It is not often that we write on the same subject week after week. We try not to do that. However, President Obama’s victory lap following the talks in Geneva last week seems, to us, a bit premature. With a straight face the President intoned, “Had we rolled out something that was very smooth and disciplined and linear they (the world, we presume) would have graded it well, even if it was a disastrous policy,” he said, referencing the initial coverage of the Iraq War. This is the Orwellian Obama. He speaks of his fumble as the equivalent of a ball carrier fumbling the ball, having another player recover the fumble and then claim the fumble was part of a “non disciplined and non-linear strategy.” It’s breathtaking.
The danger, of course is that Syria and Russia don’t fulfill their promises, and the matter gets referred to the United Nations, where Russia remains capable of blocking any action by the U.N. Security Council.
Sen. John McCain, who has consistently voiced supporting the moderate Syrian rebels, and an immediate critic of the US-Russian deal, called the deal “an act of provocative weakness,” and a “very, very big gamble.” McCain also said the president had abandoned his “red line” with regard to chemical weapons.
We believe his handling of the tragedy in Syria might haunt us for years to come, and the outline of objectives that we and Russia have agreed upon regarding the disposition of Syria’s poison pile is a basic first step in what is apt to be a very long journey. Getting rid of the stuff, however, is an objective we and the Russians do share.
Matters moved into the diplomatic arena a week ago where, ultimately, the Russian “Nay” vote trumps the American “Aye” vote. The Geneva meetings, in which Secretary Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov agreed on a framework of sorts for Syrian compliance with a yet-to-be-determined protocol for destroying Assad’s chemical weapon stockpile was a predictable first scene in the first act of a performance that largely obscures the sad reality America and the rest of the world faces.
With cameras rolling, Lavrov announced “Any violations of procedures would be looked at by the Security Council and if they are approved, the Security Council would take the required measures, concrete measures,” he said. “Nothing is said about the use of force or about any automatic sanctions. All violations should be approved by the Security Council,” he continued. This, of course, places all of the cards in the hands of the Russians, who can (and regularly do) nix anything not of their liking with a vetoing “nyet!”
We have had a 21st century Munich moment here. No, Syria is not mighty Nazi Germany, and Syria has evidenced no plans to march into the rest of the world. But the Assad régime did the unthinkable when it introduced poison gas into the war raging there; something the civilized world has said it would not tolerate, and has not tolerated in warfare for 100 years. America, as the civilized world’s only superpower was unambiguous in drawing its now anemic red line in the sand. Assad, he warned, would not be allowed to get away with such an atrocity. Assad yawned and proceeded to unleash his 14th gas attack (according to Secretary Kerry) with devastating results. The world turned to President Obama. President Obama, caught absolutely flatfooted, turned to our largely dysfunctional Congress, which courted whiplash with the speed with which it turned away from the President. And so there we were, stuttering almost incoherently about whose redline that was.
Enter Vladimir Putin.
What now appears certain is that Assad is to pay no price for the atrocity of August 21st. In fact, given the real-time, planetary, internet exposure his massacre achieved, he could not have found a better way to unload his liability of organophosphates known as Sarin gas that no longer serves him a useful purpose. Russia, not the United States, has taken the lead and just to make sure nothing terribly unpleasant is visited upon Assad, everything will be done through the UN Security Council where everything, essentially, requires Russia’s permission. No punitive military response, no regime change and no reckoning at all without Security Council approval, which, of course, means no reckoning at all.
According to press reports, Kerry said any violations will result in “measures” from the Security Council, while Lavrov said the violations must be sent to the Security Council from the Board of the Chemical Weapons Convention before sanctions of any kind would be considered.
At a news conference at the Intercontinental Hotel in Geneva, Kerry said the inspectors must be on the ground by November and destruction or removal of the chemical weapons must be completed by mid-2014. “We have committed to a standard that says, verify and verify,” he said. Kerry said he and Lavrov and their staffs had reached “a shared assessment” of Syria’s weapons stockpile and that Syria must destroy all of its weapons. “
Whew! All 1,000+ tons of the stuff will be accounted for, and removed by next June. People must be dancing in the streets all over the Middle East with this wonderful news. Horns must be honking and guns must be firing in the air (as is the custom). Of course many are skeptical that all of this will happen anytime soon. And Bashar al-Assad is more than skeptical. He says (assuming he cooperates at all) getting rid of his Chemical stockpile will take at least a year, and even that is considered wildly optimistic by virtually every expert who has weighed in on the subject.
We don’t mean to make light of the efforts being pursued by Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Lavrov. But this is a very complex and convoluted tangle of knots that has to be untangled. Syria has agreed, as a first step, to sign and ratify the Chemical Weapons Convention, and our guess is that they will do that. Now comes the more difficult part. Syria will have to turn over an inventory count of its Sarin and other chemical crud; and their tally must, within reason, match existing intelligence estimates. Now remember, only a very short time ago Assad was saying they didn’t have any chemical weapons. Any substantial difference in what they admit to and what we say they have, would be a deal breaker. Next inspectors acceptable to all parties must be given free reign to snoop wherever they want, looking for hidden stockpiles or sites, and they must have access to Syrian scientists and military personnel and other knowledgeable officials. All this while a war is raging.
Deadlines for every stage must be agreed to in advance. The Chemical Weapons Convention says Syria has a month to come clean and ten years to get rid of everything.
Now (here comes the sticky part), a Chapter VII Resolution, which permits the use of force, must be passed by the UN Security Council in the event Syria reneges. President Obama, to show he means business, will have to convince Congress to authorize force if Putin or Syria back peddles. Anybody really believe all of Assad’s chemical weapons (or even any of them) will be gone by Memorial Day?
The great tragedy of Munich was that the world stood by. The great tragedy today is that the world has, once again, stood by. Of course the potential destruction of Assad’s Sarin will be a very positive development; but we suspect the Darth Vader of Damascus is only too happy to unload the stuff after a worldwide audience watched his horror show in real time. Assad got caught committing mass murder by his own people with their I-phones. He’s agreed to have the stuff taken off his hands, probably at our expense, while he enjoys the personal protection of his primary benefactor, Vladimir Putin.
This turn of events is not over. We fear it has just begun. The world was, and is, watching. They were (and are) watching in Tehran and in Pyongyang and in Darfur, Sudan and the so-called Democratic Republic of the Congo and who knows where else. Of great concern today are the calculations being made by the Mullahs in Iran and the weird man-child running North Korea. Always, the tyrant’s calculus must consider how the United States will react to their next outrage. We sent mixed and dangerously inept messages. We huffed and puffed and, at the end of the day we blew only smoke.
And then there is our ally, Israel, whose back we have, Obama unambiguously assured the people of the Jewish state. Soon, the centrifuges in Iran that are spinning merrily along their way (the Mullahs have reportedly just installed a few thousand more) enriching uranium or plutonium, or who knows what, will make this brutal fundamentalist regime a nuclear power. Fortunately the people of tiny Israel needn’t worry because an Obama-drawn red line is protecting them. We doubt the Israelis are drawing much comfort from that particular red line.
This has been a high stakes poker game, in which President Obama was thoroughly out matched and out played. We, like everyone else, hope the US and Russia have a shared concern about Assad’s pantry of horrors and a shared determination to do away with the stuff. But we do keep hearing Kenny Rogers reminding us that “You have to know when to hold ’em and know when to fold ’em.” President Obama folded…at the wrong time, and the whole world was (and is) watching.