I confess I have been amazed and impressed with the chutzpah behind Russia’s most recent proposal for a US military strike to be forestalled by Syria’s agreement to place its chemical weapons stockpile under international control. And likewise struck by the rather pathetic enthusiasm with which the US government–which until very recently was charging towards some kind of military action and grumbling about the Russians being the pals and protectors of mass murderers–has hailed this as a potential “breakthrough“. (It should be a warning sign when Damascus says that “We fully support Russia’s initiative”.)
Let’s think this through. Accept that Assad either ordered the use of gas or at the very least retrospectively sanctioned it (in case, for example, it was an initiative of his brother Maher, who apparently makes Bashar look like a cuddle-bunny). So Washington says that whereas the 200,000-or-so previous deaths from this civil war were reprehensible, the 400, thousand, however many may have been killed by gas are inexcusable. OK; it may not make sense but the rules of the international system are that gas is Very Bad and so those who use it must be punished. Then, having cranked up the engine of war, readied the cruise missiles that can deliver a relatively safe and relatively accurate strike (admittedly for about $1.4M a pop), the White House suffers an acute crisis of confidence. The Russians have dug in their heels, the Brits, previously always willing to lay blood and treasure on the altar of the “special relationship”, decide that this night they are washing their hair. The Republicans have become born-again peaceniks and don’t propose to give Obama an easy war.
Suddenly, the USA is willing to accept that surrendering the capacity to launch another gas strike is a suitable punishment. In real terms, Damascus loses nothing: no capabilities that it could credibly use again (without making a US strike unavoidable).
That’s a little like my being shot and wounded and saying that it would be quite enough if my would-be assassin loses his gun.
I’ve been deeply skeptical about the value of US military action in Syria, not because I don’t want to see an evil regime swept away (I do), but because I don’t think that an arm’s length military intervention–the only sort this administration appears presently willing to stomach–would do anything but harm in the long run, precipitating a slide into regional anarchy. Cruise missiles blow things up; they do not build functioning, stable states. If Bashar al-Assad “must go” as US figures from Obama down have asserted, then bite the bullet; those cruise missiles can also do a good job of assassination, if need be. If creating a stable and peaceful Syria is that important, then the USA or the international community needs to accept another long and–witness Iraq, Afghanistan, etc–in the short- and medium-term miserable job of “boots on the ground” and “body bags coming home” nation-building.
So on the one hand I suppose I am pleased by this eleventh-hour flip-floppery. But it is the nature of the compromise and the optics that alarm and depress me. I’m honestly not sure how far this is the product of brilliant brinksmanship by Putin and his foreign minister, Lavrov (and in fairness, they have proven a distinctly effective combination, playing an equally distinctive and effective game of creative obstruction), and how far it is a critical weakness in the White House, but it very definitely leaves Putin looking like the victor. A US president unwilling to take a lead and commit himself to what would undoubtedly be a controversial military strike has now been rescued by the very Russian counterpart whom he snubbed on his G20 visit.
Putin will no doubt consider this a victory, and be buoyed by it, rendered more confident. And Putin is not a man to let momentum and an advantage go to waste.