Julia Ioffe observes that the UN Syria deal “is in fact a compromise, and, as such, it is a half-measure–even if, this day in age, half-measures are themselves quite the victory.” She looks at the agreement from Putin’s perspective:
The Russians can … say that they have upheld international norms protecting national sovereignty and insuring against unilateral military action. And whereas American policy on Syria has been mercurial and ever-changing, the Russians’ goal has been steadfast for the entire duration of the Syrian civil war: blocking American military intervention. This resolution, because it tables the use of force and kicks that can down the road, allows them to do that.
Most important, the Russians emerge from this latest scuffle as the world’s master diplomats and, finally, as America’s geopolitical equals.
Christoph Reuter reports from Atmeh, a transit station in northern Syria where shopkeepers have created a consumer paradise for the foreign fighters on their way south. “[M]ore than 1,000 jihadists are staying in and around Atmeh, making it the densest accumulation of jihadists in all of Syria,” says Reuter:
The Turkish mobile phone network provides strong reception, and the shops carry Afghan pakol wool hats, al Qaeda caps and knee-length black shirts made of the same coarse material used in the Pakistani tribal regions. New restaurants have popped up, and a company called International Contacts books flights and exchanges Saudi riyals, British pounds, euros and US dollars into the local currency. The pharmacy sells miswak, a teeth-cleaning stick from Pakistan with which the Prophet Muhammed supposedly brushed his teeth.
A third Internet café opened in mid-June to accommodate the many jihadists wanting to communicate with their relatives and friends at home via phone, email or chat programs. This prompted the owner of the first café to hang al Qaeda flags above his computers as a sign of loyalty to his customers. The move has improved business despite the growing competition. The heavily armed customers use Skype to tell their friends at home about what a paradise Atmeh is. The rents are cheap, they say, the weather and food are good, they can walk around with their weapons and, with a little luck, they can even find wives.
Charli Carpenter points to an ominous infographic from the UK nonprofit Action On Armed Violence:
It shows some of the worst conventional weapons used in Syria:
What NGOs are calling attention to is what Nina Tannenwald refers to as a perverse effect of international prohibitionary norms. While norms can constrain bad behavior, such norms also exert “permissive effects” whereby the social sanction against one type of action implicitly legitimizes others. The international reaction against chemical weapons in Syria, to the exclusion of attention to other types of civilian harm, constitutes such a “permissive effect” on civilian targeting and the indiscriminate use of explosives which should rightly be questioned by human security advocates.
The organization says such weapons have been responsible for about two out of every five deaths in the civil war. Ninety percent of those victims have been civilians.
Remember the debate the Iraq War alliance of neoconservatives and liberal interventionists wanted over Syria? Either we back democratic forces ousting Assad or we are complicit in mass-murder. As with Iraq, they wanted no debate about what might happen after Assad was gone, because that might prompt memories of what happened the last time a Baathist dictator fell in a country riven by sectarianism.
And they were always a little hedgy when it came to the nature of the forces fighting Assad. They ignored the deep sectarian grievances (as they did in Iraq); they spoke of “democracy” as an alternative, even as the exile groups and the Free Syrian Army were unable to muster the kind of intensity and fighting skills of Sharia-law Sunni Jihadists. And now, just a few weeks after the neocon-liberal interventionist chorus demanded we aid the rebels as quickly as possible, we discover the following:
11 rebel groups issued a statement [Tuesday] declaring that the opposition could be represented only by people who have “lived their troubles and shared in what they have sacrificed.” Distancing themselves from the exile opposition’s call for a democratic, civil government to replace Mr. Assad, they called on all military and civilian groups in Syria to “unify in a clear Islamic frame.” Those that signed the statement included three groups aligned with the Western-backed opposition’s Supreme Military Council … “We found it was time to announce publicly and clearly what we are after, which is Shariah law for the country and to convey a message to the opposition coalition that it has been three years and they have never done any good for the Syrian uprising and the people suffering inside,” said [Mohannad al-Najjar, an activist close to the leadership of one of the statement’s most powerful signers, Al Tawhid Brigade].
