The Syria “escape hatch” has downsides for Obama

September 10, 2013
(Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)
(Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

There's no doubt the surprise Russian proposal to transfer control of Syria's chemical weapons to an international monitor offers President Obama an escape hatch. Obama needed it after his plan to win Congress's support for strikes against Syrria seemed to be falling apart Monday, with a growing number of lawmakers and Americans overall opposing it.

Obama and his aides say it's only the threat of U.S. force that has led Russia and Syria to entertain a deal whereby the regime of Bashar al-Assad gives up its chemical stockpiles to avoid U.S. strikes. But such an agreement, coming in the form of a United Nations resolution that was the subject of negotiations Tuesday, also could have downsides for the president.

Here are the top three upsides and downsides of a potential deal for Obama:

Upside #1: Obama avoids a vote he was unlikely to win. Failure to win Congress's support would have been one of the biggest embarrassments of his presidency. It may have forced him to back down -- which he has suggested would give a free pass to other tyrants to use chemical weapons -- or to act alone. As Rosa Brooks, a former Pentagon official, said, "It gets him out of his disastrous political mess." Even if the effort doesn't work out, she noted, Obama will be able to say he tried every diplomatic effort to avoid a military conflict. "It will be a lot easier for him to make the case for force."

Downside #1: If it fails, Syria will still have chemical weapons and Obama may look like he got played. One could foresee weeks of bureaucratic discussion, inspections, reviews and debates, which could all ultimately fall apart while Assad hides his chemical weapons. "The most dangerous downside," argues Jon Alterman, a former State Department official now at the Center for Strategic & International Studies, "is you get absorbed in endless processes which take you back to the status quo ante and you neither removed the weapons and you lost the momentum when there was support for action." Russia expert Julia Ioffe of The New Republic suggests that for Russia, that may be the goal: "Putin has succeeded in throwing sand in the gears of the American political process and separating the U.S. from its allies, and the current American handwringing over Syria seems likely to grind on for weeks."

Upside #2: It could eliminate a huge stockpile of chemical weapons in an unstable country. Syria has one of the world's largest supplies of chemical weapons. U.S. strikes would have weakened Assad's ability to deploy them but not destroyed it. What's more, nobody knows who will be in charge of Syria in a year or five. Given the large percentage of extremists making up the Syrian opposition, groups deeply hostile to the United States could get a hold of chemical weapons.

Downside #2: A U.N. resolution might eliminate Syria's chemical weapons capacity but would leave the country with a burning humanitarian crisis and strengthen the Assad regime. About 1 percent of the more than 100,000 causalities in the Syrian civil war have come as a result of chemical weapons. Obama has made clear he is outraged by the deaths but only sought to use military force to hold Assad accountable for using chemical weapons. If he turns over his chemical weapons stockpiles, Assad will still be able to press forward and perhaps intensify his conventional warfare strategy without seeing his military infrastructure degraded by U.S. strikes. "This actually takes some pressure off," Brooks said. "It locks the U.S. into a series of contradictory positions where we're saying Assad is a monster but now he's a monster who can carry on killing people through other means."

Upside #3: It would help give meaning to Obama's overall Syria strategy. One of the big questions surrounding the potential use of force is what it would accomplish. The administration has offered a muddled message  -- saying strikes would be minuscule but significant, saying Assad must go but that the strikes wouldn't force him from power. A coordinated United Nations action could make clear the United States is just one member of an international alliance working to dismantle Syria's chemical weapons program. "Obama can say, this is our policy and strategy. It fills the vacuum for the White House on what you're trying to do on Syria," Alterman said.

Downside #3: Obama doesn't get the answer he wanted Congress to offer. Obama has said he expects the United States to increasingly face security challenges like it does in Syria -- not immediate threats to national security, but areas where the United States has long felt an interest in intervening, such as to enforce the international norm against the use of chemical weapons. That's why he turned to Congress for an answer -- do Americans' elected representatives believe that the nation, after two long wars, still has a responsibility to enforce long-time global standards and check brutal displays of power through the use of chemical weapons? Public opinion and Congress's leaning suggested the answer was no - but Obama won't know whether he would have prevailed in making the case without a vote.

 

 

Zachary A. Goldfarb is policy editor at The Washington Post.
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