Since I last spoke on Syria, the unthinkable has gone down: international diplomacy. Or at least that’s the fantastical illusion. Where do I begin? For the last two weeks the world has sat waiting for a vote from Congress on whether or not the United States would carry out a military strike against the Syrian government for its use of chemical weapons. Call it a consequence of spontaneity, but in those two weeks the U.S. has done a staggering amount of backtracking. And by the U.S., I mean Obama. At first, his decision to strike Syria appeared unanimous and irreversible as though it would come in the following days or even hours. But then, understanding the negative public perception of a quick- to-war president and taking his cue from British Prime Minister Cameron, Obama called on Congress to approve authorization of a strike.
Years after Obama’s presidency has concluded, someone from his administration with inside knowledge of the situation will someday write a tell-all which will include a passage describing Obama’s deep displeasure in turning to Congress on Syria. He won’t say it now, but Syria is about saving face for the president. When he drew his now infamous “red line,” he was drafting a public promise to the world that his administration would take military action against Syria in the event of chemical weapons. He ignored that red line multiple times since setting it, but the events of August 21 were different. This time, there were widespread visual accounts of the attack on social media and a higher death toll. And so now Obama faces a conundrum: take action or go back on his word. Because that’s how it might seem to those internationally who took his “red line” statement as more than just empty rhetoric. And a president who wants to have some political life after his or her tenure ends can’t look like a liar.
But it’s not that easy once you involve Congress. Now, Obama faces defeat and embarrassment as PM Cameron faced when Parliament struck down a proposed British strike on Syria. And that is exactly why the news I woke up to this morning is such a poignant moment in United States foreign policy that it drove me once again to blog.
With Congressional approval seeming a long shot over the last few days, the United States began diplomatic talks with Syrian President Assad and his fierce ally Russian President Putin. The talks positively escalated to the point where President Obama took to network news last Tuesday night for a 15-min nonsensical speech that begged Congress to delay its vote on a strike. And so on Sept. 14, the United States reached a diplomatic deal with Russia that involves the removal and destruction of all of Syria’s chemical weapons by 2014. Though the exact timeline is fuzzy, Syria has been given a week to declare all of its chemical weapons and until the middle of next year to remove them completely.
I see this as a deal with the devil, and I don’t say that because of any personal feelings or attitudes toward Russia. I say that because this is a seedy deal with two dictators who have insurmountable blood on their hands. I’m also not saying I’ve ever been in favor of a military strike. I don’t like any of it. This deal, to me, seems naive on the part of the United States and the United Nations Security Council, which has now been given more authority in authorizing a military strike. The Russian government has been a longtime weapons supplier to Syria and, whether or not that includes chemical arms, I leave up to you to form your own conclusions. For the U.S. government to put its faith in the country that’s essentially been funding the Syrian Civil War to turn around and then put a dent in that war’s progress by removing weapons that it put there in the first place is beyond comprehension. It’s always been in Russia’s best interest for the war to carry on in Syria and chemical warfare sped up its pace. Please, don’t let Putin’s NYT op-ed published last week fool you into thinking he cares about the people of Syria. Russia would like nothing more than to see Syria fall. The United States knows that, but the president’s been backed into a corner that he built for himself.
And if the international community really believes the Syrian regime will truthfully declare its chemical weapons, it hasn’t been paying attention. Up until about three days ago, Assad claimed to know nothing about chemical weapons in his country at all, let alone having any involvement in their use. Asking that same man to accurately turn over his beloved sarin and whatever else he’s got in his arsenal is asking for him to admit fault as a leader and that’s just not going to happen. In all the reports I’ve read, this deal means once again sending international inspectors into Syria to monitor the chemical weapons’ removal. They won’t make it out alive. I’ve got one finger hovering over the delete button—I hate typing those words. But there’s no way the regime will allow it. And that means, no matter how much Obama, Secretary Kerry, or any of the other major players try to avoid it, military action will happen. But I so, so want to be wrong. I hope I am wrong and that, for once, diplomacy succeeds. It happens maybe 10 times per century. This might be one of them.
But possibly the worst part of this deal is it ignores all sense of accountability. So the chemical weapons are gone and the civil war rages on for years to come. This doesn’t change anything. Thousands died before sarin nerve gas was used and thousands will die after its use, including children. What this does is set a dangerous precedent that it’s okay to commit mass genocide and and transform civilians into refugees in their own country so long as you do it without chemical weapons. The Syrian regime will still have its guns, its bombs, its weapons for torture, and it will still have the anatomy to commit rape. And it’s fine because that’s the way of the world. Chemical warfare is war at desperate extreme measures, used when one side reaches its breaking point and wants to complete extermination. Everything else is just business as usual, and so it will continue until that ultimate goal is met either way.
As my good friend puts it: removing chemical weapons won’t help Syrians sleep any easier at night, if at all. So, really, what does this solve?