President Obama’s speech tonight makes one thing clear: Despite all his bellicose rhetoric, he never wanted to strike Syria in the first place. Yes, he has focused on making a case for military action, but the real action now will be diplomatic—responding to the Russian proposal to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons.
There’s only one problem: The Russian plan won’t work.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad will not give up his chemical weapons during a time of war. Russia undoubtedly will drag out the process to delay a strike. The Syrian civil war will rage on, with the only difference being that Assad now knows his chemical weapons—and not his regime’s survival—are the focus of international negotiations. Obama may end up off the political hook with Congress, but he will emerge as a paper tiger internationally, surpassed in gravitas by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The Russian proposal is completely unworkable. Even if a complicated United Nations inspection regime could be established in time to make a difference, its inspectors would have to work inside a volatile combat zone and risk being taken hostage, as U.N. peacekeepers were in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. In fact, rebels who likely were Islamists have already taken U.N. peacekeepers hostage, in Syria’s Golan Heights. If Assad even wanted to cooperate, how could he or anyone guarantee that Islamist rebels won’t get their hands on chemical weapons as they are transported through the war zones?
There are many serious questions. Who would provide logistical support for the operation? Would there be a protection force? If so, who would provide it? The United States? Not likely, because the President has said there would be “no boots on the ground.” What about Russia? They may jump at the chance to bolster their position as Syria’s wartime ally, but how could we possibly trust them?
What about a United Nations force? First, there is no such thing. Nation states have to volunteer troops to a mission authorized by the U.N. Security Council. News that a bipartisan group in Congress is drafting a resolution to give the U.N. time to take control of Syria’s stockpiles of chemical weapons—possibly the largest cache in the world, with more than 1,000 tons of sarin and mustard gases, VX, and other precursor chemicals—is hardly reassuring. Russia might approve a feckless inspection regime that it completely controls, but it made perfectly clear earlier today that it would not—as France proposed—allow over its veto a Chapter VII resolution that promises serious consequences should Syria fail to comply. Russia called France’s resolution unacceptable and is demanding a non-binding statement instead.
To make matters even more complicated, Russia insists that any deal depends on the U.S. agreeing to foreswear the military option. This completely undercuts Obama’s case for military action. But we shouldn’t be surprised, since that, after all, was the sole purpose of Russia’s diplomatic initiative.
President Obama went to great lengths to convince us that the military option is still on the table. He laid out a compelling case that chemical weapons were used. And he emphasized that U.S. Armed Forces will stand ready in case a strike is ordered.
But how likely is that, now that the congressional vote has been postponed? The sense of relief in the halls of Congress will overwhelm any appetite to revisit the issue again. All eyes now will be on the diplomacy that will always offer a way out. Calls for “just a little more time” will drown out demands for a potentially politically embarrassing vote.
Meanwhile, Syria will burn. And the world will look on with the full knowledge that Russia, not the U.S., is in the driver’s seat in the Middle East. Iran will undoubtedly conclude that its future arsenal of nuclear weapons, backed up by the new strong man of the Middle East, Vladimir Putin, will give it ample room to see Syria’s complete victory over the rebels and also to improve its chances of becoming the region’s hegemonic power.
Obama’s search for an “off ramp” leads not to an escape route but to nowhere. In one of the biggest debacles since Jimmy Carter’s failed attempt to rescue hostages from Iran, Barack Obama’s incompetence has deeply embarrassed the United States of America.