I began my last post on Syria, from September 11, with a quip-like protest of sorts: that every time I finish writing about some wild and wooly development in the U.S. “Syria crisis” portfolio, another even weirder one comes along at a speedy clip whose evident purpose is to provide a safety net for the antecedent screw-up. I referred to this phenomenon, from my August 30 post to my September 3 post to my September 11 post, borrowing language from Lewis Carroll, as things getting curiouser and curiouser. And now? Well, since September 11 things have gotten even curiouser still. I find myself standing at the cusp of a virtually infinite regress of American diplomatic silliness. The fat lady is apparently not ready to sing, and it’s a new experience for me.
As is by now well known, on Saturday, September 14, the U.S. and Russian governments reached a deal over Syrian chemical weapons monitoring and disposal. The Syrians were brought along by the Russians. I was not surprised that a deal was struck despite my earlier skepticism that a deal would not, could not, be implemented. That is still true in my view. But the Obama Administration badly needed a way out of the web woven of its own spiraling mistakes, and the Russians, by supplying it, set themselves up as a kind of diplomatic cashier—in control of the process and bound to exact a fee for its services.
I have discussed this dynamic before. Indeed, I sort of predicted it. Here, for example, is what I wrote way back on May 10:
So if the Russians prove willing to help us dump Assad and harm Iranian interests, it’s a sure thing they’re going to demand something considerable in return. Not only would they not be Russians otherwise, they would not be competent diplomats of any description otherwise. So what would they ask?
Of course, I don’t know. But whatever they might suggest, I could imagine a situation in which the Russians double-down diplomatically by suggesting themselves (not exactly for the first time) as intermediaries in defusing the Iranian diplomatic bomb as a way to ward off the mullahs’ attainment of a real one. . . . That could put Putin potentially in a situation where Russia can play diplomatic middleman, able to extract quid pro quo “commissions” from all sides—American and Iranian, European, Arab and possibly Israeli, too.
Yes, dear readers, I am indeed suggesting by bringing this old remark that the sudden seeming Iranian willingness to deal on its nuclear program, which has leapt into the news over the past day or two, is quite possibly related both to what’s going on viz Syria and the Russian role in it.
Let me now remind you, if I may, of what I wrote on September 3 in this regard:
As to Iran, today’s New York Times’s reports that Ambassador Jeffrey Feltman recently travelled to Iran to meet with the new Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. Ambassador Feltman is attached to the U.S. legation at the UN right now, but he used to be Assistant Secretary of State for Near East & South Asia, and before that—when I got to know him—he was our Ambassador in Lebanon. (I wrote Secretary Powell’s remarks on the occasion of his swearing in.) He’s a senior serious guy, and so this is real news bearing—possibly—on the President’s reluctance to make good on his threat to shoot that bow shot. How?
There is reason to believe that some senior Administration decision-makers have believed in the past that if the U.S. government does nothing to interfere with Iran’s getting its way in Syria, the Iranians will toss up a nice quid pro quo and agree to negotiate over its nuclear weapons program in good faith. This is delusional and dangerous thinking, but perhaps the election of a new President in Iran has brought this particular delusion back into play. The NYT report suggests, without apparent evidence, that Feltman was trying to sound out the Iranians on what effect a U.S.-led strike on Syria would have on their propensity to negotiate. . . . This all sounds sort of screwy to me, besides which we don’t know what instructions or messages Feltman carried (or heard). But the vicissitudes of U.S. back-channel engagement with Iran could be having an impact on the President’s thinking. Maybe the Iranians’ showing a little ankle could persuade the President that he needs to find some way to crawl back from his threats.
I did not know then, but today’s news reveals what Ambassador Feltman was doing: He was delivering a letter from the President, in answer to one sent by President Rouhani. So it seems to me clear, insofar as anything about this mess can be clear, that the President’s reluctance to actually strike Syria, after having gone forward to prepare it, was affected, perhaps decisively, by this Iranian showing of ankle. The question thus forms itself: Are the Iranians really suddenly serious about negotiating, or did they do what they did, starting about three weeks ago (no doubt with Russian assent and support), mainly if not exclusively to prevent a U.S. attack on its Syrian ally?
