I would appear that the Obama administration might have lucked into an out on Syria, but probably not. While the recent possibility of a Russian-coordinated transfer of chemical weapons into international control would be an very successful outcome for the president, there are several things that trouble me.
First, why would Syria agree to transfer the weapons? I can see why it might agree to say it will transfer them, but the actual transfer is something else. Assad realizes that for him and many of his backers this is a fight to the death. He knows what happened to Gaddafi. After two years of brutal warfare and over 100,000 dead, the cost to him of losing is pretty plain. He dies. All his family dies. All his top supporters die. And a significant portion of the Alawite community either dies or goes into exile. He strikes me as the type of guy that, when push comes to shove, takes as many of the opposition and those that supported him out with him.
The Administration’s hope for a negotiated settlement seems naive. We are way past that moment and I suspect that, even if Assad were losing on the battlefield, the Russians would not give him a safe haven. This will not be solved until Assad either wins or dies.
Second, why would Russia want to help Obama out of the corner he as put himself in? Neither they nor the Assad regime can be that confident that the tide of the war has turned enough to ensure their victory. Nor is it clear that a U.S. strike would have seriously degraded his capabilities. Doe Putin strike you as a guy who has our back?
Maybe most important, how does the transfer of weapons actually work? How do we ensure that, in the midst of war, Assad discloses all his weapons? How do we, again in the midst of war, safely handle and move them? And finally, what do we do with them? Although flying them out into a safe country for disposal might make the most sense, no country, including ours probably wants to take that risk. So we either guard them in Syria or destroy them there. Either way it is not exactly easy.
Lastly, how exactly did the firm threat of a strike pressure the regime and why postpone the Congressional vote? The obvious answer to the second half of that question was that Obama was apparently going to lose it. But if everyone knew that, why would Syria fear a strike unless Obama was going to order one even if Congress failed to approve it? In which case, why ask for a vote in the first place? I think the prospect of a negotiated solution might actually have made the vote closer as Congress tried to give the President more leverage. Apparently Obama believes that the failure of negotiations will change the minds of Congress and voters. I doubt it.
I suspect Obama wishes he had not drawn the red line. Having watched silently as a brutal dictator mowed down tens of thousand of his people with every weapon available except chemical weapons, it is a little hard to say that the U.S. now has a vital interest in avenging roughly a thousand deaths because they died differently or that this vengeance should be decisive, but not too decisive. The President should get Congress’ support on this vote, but it is not because Obama has put forward a sensible policy in Syria or outlined intelligent goals for a strike. It is because, contrary to what Obama said in his speech, the U.S. is the world’s policeman. We cannot stop every crime, nor should we try. But no group of countries seems capable of solving any of the world’s major problems unless we lead the way. We derive tremendous benefits from this role and when we abandon it, the world and we suffer. It must mean something if the president draws a line in the sand, even if it is not a well-thought out one and even if his response is questionable.
There was a time long ago when decisive action by Obama might have tipped the balance in Syria and produced an outcome similar to those in Tunisia and Libya. That was before the involvement of Islamic extremists, before Hezbollah’s help, before 100,000 dead. Neither country is stable now, but both are preferable to the continuation of a brutal Assad-led regime hostile to the United States. Doing so might have continued the momentum into Iran. But the administration seemed more concerned with preserving the stability of Bahrain, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia than with seizing an historic opportunity to reshape the strategic map. Had we been this timid during the fall of the Soviet Union we would be facing a much different world.