Why It’s Big

September 10, 2013 4:37 a.m.

I think many of us who were watching the build-up to the Syria vote are still trying to get our heads around just what happened yesterday. And I strongly suspect that a lot of folks at the White House are doing the same, though perhaps we’ll find out differently as the story develops. But whether there was more of a plan than we think or this was just a clunky deus ex machina interrupting a play we all knew the end of, yesterday’s developments were actually a very big deal, for reasons I tried to sketch out early yesterday.

Let’s set aside for the moment the domestic political implications for Obama, that this new track (at least for the moment) gets him out of a painful climb-down or congressional defeat.What we were debating yesterday was a series of punitive strikes to ‘deter’ future use of chemical weapons and perhaps ‘degrade’ Assad’s chemical weapons capacity. What we’re talking about now is turning those weapons over to international control – probably under some sort of UN aegis – and putting them on a path toward destruction. There’s no question, if your issue is chemical weapons, the latter is the better outcome. Not just in terms of the Assad regime’s potential future use of these weapons but custody of them in the aftermath of the regime’s possible fall.

The rejoinder might be, “Yeah, that would be great. But we’re trusting the Russians and the Syrians to help us do that?” That’s the wrong way to look at it. Don’t look at the offer but the trajectory of events it puts in place. Russia coming forth with this proposal puts in motion a chain of events which totally reshuffles deck internationally in a way that is much more favorable to the US and to the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons capacity. The Russians (and Chinese) Security Council veto has always been the key variable in this drama. But Russia has proposed this course. The White House quickly floated it past UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. He wants to bring this before the Security Council. So that will happen. And it will be extremely difficult for the Russians to veto it.

The key to understand is that this starts a UN Security Council process that probably won’t be vetoed (the Chinese being the wildcard). Soon you’ll have some sort of force on the ground in country inspecting and securing these weapons or knocking at the door of an isolated and recalcitrant Syrian regime.

Now yesterday TPM Reader MH said it was a golden opportunity even though he thought there was no way the Syrians would ever finally agree …

It allows the entire framework of the discussion to be changed in favor of the international position, it allows a fresh discussion in the UNSC (where, as you point out, Russia or China will have to slow it down or derail it), and it really changes nothing because the al-Assad regime won’t accept it. They’re in a death struggle for survival – their global approval ratings are the least of their challenges, and with Saudi, Turkey and Israel making various threatening noises, Assad and his brother need a big stick to try to deter more aggressive action.

So now a strike, if one actually comes to pass, can be framed not only to punish the regime and deter future CW releases, but also to reinforce international demands that he disarm…

It certainly could end up this way, changing the equation so that we come back to some sort of military confrontation when the Syrians balk. At a minimum that would put the US in a better position than it already was (now with a UN resolution and more allies) and give the White House a chance to avoid the box it was in 24 hours ago.

But maybe they don’t balk and they do allow some sort of international force to secure and eventually destroy its chemical stockpiles. As I said above, that’s a far better outcome than a small strike that left Assad in power and probably able to use chemical weapons again if he chose.

But here’s the additional factor – and a positive one. Having some sort of UN-sanctioned force, armed or not, come into your country in the middle of a Civil War and secure parts of your military arsenal amounts to a form of international receivership, albeit a relatively minor one. For a regime that rules by force that’s deep blow to legitimacy and the morale of regime supporters, particularly, I would think, in the Army. It also likely emboldens neighbors. Once that kind of internationalization takes place, other kinds of atrocities also come up for review. Yes, it prevents a US military strike (which wouldn’t have endangered the regime itself anyway). But it fundamentally weakens Assad’s regime and at a minimum puts the conflict on a path to a negotiated or imposed settlement. There’s a reason countries fight internationalization of conflicts and minor tramplings of sovereignty. It’s a usually a one way trip. You don’t go back.

Syria this morning says it’s agreed to the Russian proposal. But none of this depends on Syrian or Russian good faith. Twenty four hours ago, the US had little if any leverage. No Security Council or even NATO cover, faltering domestic support, determined Russian meddling. Now we have a good plan which the Russians have locked themselves into supporting. That means we’ll quite likely have a Security Council resolution mandating this disarmament. So suddenly we’ll be pushing a Security Council resolution, which other governments will almost certainly be more eager to get behind. If the Russians or the Syrians balk, we have that leverage to apply, to make them the odd men out on the international stage rather than us.

The one factor I haven’t addressed here is China. Do the Chinese block this with their vote, in the absence of the Russians? I don’t see that happening. The calculus of isolation versus gain seems off to me. But I’m far from an expert on China. So I’d be curious to hear people more knowledgable about Chinese politics give me their read on that.

In any case, yesterday the US was isolated abroad and hobbled at home. Today there’s a viable plan the outcome of which would be good in itself. And if it falters, it’s a problem for the Russians much more than us.

Masthead Masthead
Founder & Editor-in-Chief:
Executive Editor:
Managing Editor:
Senior Editor:
Special Projects Editor:
Investigations Desk:
Senior Newswriter:
Editor at Large:
General Manager & General Counsel:
Head of Product:
Director of Technology:
Publishing Associate:
Front-End Developer:
Senior Designer: