Syria, seriously?

Oh what a slip of the tongue can do. We used to say “a slip of the lip can sink a ship.” Of course that was way back before the NSA got involved, but you get the idea: in war and international diplomacy, even casual thoughts, if voiced, can be disastrous.

Secretary Kerry has now committed a ludicrous slip that threw a lifeline to Bashar al-Assad. Talking of the need for military action to punish Assad for his use of chemical weapons, Kerry thought out loud and said of course, if Assad would turn over all his chemical weapons, then we wouldn’t need this action.

Wow, a way out, which Russia, China, and Syria promptly grabbed! Russia offered to be the good cop and take these nasty weapons out of Assad’s hands, so that the bad cop (the U.S.) would withdraw its threat to strike Syria. Oh, and one more condition — Russia would like the US to unilaterally commit itself NOT to act against Syria, and only THEN would Assad turn over his arsenal of chemical weapons.

Seriously? If Kerry had been a bit more thoughtful, and said that Syria could avoid a US strike if Assad stepped down and allowed the U.N. to send peacekeeping forces to guard his weapons and negotiate a peace agreement, THEN we would at least have a strategic objective in play. But since when did the transfer of Syria’s massive chemical arsenal to Russia for safekeeping become an objective of US policy? Clearly, Kerry thought he was posing an impossible counter-factual, to underline the importance of US action; I am sure no one is more surprised than he to see his proposal become the basis for voiding US military options.

So how practical is this proposal? Perhaps we should ask the UN nuclear inspectors charged with verifying Iran’s nuclear capabilities. Despite all of Iran’s protestations that its nuclear power program is peaceful and that it has fully cooperated with the UN to verify that, the UN inspectors still complain that cat-and-mouse tactics by Iran, and the possibility of hidden nuclear facilities, prevent it from making a clear determination, even after years of effort. No doubt Syria is sure that with its ally Russia taking primary responsibility, it can dance around restrictions and draw out inspections for years with international guarantees protecting it from US actions.

The Obama administration has now blundered thrice over in dealing with the crisis in Syria. First, it has stayed on the sidelines while killings mounted and Iran and Hezbellah became active participants and Islamist groups took control of many rebel forces. Second, it has tied its hands by publicly declaring it will only intervene in Syria to block the use of chemical weapons, and not to affect the civil war. Then when chemical weapons were used, it handed Syria a way to avoid U.S. actions by suggesting that simply turning over those weapons to Russia would permanently keep the U.S. out of the conflict.

How likely is Assad to divest himself of his chemical weapons? In the words of George Strait: “I got some ocean front property in Arizona. If you’ll buy that, I’ll throw the golden gate in free.” But negotiating over this deal can buy time, especially with Russia leading the way. Meanwhile, thousands more will die. Sometimes, even the smartest people are too clever for their own good.

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About jackgoldstone

Hazel Professor of Public Policy at George Mason University
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2 Responses to Syria, seriously?

  1. Out here on the west coast it’s “loose lips sink ships.”

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