For reasons both political and delusional, the Obama Administration feels great these days both on account of the U.S.-Russia chemical weapons deal over Syria that eventuated in UNSCR 2118, and on account of its “opening” to Iran. The broad optic here, as aided by either partisan-supportive or clueless media commentators, is real good. If you didn’t know any better, you’d suppose that the Administration has turned two related portfolios that seem very much in the dumps into huge, promising successes. If you do know better, well, you know better.
In a recent (September 20) post on Syria I wrote: “. . . 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.” Unless, the context made clear, the Obama Administration caved on the core Article VII prerequisite for an effective agreement. So guess what? Despite the logic-tight urgings of the only real ally we have on this subject, France, the Administration caved. The language of UNSCR 2118 froths ferociously over the possibility of non-compliance, but it merely threatens to send the matter back to the Security Council for Article VII authorization. But if the Russians refused Article VII language in UNSCR 2118, they will refuse it if the Obama Administration goes back to the Security Council for a second resolution.
Of course, this catch-22ish situation has been noted by every serious observer of recent goings-on. But what has gone almost entirely unmentioned is that the same thing happened in the early months of 2003 with respect to Iraq. The Bush Administration secured UNSCR 1441, but it lacked the clear Article VII language others insisted be the basis of any use of force. When the United States went back to the Security Council for a second, authorizing resolution, we got sandbagged not by the Russians, but by the French—courtesy of that snake of a Foreign Minister, Dominic De Villepin. Of course, for better or worse (and we’ll not argue over that now), the Bush Administration claimed that the first UNSC resolution was good enough for legal purposes and went to war anyway.
This means, obviously, that UNSCR 2118 is a good deal less than meets the eye. It has no teeth in the event of Syrian non-compliance, and it can’t get teeth through a second resolution because the Russians will delight in playing madcap dentist, pulling any buds that might emerge out by their roots.
It thus still remains to be seen if UN inspectors will ever enter Syria. If they do, it remains to be seen if they can be effective in taking control of and neutralizing and/or removing hundreds of tons of chemical agents. Consider just four observations as regards this latter point.
First, the Syrian regime needs only a small fraction of its chemical arsenal for any imaginable military purposes. Most of its stocks are old and of questionable potency; the only reason they’re still there is because it’s very expensive and dangerous to get rid of them. (We’re still getting rid of buried World War I-era stocks in Washington, DC, after all!) So even if (and it’s a very big “if”) the UN manages to get rid of 90 percent of Syria’s chemical stocks, the military significance of so doing will be zero. Note, too, that Syria’s cooperation with the OPCW so far is probably designed to give Syria the right to veto inspections of any site the regime has not “declared” in its manifest. The regime can declare 90 percent or more of the relevant sites and lose nothing in military terms. It even gains financially: Others will now pay to dispose of stuff that’s useless and dangerous, and the bill will be quite large—in the billions of dollars, very likely, if it ever comes to that.
Second, there are all sorts of scenarios in which UN inspectors could be less than effective, even beyond the normal dangerous of operating amid a civil war. The regime could simply shoot at them with rockets from some remove while they are doing their duty at some site, or while they are transporting chemical stocks along some road. Or the rebels, for reasons of their own, could shoot at them from a suitable distance. And the regime would blame the rebels and the rebels would blame the regime and we’d have another exasperating and inconclusive “he said/she said” episode over who did what to whom. But if someone shoots at the UN inspectors, and perhaps wounds or kills a few of them, that would very likely spell the end of the mission. The UN is not known for allowing its guys to stay in harm’s way; after the UN compound in Iraq was bombed, recall, the UN shut down the mission instead of re-tooling and better protecting it. The ease with which any of several parties could shut down the UN inspectors’ mission makes the likelihood of its ultimate effectiveness, in my view, also approximately zero.
Third, it is likely that composition of the UN force and its ROEs (rules of engagement) with regard to self-defense will be at the mercy of Russian desiderata. That would likely make the inspectors’ defenselessness a near sure thing, buttressing the point made just above. As before in Iraq, the Russians are in a position to act as Assad’s lawyer and his fixer on the ground, tipping off the regime to where inspectors are headed so they can move anything they wish to keep hidden. U.S. intelligence with regard to Syria on this score is no better than it was with respect to Iraq, and is probably a lot worse. After all, we were all over Iraq after 1991; we’ve never been all over Syria.
Fourth, even if everything works out well (which it won’t), Administration claims—mainly via via tweets from Samantha Power—that we’ve turned a corner in making WMD use taboo worldwide are vastly exaggerated. The United States invaded a country and deposed a regime in 2003 largely relying on a counter-proliferation argument, and that didn’t stop Assad from gassing his own people. How effective a new norm can be is highly context dependent; declarations of general efficacy based on an agreement that has not been and probably cannot be implemented are highly premature, if not downright silly.
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So where then, all told, are we now with regard to Syria?
First, by elevating chemical weapons marginalia via a formal agreement blessed by the United Nations, the Obama Administration has dissociated U.S. policy from the real stakes and real dangers of the Syrian civil war. That’s bad.
Second, we now need the Assad regime, as a contractual party, to get rid of the chemical weapons; this contradicts stated U.S. policy that “Assad must go.” That’s bad.
Third, we have put the Russians in charge of this portfolio for all practical purposes, giving them a way back into a region from which they had been effectively absent. That’s bad.
We have achieved all this thanks to a policy process that has been wildly sub-professional, and, thanks to key concessions, has undermined U.S. credibility worldwide. The U.S. reputation in the Middle East today is at its lowest ebb, ever—so low that our NATO ally Turkey (after observing the Obama Administration’s flaccid behavior toward NATO allies in Central/Eastern Europe) has decided to partner with China to build an anti-ballistic missile system instead of us. That’s very bad. So much, then, for the Higher-Disney-fiction media optics we’ve been treated to lately. The media fawned over the Kellogg-Briand Pact, too, you know.
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I will write about recent developments with regard to U.S.-Iran ties later. But for now, just a few brief observations may be proffered.
First, as with Syria, what has allowed the appearance of progress here are concessions made by the United States. The President’s UN speech allowed a “peaceful” Iranian uranium enrichment program; that’s a public first, and it’s a major concession made not at a bargaining table but in order to get to it. He also said that we do not seek regime change in Iran. In return, President Rouhani promised nothing. He just smiled, said some nice things, and answered a telephone. It reminds me of Fiorello La Guardia’s famous remark: “Tickertape ain’t spaghetti.”
Second, just as the Obama Administration hived off Syrian chemical weapons use from the real issues roiling the region, so here there seems to be a sense that if the nuclear issue can be managed, everything else will either take care of itself or else isn’t very important. This is wrong, and dangerous. The other issues do matter, and the approach of mistaking a splinter for a tree will have the effect of alienating every U.S. ally in the region. Of course the Arab states and Turkey and Israel especially care about Iranian nuclear weapons aspirations, but they care as much or more—indeed, they don’t separate the issues—about Iranian behavior more broadly construed.
I remain skeptical that any agreement with Iran can be reached on terms that ought to be acceptable to the United States. I fear that an agreement might be reached on terms that should not be acceptable, just to release the President from having to face strategic realities while he is in office. If there is such an agreement, Israel may or may not attack Iran before the President’s term is over. My sense is that Israel will not do so, for reasons too complex to explain here in brief. But either way a deep divide in U.S.-Israeli relations will arise—so that this “special” relationship, as with relationships with Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Turkey and others—will be left much worse off when Obama leaves office than they were when he entered it.
So if what we have seen in recent weeks are U.S. diplomatic successes, heaven help us should we behold what are characterized as failures.