  Unquestionably, their long term political target is not Obama or even Assad, but rather former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, as noted in my prior blog on this subject.  Republicans, and potential Democratic challengers, are anything but coy about raising questions about Clinton’s record on Syria during her tenure at State, and will doubtless lay blame for any shortcoming in U.S. policy at her feet as well as Obama’s.  Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), a dependable Republican partisan, was careful to turn attention to Clinton during a Sunday appearance on CNN.   Sunday’s NY Times also jumped not so subtlety into the effort to kick up dust in the 2016 Democratic race by featuring a story about tension between the former Secretary and Vice President Biden.   Look for the Clinton connection to Syria to become a constant feature of hearings and attacks on the Obama Administration’s policies.

Moving Syria off center stage for a month or so is a further advantage to congressional Democrats and the Obama Administration because focus will now return to the looming brawls over the Continuing Resolution and potential government shut-down and the need to raise the debt ceiling.  On both subjects, public opinion is trending strongly towards Democrats and away from the Republican hardliners who are scheming to force a vote over defunding Obamacare as the price for avoiding a shut-down or default.  All the more reason for the Administration to cut a quick deal with Putin, move Syria to a backburner, and welcome a domestic confrontation that could highlight the Republicans’ obstructive hyper-partisanship and maybe even restore much-needed momentum to the President’s stalled legislative agenda.