Obama has made a difference on Syria, but critics won’t give him credit

September 30, 2013

What if things go right in Syria?

What will President Obama’s critics do then?

The president threatened a limited military strike on Syria to degrade and deter President Bashar al-Assad from again using chemical weapons.

His words were backed up by placing U.S. aircraft carriers and destroyers in position to carry out that attack, much as President Clinton’s four-day Operation Desert Fox in 1998 with Tomahawk missiles and precision bombs destroyed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s facilities for producing nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.

Nine days after Obama’s threat, Russia announced that Assad had agreed to join the Chemical Weapons Convention, disclose details of his country’s chemical weapons program, put its weapons and agents under control of international inspectors and have its facilities, weapons and stocks of agents destroyed by July 1.

The first group of 20 officials from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) is scheduled to arrive in Damascus around noon Tuesday to begin the inspection mission. Drawn from OPCW’s ranks, the inspection staff will grow to nearly 100 and include analytical chemists, specialists in chemical weapons production technology and munitions experts.

These developments have not stopped Obama’s critics. They first went after the president for seeking congressional support, then for appearing weak by delaying the strike to give diplomacy a chance. They dismiss the fact that if the current plan succeeds, Assad’s chemical weapons capability will be gone, rather than degraded.

They have warned that Syria is moving its weapons around and that Assad’s initial declaration did not include what U.S. intelligence officials believe is one major site and several smaller ones. OPCW inspectors, however, have been directed to look “as soon as possible [at] any other site identified” by the United States or other country, and Syria is to provide the “unfettered right to inspect any and all sites.”

Now the Obama Boo Birds, who mostly don’t believe in the United Nations, are whining that the U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing the program doesn’t call for immediate military action if Syria doesn’t follow through. They ignore that Obama has ordered the U.S. Navy force to remain in the area.

Reserving action

On Sunday, when national security adviser Susan Rice was asked on CNN whether the United States would take unilateral action if Syria did not comply, she replied, “We reserve that action.”

Getting rid of the chemical weapons does not solve the main problem of ending a bloody civil, religious and secular war. But it has put some life in the U.S.-Russia sponsored Geneva II process, which is aimed at composing a transition government that would replace Assad but be made up of representatives of his government and its opposition. It also would have executive powers, including control over the armed forces and security services and would prepare the way for elections next year.

As Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told The Washington Post’s Lally Weymouth last Tuesday, “It’s only the Syrians themselves who can resolve the problems of their country and determine its destiny. . . . The Syrian government and the opposition groups must agree on the composition of a transitional governing body, which will have full executive authority. . . . You cannot impose on one side or another a solution.”

Friday’s U.N. resolution, worked out primarily by Lavrov and Secretary of State John F. Kerry, called for holding the Geneva II conference “as soon as possible” with U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon setting a target date of mid-November. Easier said than done.

One of the main problems is deciding who will attend. Assad on Sunday told the Italian television channel Rai News 24 that the basis for the conference “is not clear.” Until he understands the framework, he added, “We cannot decide who’s going to head the [government] delegation.”

Attendance issues

On Sunday, Syrian Minister of Foreign Affairs Walid al-Moualem told Al-Monitor that his government will not deal with the Syrian National Coalition.

Things are not that clear within the opposition. On Sept. 22, the Syrian National Coalition President Ahmad al-Jarba said in a letter to the U.N. Security Council that his group would attend if the conference, as promised, is to establish a transitional government with full powers. But four days later his group announced it would refuse to participate if Assad remained as part of the transitional government.

On Sunday, U.N. Special Envoy for Syria Lakhdar Brahimi, who has the task of organizing the conference, told Al Arabiya that no date has been set for Geneva II and outlined how he hoped the attendance issue could be solved.

●No preconditions for or from either the government or opposition delegations.

●Only one delegation representing the opposition, but it should include various parties.

● Invitations to all Arab countries in the area, including Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Egypt and Jordan, as well as the Arab League secretary-general.

●It would be beneficial if Iran took part. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Thursday told Brahimi that if invited without preconditions, his country would like to participate. Last May, Lavrov described Tehran’s presence as “key” for Geneva II. The United States has not taken a position on Iran attending.

Despite what critics say, there is movement on Syria.

There’s no guarantee that it will succeed in ridding that country of chemical weapons or ending the bloodshed. But whatever happens, no one can claim the Obama administration has not tried to do the right thing.

For previous Fine Print columns, go to washingtonpost.com/fedpage.

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