Thursday, September 12, 2013

On the brink of the brink

IF THE EVENTS of the last 36 hours or so, and the consequence of events that took place 12 years ago, have taught us anything, it’s that the United States may finally be older and wiser about how it gets into war. In a minute, everything’s changed on the Syria crisis – from the process of diplomacy to the prospect of military force – with Russia in the uncharacteristic position of carrying the diplomatic ball.

In a minute the United States has stepped back from the edge of some kind of military intervention into a kind of twilight zone of diplomacy with the strangest of bedfellows. We’re on the brink of the brink now; where we go next may depend on what happens in Geneva.

What began as an offhand remark made by Secretary of State John Kerry in London on Sept. 9 has taken on a life of its own. After meeting with British Foreign Secretary William Hague, Kerry was asked by a CBS News reporter what could possibly be done to avert military strikes on Syria?

Thus offered a chance to build a wish list, Kerry offhandedly said, “sure, he could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week — turn it over, all of it, without delay and allow the full and total accounting. But he isn't about to do it, and it can't be done.”

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Be careful what you appear to wish for: Some time later, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov got all over it, floating a proposal to put Syria's chemical stockpile under international control.

It got better. The next day Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem met with Lavrov and released a statement: “Yesterday we held a round of very fruitful negotiations with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and he put forward an initiative regarding chemical weapons. Already in the evening we accepted Russia’s initiative.”

That initiative includes Syria become a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention, the global compact that bars the use of toxic and chemical agents in war.

President Obama, forced into a reactive crouch by nothing more or less than the swiftness of events, addressed the nation on Tuesday, basically reiterating what he’d been saying: plans for a military strike against Syria were still in the works. But this was tweaked to accommodate mention of what he called “some encouraging signs” from the day before: the statements made by Lavrov and Muallem.

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THEN, RUSSIAN President Vladimir Putin countered Obama’s hopeful caution with a blind-side shot. Feelin’ his new role as global peacemaker, Putin weighed in with an op-ed in today’s New York Times:

“No matter how targeted the strikes or how sophisticated the weapons, civilian casualties are inevitable, including the elderly and children, whom the strikes are meant to protect. ...

“We must stop using the language of force and return to the path of civilized diplomatic and political settlement.

“A new opportunity to avoid military action has emerged in the past few days. The United States, Russia and all members of the international community must take advantage of the Syrian government’s willingness to place its chemical arsenal under international control for subsequent destruction. ...

“I welcome the president’s interest in continuing the dialogue with Russia on Syria.”

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Putin, acting in a marked departure from his KGB instincts, thus made his bid to take the high ground on the evolving Syria situation. But for all his welcome pacifist intentions, we’re well advised not to put Putin up for the Nobel Peace Prize just yet.

The Russian president’s bid for a nonlethal solution in Syria has to be measured against Russia’s relationship with Syria — a relationship that has for years included arms and agricultural exports from Moscow to the Assad regime. And a relationship that once took great pains to conceal its existence: In July 2012 the Financial Times reported that “a Russian-owned ship carrying refurbished helicopters and other weapons for Syria was forced to turn back after a British-based insurer scrapped its cover.”

Russia clearly has much invested in Syria; by extension, it’s got a lot to lose if this deal goes south. This may be one time when Putin the spymaster yields the floor to Putin the statesman. It should be. The stakes are too high for Russia and Syria for this not to be a serious proposal; that fact puts the burden squarely on Putin and the Assad regime to deliver on what they’ve proposed.

Muallem called the agreement something intended to “pull the rug from under the feet of American aggression.” That only works if the Russians and Syrians do what they said they’d do.

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ANY POSSIBLE deal to head off a military intervention appears to have the risk of falling apart over how the deal is implemented. There’s hand-wringing going on over how Syria’s various chemical weapons sites, scattered through a country about the size of Washington state, would be secured and their 1,000 tons of sulfur mustard gas, VX and sarin accounted for and destroyed. A lot of the concern suggests the job of doing this process would fall to the international monitors — led by the United Nations inspectors — sprinting around Syria to check on chem-weapon sites in the hot zones of the most dangerous active civil conflict on earth.

But this is where we find out how serious the Russians and the Syrians really are. Because if the pledge of Syria to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention is to mean anything in operational terms, Syria and its broker Russia have to play an active role in securing and shutting down those chem-weapon sites. The first and obvious way of doing this is repurposing some of the Syrian armed forces, tasking them with a new and non-offensive responsibility, borne of a change in the geopolitical situation.

