Belmont Club

A Gift Horse in the Mouth

Russia and the United States have entered into what is being described as a landmark agreement over Syria. It looks good on the face of it. Syria has agreed to destroy its chemical weapons and Obama’s threatened strike on Syria has been averted.  Neil Irwin of the Washington Post even asks: “Was Obama’s Syria strategy brilliant or lucky?” Irwin writes:

This is a win for President Obama. He had worked himself into a strange strategic cul-de-sac of his own making as recently as a week ago: He had made clear he thought strikes were justified yet elected to go to Congress seeking authorization, although the sentiment in Congress was clearly tending against the resolution.

“Brilliant or lucky?” The answer may be neither. The emerging details about the agreement allow us to glimpse what’s in the box. Here are some questions with answers.

1. Q: Who is in charge of enforcing it. Answer: the UN.

Based on the full framework text released by the State Department the agreement provides that the UN, what Obama disparaged as the agency of “hocus-pocus” will be in charge of saving the region. It might be pertinent to recall that before the Syrian civil war got as bad as it did Kofi Annan spent months in the region on a UN mission trying to fix it. He singularly failed. Never mind … the nth time is a charm.

The framework would mandate the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to report on Syrian compliance or noncompliance with the agreed measures to the United Nations Security Council for possible sanctions, under Chapter 7 of the UN charter.

“In the event of non-compliance, including unauthorized transfer, or any use of chemical weapons by anyone in Syria, the UN Security Council should impose measures under Chapter VII of the UN Charter,” the framework states.

2. Q: What will happen if Syria cheats? Answer: if the agreement fails there will be no consequences authorized by the UN.

The Washington Post reports that “senior administration officials had said Friday the Obama administration would not press for U.N. authorization to use force against Syria if it reneges on any agreement to give up its chemical weapons.” They gave that chip up at the very beginning.

The Russians had made clear in talks here between Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Kerry that the negotiations could not proceed under the threat of a U.N. resolution authorizing a military strike. Russia also wanted assurances that a resolution would not refer Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to the International Criminal Court for possible war-crimes prosecution.

3. Q: What does the Syrian opposition and its spokesmen believe? Answer: they are wary of it; and some believe it is a sellout.

Senators McCain and Graham  believe that while the President did not formally to agree to two conditions “Russia and Syria sought… a promise on our part not to use military force, and an end to international support for the Syrian opposition” the agreement effectively concedes this in practice.

Without a United Nations Security Council resolution that would threaten the use of force for noncompliance by the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, the two senators said, “this framework agreement is meaningless. Assad will use the months and months afforded to him to delay and deceive the world using every trick in Saddam Hussein’s playbook.”

“Is the message of this agreement that Assad is now our negotiating partner, and that he can go on slaughtering innocent civilians and destabilizing the Middle East using every tool of warfare, so long as he does not use chemical weapons?” the senators asked, concluding: “That is morally and strategically indefensible.”

4. What happens next? Here are there are no clear answers.

Our former rivals, Assad and Putin, are America’s new partners for peace and Iran may soon become part of the talks. The loathesome Assad has once again become a reformer. And Iran, against whose nuclear weapons program the President also drew a Red Line, may soon be part of the overall “solution”. The Guardian, a pretty good indicator of what the Russians might be thinking, has an opinion piece which says, “if the Syrian talks are to progress, the US will have to include Iran. The diplomatic imperatives of the Middle East mean that Iran, Syria’s main ally, has to be invited to the negotiating table.”

Now that Obama has bought into Putin’s road map it is hard to see him wandering off the reservation. It is very difficult to for Obama to strike Iran or Syria while in converse with them. Like it or not Obama is now manacled to his new friends and must sup with them. That view was explicitly articulated by Iran whose “deputy foreign minister said Saturday the United States no longer has a pretext to attack Syria, following a deal struck to eliminate that country’s chemical weapons.”

“The new situation means in fact that any pretext for the United States and certain countries to engage in military action against Syria has been removed,” Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said.

Syria and Iran evidently believe they have a get-out-of-jail card and Shadi Hamid at the Atlantic appears to agree. He writes “the U.S.-Russian Deal on Syria: A Victory for Assad. The agreement struck in Geneva on chemical weapons effectively strengthens the Syrian strongman by removing the threat of American military involvement”. Peter Foster at the Telegraph writes “Barack Obama’s Faustian pact with Vladimir Putin over Syrian chemical weapons brings despair to allies.”

Those allies would include Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey and the Western allies who were astride the original horse before it got changed in mid-stream by Barack Obama.  In other words it includes all those who bought a ticket on a train that is no longer leaving the station. Even Kerry hardly seemed to credit the turn of events.  He has been been forced reverse himself so often that his track resembles that of a drunk demonstrating his sobriety at a DUI police stop. In this latest, Fox news headlined “after strike deal on Syria, Kerry says him calling it impossible was ‘diplomacy'”. It was impossible until moment when Barack Obama proclaimed it was the plan all along!  The “Western-backed” Syrian opposition are vainly channeling Admiral Ackbar, shouting “it’s a trap!”.

