Take a look at my previous thoughts on Syria and diplomacy. Quite a lot of them. Every pessimistic prediction has been borne out and worse.
Remember the long list of Hillary, Obama, Cameron and others who faux-toughly intoned that Assad must go! They’ve gone. He’s still there. This proclamation, BTW, is now the locus classicus of bad musty needy speechwriting that creates a fleeting sense of toughness and resolve but turns out to be quite empty. Why ‘must’ he go? What if he doesn’t?
One key moment in all this was the clueless Obama Red Line in August 2012:
Here’s the full transcript. Note how the Red Line is repeated
On Syria, obviously this is a very tough issue. I have indicated repeatedly that President al-Assad has lost legitimacy, that he needs (sic) to step down.
So far, he hasn’t gotten the message, and instead has double downed in violence on his own people. The international community has sent a clear message that rather than drag his country into civil war he should move in the direction of a political transition. But at this point, the likelihood of a soft landing seems pretty distant…
I have, at this point, not ordered military engagement in the situation. But the point that you made about chemical and biological weapons is critical. That’s an issue that doesn’t just concern Syria; it concerns our close allies in the region, including Israel. It concerns us. We cannot have a situation where chemical or biological weapons are falling into the hands of the wrong people.
We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus. That would change my equation.
Q So you’re confident it’s somehow under — it’s safe?
THE PRESIDENT: In a situation this volatile, I wouldn’t say that I am absolutely confident. What I’m saying is we’re monitoring that situation very carefully. We have put together a range of contingency plans.
We have communicated in no uncertain terms with every player in the region that that’s a red line for us and that there would be enormous consequences if we start seeing movement on the chemical weapons front or the use of chemical weapons. That would change my calculations significantly.
Then came the moment in 2013 when the Red Line was crossed, and Obama promptly crumpled. My then Telegraph piece:
It’s obvious to even the dullest pundit that no new international process can bring about the safe collection and destruction of Syria’s sizeable CW stocks over any timescale that matters. Moscow is not interested in this. Rather it means to re-legitimize the Assad regime by making it a prime interlocutor in the whole phoney process. The exercise soon will be bogged down in footling exchanges of diplomatic notes and labyrinths of internationalised technical bickering that ensure that any ‘progress’ occurs only on Moscow/Assad terms.
Meanwhile the civil war in Syria will drag on, with Assad emboldened. In due course Washington will have so much credibility invested in Syria’s CW non-disarmament that it will start to need Assad to stay in power to guarantee some crumbs of success.
This outcome shows what happens when you enter a brutal neighbourhood proclaiming your unwillingness to fight: those who are prepared to fight crush you.
The Obama Administration knows that it is experiencing unprecedented humiliation. So it proclaims victory. John Kerry emits faux toughness to pretend that Washington is really driving things along. “Words are not enough.” “This is not a game.” “There ought (sic) to be consequences” if Assad does not dismantle its CW arsenal. “We do believe there is a way to get this done.”
Such empty mock-heroic phrases are the sort of thing a cartoon character might say as he walks off the edge of the cliff, striding purposefully out into thin air before plummeting to his doom.
In short, we have gone from “Assad must go!” to “Assad has to negotiate with us on a UN resolution for handing over his CW stocks, or there definitely ought to be consequences!” It’s a short sad step from that to “Assad must stay!”
This is something quite new in world affairs: Washington sprawling on its back after falling for the Grandmother of All Putinesque Judo-flips.
Five years and unending devastation and lots more chemical weapons excesses later, Assad indeed has stayed. But President Trump has now taken some shots at him. US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley:
Last night, we obliterated the major research facility that it used to assemble weapons of mass murder … I spoke to the president this morning and he said if the Syrian regime uses this poisonous gas again, the United States is locked and loaded. When our our president draws a red line, our president enforces the red line.
Within seconds of these attacks we have the usual barrage of claims and counter-claims and disinformation, often with neo-con Marxists agreeing with each other on the ineffectual perfidy of these attacks. It’s also interesting how busy Internet sleuths try to work out with all sorts of details what exactly is happening.
Results? Options include:
- there was no chemical weapons attack
- the rebels did it
- all the US missiles were destroyed
- all the missiles missed or hit harmless targets
- the Syrians had moved everything out before the attacks
- it’s all about Trump trying to divert attention from his domestic woes
- mission accomplished!
- what’s the difference between Assad killing people with chemicals and the US government poisoning people in Flint with polluted water?
- what’s so bad about chemical weapons when other weapons and global warming kill far more people?
- it’s all just for show and makes no difference
The last one is noteworthy. What in fact makes a difference in such matters?
Part of the (genuine) difficulty in trying to make any sense of all this is separating out two overlapping but nonetheless distinct policy objectives:
Upholding the international chemical weapons ban regime
Responding to and/or trying to end the ghastliness of Syria
The 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention (drafted in good part with heavy Russian expertise) is an attempt to rid the world of a whole category of weapons. It is a complicated international deal as it requires classifying chemicals into outright bad, potentially part of something outright bad, and harmless. Chemical weapons experts based at OPCW HQ in The Hague tour the world’s chemicals industry checking on what’s happening. Plus active moves have been made to destroy legacy CW stockpiles. The USA has destroyed 90% of its verified stock but (embarrassingly) has not yet finished the job. Other countries including Russia have hit their targets.
As such things go, the CWC has been a major success. So it is more than disconcerting that CW attacks have been happening so frequently in Syria. If Assad or anyone else there can get away with these attacks, the CWC regime may start to unravel. Nikki Haley makes a strong point when she blames Russia for not keeping its promise to make sure that Syria complied fully with the CWC:
“So, in theory, all of us agree on the core principle at stake today: no country can be allowed to use chemical weapons with impunity … Now that we have established what we all agree on, let’s ask ourselves what we should be condemning here today.”
She went on to accuse the Russian government of using its veto power at the Security Council “to defend the Syrian regime’s multiple uses of chemical weapons.” She also noted that Russia had agreed to guarantee the removal of Syria’s chemical weapons, and had they followed through with that promise, “we would not be here today.”
In short, even if as we all know these latest attacks will not make a scrap of difference to the Assad regime’s brutal battle for survival, they do have the rightful effect of signalling to Assad/Putin some sort of determination by the civilised world that CW is just one horror too far. And (perhaps) demolishing a key facility shows that we know exactly what Assad is up to, even if some of the kit had been moved. Had the attacks been combined with the flattening of various Assad secret police facilities we all would have been even better off. But maybe there are too many Russians in such places these days?
As I have said on different media outlets, in this negotiation between what we call The West and Russia, there are only two options. It all gets worse. Or it starts to get better. What is not clear to me amidst all the misery is what it will take to bring President Putin and his entourage to decide that there is a better set of policy options available than non-stop snarly defiance.
As always we wend our way back to the Russian Soul, as warped by decades of communism and corruption. To be continued.