Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Assad and Putin have played the world for fools

While all of the screeching, name-calling, and phony-narrative reciting continues in Washington, D.C over Obamacare and the debt ceiling, most pundits and politicians have completely lost sight of--if not wholly forgotten--the situation in Syria. Remember that? Where Assad's forces used chemical weapons against civilians, thereby crossing Obama's "red line"? Where John Kerry made a sarcastic remark that somehow became the Administration's official policy? Where Putin stepped in and wrested control of the situation from Obama with a mere flick of his wrist?

So what's the current story in Syria? Prior to the use of chemical weapons by Assad's forces, the civil war in Syria appeared to be going against the "rightful" ruler. Al Qaeda-linked forces were growing, Assad appeared to be on less and less secure footing. Many predicted he would be forced to flee the country in the near future. But now, after the gassing of his own people, Assad has effectively stabilized his position, at least for the foreseeable future:
In a few short weeks, the push to eliminate Syria's chemical weapons under international supervision has, in the view of many, in effect supplanted the goal of ousting Assad.

On Monday, Syria formally became the 190th nation to sign on to the Chemical Weapons Convention, the international treaty outlawing the use and production of such arms.

Assad's surprise decision to allow the destruction of his chemical arsenal has "made a dent in the interventionist narrative that he's an uncontrollable madman who can't recognize diplomacy if it hit him in the face," said Ramzy Mardini, an analyst based in Amman, Jordan. "That growing reality is favoring Assad, not the opposition."

The turnaround has caused profound consternation among Syrian opposition figures and regional powers such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia that have strongly backed the rebels.
In order for inspections to proceed, there needs to be relative calm. This means rebel action against Assad's forces that might interfere with these inspections will have to be discouraged, perhaps even by Russian forces. That's the card Obama has naively given to Putin. Plus, rebel strongholds are subject to these inspections as well, a point lost on the Administration it would seem. For this means forcing the rebel forces to not only reveal aspects of their organization, but also suspend some operations. Hands up, who thinks Assad has too much honor to take advantage of such a situation? Yeah, that's what I thought.

The Administration continues to insist that Assad's removal must be a part of any long-term peace negotiations in Syria. That's great. But the Administration has essentially surrendered it's ability to be a significant player in such negotiations. And rightly so. After all, Obama promised "enormous consequences" for Syria if it stepped over the red line. Apparently, those "enormous consequences" include providing Assad with a firmer hold on power. Beyond that, what? Easy access to Russian support, both logistic and possibly military? Brilliant.

I talked about the situation in Cyprus (the banking collapse) as a potential "linchpin" back in March of this year, noting how it might affect the Syrian civil war:
The EU's actions against Cyprus are about economics, about dealing with the financial crisis that has afflicted the EU for several years now. But the repercussions of these actions are not limited to the sphere of economics, alone. What about politically? Germany, even as it pushed for the one off levy, is very much opposed to lifting the arms embargo against Syria. Yet both the embargo and the levy bear the stamp of the EU as a whole. Assuming the levy eventually goes through, how will this affect Russian decisions with regard to Syria? It has--up to this point--balked at supplying the Syrian government with advanced fighter jets and missiles.

Suppose it changes its tune in this regard? Really, it seems like almost a given that it will if the levy goes through. Putin is certainly not going to be looking for a negotiating table over Syria anytime soon. And if France pushes forward with supplying the rebels? If Obama is true to his word on the issue of chemical weapons? A proxy war in Syria is the end result. And for the Middle East as a whole, that means what? For the world?
At the time, I had no way of knowing that Obama would basically hand over the whole thing to Putin, would turn tail and run after Syria used chemical weapons. But now that this has come to pass, I can update my prognostications. The proxy war in Syria looks to be unlikely. While that might seem like a good thing, the cost of avoiding it is the reestablishment of Russia as a truly major player in the Middle East, the creation of a large armed force of al Qaeda fighters who could go anywhere if pushed out of Syria (like Turkey, maybe), and a revival of authoritarian regimes throughout the region as a whole. Tough to say which scenario is worse, though I have to believe that a serious response from the Administration would have been the most correct move, though I recognize it would likely have taken the "limited strike" option, making my hopes moot.

My fortune-telling aside, what we most definitely have now is a bad situation for anti-Assad forces, a de-fanged United States, and a rising tide of Russian influence in the Middle East. But hey, those health insurance exchanges are now open for business...

Cheers, all.

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