Greg Harris: On how we got to the emerging solution to the Syria crisis

Judging from media coverage, one would think the emerging solution to the Syria predicament arrived somewhat randomly.  But when considering the supposedly “random” sequence of developments on Syria, what emerges is something far more strategic:

A) President Obama, on the eve of the G20 summit, reminds international leaders that chemical weapons containment is a shared obligation:

My credibility is not on the line. The international community’s credibility is on the line.”

–“World’s credibility at stake over ‘red line’ on chemical weapons use in Syria, Obama says,” Associated Press and The Telegraph, 09/04/13

B) During the G-20, Obama and President Putin (Syria’s enabler to date) find time during the G-20 Summit to meet on Syria:

President Obama met privately with Russian President Vladimir Putin Friday in the midst of their public dispute over how to respond to a chemical weapons attack in Syria.  Mr. Obama told reporters at the G-20 summit in St. Petersburg, Russia, that his conversation with Mr. Putin was “candid.” And he said a looming United Nations report about chemical weapons use by the Syrian regime would make it tougher for Mr. Putin to oppose punishing Syria militarily.

— “Obama, Putin discuss Syria on G-20 sidelines,” Washington Times, 9/6/13

C)  Secretary Kerry supposedly off cuff response to a reporter’s question if there was anything Syrian President Assad could do to avert an attack: “Sure, he could turn over every bit of his weapons to the international community within the next week, without delay,” Kerry said. “But he isn’t about to.”  Russia seizes the opening created by Kerry’s comment: 

Greg HarrisSpeaking in London earlier today, John Kerry appeared to issue a long-shot ultimatum to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, suggesting that if he turned over his complete stockpile of chemical weapons within the next week he could avoid an attack from the United States. The State Department, however, would later walk back those comments, saying they were a “rhetorical argument” and not an actual proposal, adding that Assad “cannot be trusted” to take such action …. [T]his afternoon once Assad and his strongest ally, Russia, caught everyone off guard by suggesting that Kerry’s ad-libbed solution was actually workable.

–“Did John Kerry Just Accidentally Find a Workable Solution for Syria?,” The Slatest, 9/9/13 

D) Within a couple hours, Russia presents Kerry’s “rhetorical” comment as a solution.  Syria responds immediately:  “Syria today ‘welcomed’ an offer by Russia to put its chemical weapons arsenal under international control so that they could eventually be destroyed’”:

Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem, who met with Lavrov in Moscow earlier in the day, responded almost immediately. “The Syrian Arab Republic welcomed the Russian initiative, based on the concerns of the Russian leadership for the lives of our citizens and the security of our country,” Muallem told reporters, according to Russia’s Interfax news agency. The proposal also received quick support from United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and British Prime Minister David Cameron.

— “Syria ‘Welcomed’ Russian Proposal to Destroy Its Chemical Weapons,” ABC News, Sept. 9, 2013

Now let us consider the possibility that these development were not so random …

… that the international community did consider it in their best interest to enforce the International Chemical Weapons Convention—an obligation Obama placed back on them in a most forceful way.

… that the Russians were looking for a face saving way to not be put in a position of defending or denying Syrian atrocities against mounting evidence of chemical attack

… that the Obama Administration considered it in the U.S.’s best interest to not take sides in a civil war but, rather, to get chemical weapons removed from a volatile region, and especially out of the hands of a regime that colludes with, funds and arms our adversaries in the Middle East.  This desired outcome was unachievable without the threat of force.

The criticism about Obama’s handling of the Syria crisis is nearly universal.  But I have to ask:  did the Obama Administration back into this potential solution by way of off-the-cuff comments and dumb luck, or, did the Administration play all its cards in creating the context—with a (face saving) assist from Russia—necessary to achieve just about the best outcome we could have hoped for in the region in terms of our own national security interests?

No outcome can gloss over the horrid use of chemical weapons, and the tragic consequence on innocent people.  But saying “never again” and then enforcing that vow is the best possible result.  The emergent solution is for an international team to oversee the removal of Syria’s chemical stockpile—a stockpile that up to now it claimed never existed.  Let’s hope and pray for such a solution, both for US national security interest (not getting chemical weapons in the hands of terrorists) and larger humanitarian reasons.

For all the criticism of Obama from the Left and the Right, I have to confess:  I wish Iraq was handled this way.  Messy but muscular diplomacy sure trumps military action.


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