So Leon Wieseltier and Christiane Amanpour were unwittingly arguing only a couple weeks ago for giving arms to groups increasingly indistinguishable from those determined to impose Sharia law in Syria. It took several years for the errors of that very same pro-war coalition to realize that their equally admirable goals in Iraq were completely overtaken by reality (and I was one of them). It has taken just a couple of weeks for the same kind of brutal reality to bite in Syria.
Can you imagine the pickle we’d be in right now if we’d been aiding the opposition for as long as John McCain wanted? In a civil war, the extremists always gain the upper hand. And we’d have given serious arms – even indirectly – to forces bent on the most brutal methods of Jihad.
(Photo: A Turkish fighter of the jihadist group Al-Nusra Front, bearing the flag of Al-Qaeda on his jacket (C-back), holds position with fellow comrades on April 4, 2013 in the Syrian village of Aziza, on the southern outskirts of Aleppo. By Guillaume Briquet/AFP/Getty Images.)
Fisher claims that it “boosts the credibility of [Obama's] stated position that he isn’t seeking Iran’s destruction and that he will seek detente with Iran if it first meets his long-held demands on uranium enrichment”:
Here’s where the parallel with Syria is really important: Iranian leaders distrust the United States deeply and fear that Obama would betray them by not holding up his end of the bargain. That’s been a major hurdle to any U.S.-Iran nuclear deal. But seeing Assad’s deal with Obama work out (so far) sends the message to Iran that it can trust the United States. It also sends the message that making concessions to the United States can pay off. Iran’s supreme leader has been talking a lot lately about flexibility and diplomacy toward the West. So it’s an ideal moment for Obama to be demonstrating flexibility and diplomacy toward the Middle East.
An overwhelming 79 percent of Americans support the proposed deal for international control over Syria’s chemical weapons Obama has embraced. There’s continued public opposition to strikes, with only 30 percent in support. The public gives Obama’s overall handling of the situation low marks.
But close to 80 percent approval of the result! More to the point:
Jamie Dettmer summarizes a new report that sheds light on the question:
IHS Jane’s Charles Lister, an insurgency expert and author of the analysis, estimates that around 10,000 are jihadists fighting for al-Qaeda affiliates (the Islamic State of Iraq and the smaller Jabhat al-Nusra), while another 30,000 to 35,000 are hardline Islamists, who have less of a global jihad vision but share a focus on establishing an Islamic state to replace Assad. Another 30,000 or so are more moderate Muslim Brotherhood Islamists. He estimates that moderate nationalist fighters number only about 20,000, with the Kurdish separatists being able to field only 5,000 to 10,000. …
The UN’s report on the use of chemical weapons in Syria is above. Fisher observes that, while “the investigation was barred from assigning blame, a number of details in the report seem to strongly suggest that the government of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad was likely responsible.” Among other evidence:
The U.N. investigators analyzed 30 samples, which they found contained not just sarin but also “relevant chemicals, such as stabilizers.” That suggests that the chemical weapons were taken from a controlled storage environment, where they could have been processed for use by troops trained in their use. This would seem to downplay the possibility that the chemical weapons were, as some speculated, fired by rebels who had stolen them from government stockpiles.
Moses Brown likewise thinks the evidence points to the Assad regime:
You have claims the attacks were faked, the victims being Alawite hostages from Latakia, that were somehow driven through hundreds of miles of contested and government controlled territory to Damascus. There’s claims that this was some sort of accident involving Saudi supplied chemical weapons, which fails to explain how one incident could effect two separate areas. Other claims centre around the opposition having sarin, based off reports in Turkey in May, where it was reported Jabhat al-Nusra members were arrested with sarin. The “sarin” was later reported to be anti-freeze, and only this week some of the members are being prosecuted for trying to make sarin, having only a shopping list of ingredients, rather than actual sarin. It seems to me, that compared to the evidence of government responsibility for the attacks, the evidence of opposition responsibility seems very poor.