The Western-backed Syrian armed opposition on Saturday rejected as a delaying tactic a U.S.-Russian deal to destroy chemical arms stockpiles in the possession of the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

“We don’t recognize the Russian initiative and we think that the Russian and the Syrian regime are playing a game to waste time and to win time for the criminal regime in Damascus,” Gen. Selim Idriss, who heads the rebel Supreme Military Council, told reporters in Istanbul, Turkey.

“We think that our friends in the Western countries and the United States know exactly the main goal of the Russian administration,” he added. “They are trying to find a solution for the murderer regime in Damascus.”

It’s not a trap, it’s a triumph. At least those are the apparent talking points. The rebels should get used to it and change their letterhead to read the “former Western-backed rebels”. Putin has succeeded — with Obama’s unwitting or perhaps witless help — in making the civil war in Syria not about regime change, but about chemical weapons.  It’s no longer about legitimacy nor even who the Syrian people want to rule. It’s become about fastidiousness, an exercise in the etiquette of mayhem.

Soner Cagaptay and Parag Khanna of CNN write that events have left the whole Middle East “reconfigured”.  They write, “just as World War 1 transformed the Middle East by ending the Ottoman rule and creating contemporary nation states, so the Arab Spring has recalibrated this regional system by ushering in a tri-axial Middle East composed of: a Turkey-Kurdish-Muslim Brotherhood (MB) axis; an Iran-Shiite axis; and a Saudi Arabia-pro-status quo monarchies axis.”

In other words America is gone, replaced by this tricycle of strife. And the paternal hand wheeling it down the road is Vladimir Putin’s.  Andrew Sullivan thinks this is proof, if any more were needed, of Barack Obama’s surpassing genius. He writes that America’s ejection is not a bug but a feature; that “Obama, reflecting American public opinion, is perfectly happy to have Putin assume responsibility for the Middle East. Let Russia be drained, bankrupted and exhausted by managing that fractious and decreasingly important part of the world.” In Sullivan’s view Putin is hurting his fist against Obama’s jaw.

But Sullivan doesn’t quite understand that Russia is not going to “manage” the Middle East but raise it up against America. Totalitarians don’t do management. They do conquest.  They do agitation. They do trouble. As for upkeep, Putin will be sending the bill to the White House. He will get Obama to pay for it. When Egypt starves expect the bill to come to Washington. After all, why use “food as a weapon?” Yet when the time comes to kiss the ring, Putin will receive the obeisance of the sheiks while Obama will be sent to the back of the bus, even if America is paying for the bus. That is nothing new. Perhaps Sullivan has never heard of Lenin’s bon mot “when we hang the capitalists they will sell us the rope we use.”  Putin is probably familiar with the phrase:  heck, he probably went back by Time Machine and ghostwrote the original line for Lenin.

It seems given that Obama’s “breakthrough” will result in Assad remaining in power.  Without new patrons the rebels are doomed to dwindle and die, unless they switch to the winning side or convince Saudi Arabia and Turkey to up the ante. Worse, Israel may soon be asked to disarm itself of WMDs just like Syria is supposedly doing — except Israel will be expected to do it for real where Syria need merely pretend. It’s the power of bad example: I’ll be bad while you set the example.

Hezbollah will once again be the power in Lebanon, where its sword of revenge will come out of the scabbard against those who opposed it just when it seemed ready to fall. Most importantly, Iran’s road to becoming a regional nuclear power  has become a superhighway: next stop for Teheran —  the Atomic Bomb.

The Syrian agreement may not in fact be the victory it’s cracked up to be, but rather a complete defeat.  The agreement may become what Obama himself warned against,  that Munich moment. Of the original Hitler later said “our enemies are little worms. I saw them at Munich.” What Putin is writing in his memoirs about Obama who can say? But what Assad is writing is probably easier to guess.

And will Obama’s Syrian agreement be the much desired Peace in Our Time or just a prelude to disaster?

Only time will tell. Kerry may have heard the footsteps of history echoing behind him when he took his victory lap, for never did a man seem so uncertain as the Secretary of State in that triumphant moment. He even managed to quote Reagan as if Ronald’s spirit could ward off the haunting visage of Vladimir Putin. Kerry said:

Ultimately, perhaps more so than anywhere in the world, actions will matter more than words. In the case of the Assad regime, President Reagan’s old adage about “Trust but verify” – “Doveryai no proveryai”, I think, is the saying – that is in need of an update. And we have committed here to a standard that says, “Verify and verify.”

Kerry was right to seek solace in Reagan. Actions are indeed more important than words. Too bad the administration has none of the former but an endless supply of the latter. As for “trust but verify”, that is not the same as that old Leftist strategem: “hope but don’t pray”.

If the situation recalls Munich, it may also conjure the memory of a piece of newspaper doggerel Winston Churchill quoted to illustrate the headlong rush to disaster of his generation. Churchill recited verses which were pregnant with meaning in the context of his time:

“Who is in charge of the clattering train?
The axles creak and the couplings strain,
and the pace is hot and the points are near,
and sleep hath deadened the driver’s ear,
and the signals flash through the night in vain.
For death is in charge of the clattering train.”

Maybe the world will be luckier this time with Obama presiding over a farce rather than a world-tragedy. If Barack is no Franklin, let us hope that Vladimir is no Josef. For after all, with Obama in charge the chances are that the clattering train will either never leave the station or actually run in reverse to a timetable of its own.

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