You know, it just could be….. If the diplomatic track with Iran gets nowhere (again), as I suspect, and if the U.S.-Russia-Syria deals slows and twists and degenerates into aimless acrimony, as I also suspect it will, then we’ll be able to look back and conclude that this whole spin-up, largely directed from the Kremlin, was just a stratagem to prevent the use of U.S. force, and back the United States into a no-win corner in such a way that Vladimir Putin comes out smelling like a fake but heavily scented rose.
Now, a lot of people commenting on the September 14 deal have argued that, however unintended, awkward or downright ugly the process was to get there, maybe, just maybe, the chemical deal could prove to be a wedge that gets us to a ceasefire as a necessary antecedent to a political resolution of the civil war. At the least, some have said, the introduction of UN monitors would deter another chemical attack by the regime on its enemies. If the Syrians balk, a lot of people think the Russians will abandon Assad, whether they are in a position to force him to comply or not. (They are not, something Lavrov admitted a long time ago but has been careful not to repeat lately.) A lot of people thus seem willing to give the deal the benefit of the doubt. Well, since the cupboard is otherwise completely bare, one concedes the logic—such as it is.
Such as it is…… Ah, but the logic of the deal, as Secretary Kerry quickly understood, presupposes a UN Security Council resolution that makes legal the role of UN monitors and inspectors, and that resolution needs to have an Article VII foundation—meaning that it authorizes force in the event of non-compliance—or it will have all the suasive thrust of a soggy egg noodle. But as has become clear over the past day or two, the Russians will never go along with this, meaning that the deal, which depends on UN capacities and its auspices, will have no legal basis. Not just the Obama Administration folks care about this, but so do the UN types. And of course, as before, there will be no legal basis, either, for a military strike in the event that the arrangement goes belly up. In other words, the deal isn’t really a deal until the UN transmission device for its implementation is installed, and very likely it won’t be.
So the Syrians may offer up a report on their chemical weapons stocks that passes the laugh test, but it won’t matter because it is hard to see at this point how the UN monitors can get authorized in a way that both U.S. and Russian sides can agree on. So it is entirely possible that by this time next week we will be back where we started: no operable political deal, no prospect of a ceasefire, no likelihood of stopping the war, and no deterrence of another chemical attack. If that happens, the soft fuzzy noises the Iranians have been making about a nuke deal might, just might, softly disappear in a cloud of suppressed laughter in Tehran. They will note U.S. concessions for the record and move on, just as they have before.
And what will the upshot of all this curious behavior have been? I rarely quote other magazines in this space, but I’ll make an exception. Thus the September 21 Economist:
Now every tyrant knows that a red line set by the leader of the free world is really just a threat to ask legislators how they feel about enforcing it. Dictators will be freer to maim and murder their own people, proliferators like North Korea less scared to proceed with spreading WMD, China and Russia ever more content to test their muscles in the vacuum left by the West.
“The vacuum left by the West.” That’s well said. Couldn’t do a whole lot better myself in a short space.
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Well, I might be wrong about my suspicions. This U.S.-Russia deal might work through to success, with or without a UNSC resolution. It might get UN personnel on the ground and so deter new chemical attacks, even though the strategic significance of the chemicals is in any event near zero in the context of the war as a whole. It might work as a wedge to get a ceasefire and eventually a political settlement to the war. Or failing that the Russians might flip off the Syrians, harming the Assad regime’s capacities and leading eventually to a rebel victory in due course that can be made safe from theft by radical jihadis. The Iranian negotiating offer of recent days may be sincere and entirely independent of what has been happening in Syria, too.
Yes, and I may go spontaneously sailing off into the air looking like Cinderella dressed in a stunning red tutu and singing “fee fie fiddly eye-o” all the way to Cucamonga.
I can hardly wait to learn what will catalyze my next Syria post.