The safest way of doing this, of course, is after the establishment of a cease-fire. Is Assad willing to go that far? Is Putin willing to be the go-between who helps get this done?

Kerry is meeting with Lavrov today in Geneva to hash this out. Over the last three days, we’ve been led to believe that Russia and Syria now wield some masterstroke of diplomatic courage. In Geneva, we may find out if they’re willing to hold their own feet to the very fire they started.

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All of this works to make the status of the United States Senate resolution something close to null and void. Oh, the president’s speech on Tuesday night held tight to the option of a military strike against Damascus. “It’s too early to tell whether this offer will succeed, and any agreement must verify that the Assad regime keeps its commitments,” Obama said.

But the Russia-Syria gambit changes the situation. The United States may have used the threat of the use of force to get the Syrian regime to come this far, but now, ironically, the threat of force loses its leverage.

With draft resolutions being debated at the UN, the Syrians apparently offering a full inventory of their CBW stockpiles, and the vote in Congress on the resolution pushed back for who knows how long, the resolution for the moment is, practically speaking, a dead issue. In the middle of conciliatory statements, diplomatic advances – and possible breakthroughs – a military strike, or even consideration of one, doesn’t make any sense. Right now, anyway.

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THERE’S a holistic way of looking at this, one that lawmakers and analysts have been painstakingly resisting, as they isolate the issue of chemical weapons from the wider matter of the Syrian civil war, which has killed perhaps as many as 120,000 people.

On Wednesday, Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) told The Hill that he and Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) intend to introduce their own fall-back version of a use-of-force resolution.

The Hill reported that “[t]he Van Hollen/Connolly proposal would authorize Obama to use limited force in Syria if the regime uses chemical weapons again, if Obama determines there's no credible plan for confiscating Syria's chemical cache or if Assad fails to sign the international convention condemning chemical weapons.”

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But Van Hollen said that “[t]he purpose of any military action we take is not about regime change with Assad, but with respect to deterring the future use of chemical weapons.”

It’s this artificial division of cause and effect that’s hard to understand. Syria’s use of chemical weapons isn’t easily separated from Syria’s civil war — it’s not separated from that war at all. The prosecution of that 30-month-long war has included the previous use of chemical agents by the Assad regime.

They’ve been part of the arsenal by which the Syrian government conducts that war. If that part of the regime’s arsenal is eliminated, it works by default, however incrementally, to the advantage of those seeking to overthrow the regime.

And likewise, if some of the rebel factions have used chemical weapons on their side, as some have claimed, they’d seem to be less inclined to do so in the future — at the risk of incurring the same international scorn now heaped on the regime.

Either way, taking chem weapons out of the equation would have an implicit impact on the civil war, one that U.S. lawmakers don’t feel comfortable talking about for attribution. (Maybe they’ll be more comfortable going on the record about what NBC News is reporting this morning — that the CIA is now equipping the Syrian rebels with small-arms weapons).

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AND SO ... everything’s in play now, even the old diplomatic niceties have been dispensed with. In recent days we’ve seen some silly assessments of Kerry’s comments in London. Andrew Sullivan, who ought to know better, called them “gaffes” in a recent column.

“I’d have thought a pretty basic qualification for being secretary of state is not to air hypothetical ideas in a public forum that the US does not intend to pursue,” Sullivan offered in The Dish, by way of noting what he called “Kerry’s incompetence.”

But that’s just wrong. What Kerry said was hardly a “gaffe.” It was a response to an obvious hypothetical from a reporter, one that no one expected to be pursued — until it was. What transpired from there was a cascade of so-far fortuitous events; the source of that cascade ventured an opinion that hardly descends to being an indication of “incompetence.”

What’s happening, almost too fast to keep track of, is a lesson in real diplomacy according to our fractious 21st century: Real diplomacy isn’t always down at the UN amid prepared statements and talking points. It’s not always that decorous, if it ever was. Like sausage-making, diplomacy has always been a messy, chaotic process. We’re now discovering how that recipe yields to improvisation. We’ll watch to see if that improvisation yields results.

Image credits: Kerry: Alastair Grant/Reuters. Lavrov: via New York Times logo: © 2013 The New York Times Company. Putin: Sergei Guneyev for TIME. Obama: Associated Press. Wild boar sausage making:

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