[R]emember that chemical weapons destruction is not just a domestic pursuit. Overseas, the United States has spent $13 billion since 1992 on the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program (CTR), which works with former Soviet states on securing and dismantling nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. $1 billion of this went to just one project—the Shchuch’ye Russia chemical weapons destruction facility—which has since eliminated more than 2,365 metric tons of chemical weapons.
Still, it’s cheap when compared to actual war:
We spent at one point $10 billion per month during the Iraq War, which was fought over the illusion of WMDs. And in Syria, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey said, “Thousands of special operations forces and other ground forces would be needed to assault and secure critical sites…Costs could also average well over $1 billion per month.” So destroying all of Syria’s actual chemical weapons for something in the neighborhood of a few billion dollars would be a fantastic financial bargain.
Elsewhere, Megan Garber walks through how to dismantle a chemical bomb.
Have you noticed how almost all of Obama’s critics on Syria have berated him for the optics, but have never said what they would have done in each particular moment? Greg Sargent has. Money quote:
What this whole dodge comes down to is that one can’t admit to thinking that going to Congress and pursuing a diplomatic solution are the right goals for Obama to pursue, without undermining one’s ability to criticize Obama for betraying abstract qualities we all know a president is “supposed” to possess. It’s simply presumed to be a positive when a president shows “strength” by “not changing his mind,” and it’s simply presumed to be a negative when he shows “weakness” by changing course in midstream. That’s “indecisive,” and that’s bad, you see. But it’s a lot harder to sustain these “rules” if you admit you agree with the actual goals Obama is pursuing with these changes of mind. After all, if Obama’s changes of mind have now pointed him towards goals you agree with, how was changing course a bad thing?
People should come clean about what they really believe about all this stuff.
But that would require them leaving Politico-style bullshit and actually looking at the situation and trying to figure out the best way forward for US interests. And that’s hard. It’s sooo much easier to talk in crude and spectacularly dumb terms like “strong” or “weak” without any reference to the goals at hand. The dirty truth: pundits are so much more comfortable examining style because they’re actually too lazy or terrified of actually tackling the substance, let alone taking a stand on it.
The first step of the U.S.-Russian framework agreement requires President Bashar al-Assad’s regime to submit to the United Nations “a comprehensive listing, including names, types, and quantities of its chemical weapons agents, types of munitions, and location and form of storage, production, and research and development facilities.” Press reports say Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov agreed in private talks in Geneva last week that Syria possessed about 1,000 metric tons of chemical agents, including nerve gas and blistering agents. But the devil is in the details. After the first submission from Syria, the U.S.-Russia plan says an initial round of inspections is supposed to be complete by the end of November, and Syria’s chemical stocks should be destroyed by the middle of 2014.
The framework did not address Assad’s demand in a Russian television interview on Friday that in exchange for his cooperation the U.S. stop arming the Syrian rebels. And Assad could drag the process out for years, as former Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein did, if at any point he stops cooperating. Syria experts worry that the deal could empower Assad and undermine the opposition. “If [Assad] becomes our interlocutor how do we square that with our statement that he’s no longer legitimate? How do we square that with our statements that he has no future role in Syria?” says Steve Heydemann, a Syria expert at the U.S. Institute for Peace. “In effect this reinforces his future role in Syria.”
Last night, I wrote that “Syria is the proof of principle for an agreement with Iran”. But that the second phase of dealing with regimes harboring WMDs in the Middle East will require real courage and boldness from the president – Reagan at Reykyavik boldness. Beinart sees the same comparison:
Since Syria is caught in the middle of an American-Iranian (and to a lesser degree, American-Russian) cold war, it’s worth remembering what ended the last Cold War. In the 1980s, Mikhail Gorbachev decided that the Soviet Union could no longer afford to prop up unpopular regimes in Eastern Europe. But to cut Eastern Europe free, Gorbachev had to answer hard-liners who had long argued that the USSR needed a ring of clients to protect it against another attack from the West. That’s why Ronald Reagan’s willingness to embrace Gorbachev and negotiate far-reaching arms-control deals—despite bitter criticism from conservative politicians and pundits—proved so important. As Reagan himself argued, “I might have helped him see that the Soviet Union had less to fear from the West than he thought, and that the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe wasn’t needed for the security of the Soviet Union.” By helping show Gorbachev that he could safely release Eastern Europe, Reagan helped end the Cold War. And when the Cold war ended, so did civil wars across the globe because the U.S. and USSR no longer felt that their own security required arming one side.
