September 18, 2013

The Syria gambit — letting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad go untouched so long as he and the Russians kept up the pretense of destroying chemical weapons — is proceeding predictably.

Kerry makes the case for action in Syria
Secretary of State John F. Kerry (Alastair Grant/Associated Press)

That is to say, it is not working, even if “working” means only keeping up the veneer of effectiveness. Assad now says he’s delivered “evidence” that it was the rebels who used chemical weapons. Russia denounced the United Nations report demonstrating it was Assad’s forces who launched the chemical weapons attack. And the Russians insist that any United Nations resolution be utterly toothless. The Associated Press reports:

Russia insisted Tuesday that a UN Security Council resolution governing Syria’s handling of its chemical weapons not allow the use of force, but it suggested that could change if Damascus reneges on the deal to give up its stockpile. . . . Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov of Russia said his country ‘‘spoke clearly’’ about rejecting the use of force when the chemical weapons agreement was worked out Saturday in Geneva between Washington and Moscow. The plan calls for an inventory of Syria’s chemical weapons within a week, with all components of the program out of the country or destroyed by mid-2014.

It will be interesting to see how the administration ties itself up in knots to maintain the pretense that everything is working according to plan. Former officials like Michael Morell, the recently-retired deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency, effectively and very publicly calling the deal a joke, as Foreign Policy reports:

The Obama administration’s plan to get rid of Syria’s chemical weapons depends on President Bashar al-Assad letting international inspectors into his country — and standing by as they destroy the deadly agents in his arsenal.

But former high-ranking U.S. intelligence officials — as well as Syria experts — doubt that Assad has any intention of doing this. And in his tacit agreement to the daunting weapons-removal plan, which was brokered by the United States and Russia and will take months if not years to complete, they detect a deliberate strategy.

“I think this is the Syrians playing for time,” Michael Morell, the recently-retired deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency, told Foreign Policy. “I do not believe that they would seriously consider giving up their chemical weapons.”

The most interesting development, however, may have been the remarks of the outgoing Israeli ambassador to the U.S., Michael Oren. He minces no words in saying the point was to get rid of Assad. In doing so he implicitly denounces the Americans’ lack of big-picture thinking:

“The initial message about the Syrian issue was that we always wanted [President] Bashar Assad to go, we always preferred the bad guys who weren’t backed by Iran to the bad guys who were backed by Iran,” he said.

This was the case, he said, even if the other “bad guys” were affiliated to al-Qaida.

“We understand that they are pretty bad guys,” he said, adding that this designation did not apply to everyone in the Syrian opposition. “Still, the greatest danger to Israel is by the strategic arc that extends from Tehran, to Damascus to Beirut. And we saw the Assad regime as the keystone in that arc. That is a position we had well before the outbreak of hostilities in Syria. With the outbreak of hostilities we continued to want Assad to go.”

Translation: Obama is blowing it.

To recap: The Syrians are pretending it wasn’t their chemical weapon attack. The Russians are determined to push the use of force entirely off the table. And, in any event, the entire arrangement is misguided because it rewards the very people who most threaten the region, namely Syria and its sponsors in Moscow and Tehran. Other than that, it’s working brilliantly.

Jennifer Rubin writes the Right Turn blog for The Post, offering reported opinion from a conservative perspective.