Today, President Obama’s real strategic and moral imperative is not killing a few Syrian grunts to punish Assad for using chemical weapons. It is ending the Middle Eastern cold war that fuels Syria’s savage civil war, just as the global Cold war once fueled savage civil wars in Angola, El Salvador, and Vietnam. It’s possible that strengthening Syria’s rebels and sanctioning Iran could further that goal, just as Reagan’s military buildup showed Moscow the cost of its Cold War with the United States, but only if such efforts are coupled with a diplomatic push that offers Iran’s leaders a completely different relationship with the United States, one that offers them security and status absent a nuclear weapon and no longer requires them to cling to Bashar Assad. By striking Syria, Barack Obama is making that harder. By doing so in alliance with groups that oppose any thawing of the U.S.-Iranian cold war absent total Iranian capitulation, he’s making it harder still.
This will not be easy, as Suzanne Maloney explains, but the potential for win-win-win is there:
“Had we rolled out something that was very smooth and disciplined and linear, they would have graded it well, even if it was a disastrous policy. We know that, because that’s exactly how they graded the Iraq war,” – president Obama.
It’s been awesome to watch today as all the jerking knees quieted a little and all the instant judgments of the past month ceded to a deeper acknowledgment (even among Republicans) of what had actually been substantively achieved: something that, if it pans out, might be truly called a breakthrough – not just in terms of Syria, but also in terms of a better international system, and in terms of Iran.
Obama has managed to insist on his red line on Syria’s chemical weapons, forcing the world to grapple with a new breach of international law, while also avoiding being dragged into Syria’s civil war. But he has also strengthened the impression that he will risk a great deal to stop the advance of WMDs (which presumably includes Iran’s nukes). After all, his announcement of an intent to strike Assad was a real risk to him and to the US. Now, there’s a chance that he can use that basic understanding of his Syria policy – and existing agreement on chemical weapons – to forge a potential grand bargain with Iran’s regime. If that is the eventual end-game, it would be historic.
To put it plainly: Syria is the proof of principle for an agreement with Iran. And an agreement with Iran – that keeps its nuclear program reliably civil and lifts sanctions – is the Holy Grail for this administration, and for American foreign policy in the 21st Century.
As for the role of Putin, I argued last week that it was the Russian leader who had blinked, the Russian leader who had agreed to enforce Washington’s policy, and that the best response was to welcome it with open arms. So it was another treat to hear the president say, in tones that are unmistakable:
“I welcome him being involved. I welcome him saying, ‘I will take responsibility for pushing my client, the Assad regime, to deal with these chemical weapons.’ ”
(Photo: President Barack Obama in the Oval Office on September 13, 2013. By Dennis Brack-Pool/Getty Images.)
Morton Abramowitz insists that when it comes to the massive number of Syria refugees, there “is room and need for a greater effort by the U.S. and its friends and allies”:
[T]he West must demonstrate its willingness to bear part of the burden. So far this fiscal year, the U.S. has admitted just 33 Syrian refugees. The new fiscal year will permit President Barack Obama to provide for a significant number of Syrian refugees within the 70,000 total allotted to the U.S. refugee program. In turn, the U.S. willingness to accept more refugees can also help accelerate resettlement efforts by other Western countries. Under normal U.S. procedures, resettlement could take a few years. So as the U.S. has done with Indochinese and other refugee groups, it must expedite processing. …
The refugee burden, not surprisingly, has fallen mostly on four bordering countries: Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. Turkey is managing well and is more capable than its neighbors of taking in more refugees, although an increase would stoke sectarian differences and political tensions. The opening for those allowed by the government to cross the border, however, continues to narrow. The biggest burden falls on a very weak Lebanese state, where the Syrian war has already provoked considerable internal violence. If Damascus were to fall, refugees would inundate Lebanon.