During his uncommonly long address to the UN Sept. 24 — which focused almost entirely on justifying all aspects of U.S. foreign and military policy in the Middle East — Obama stressed: “We will be engaged in the region for the long haul” because “the hard work of forging freedom and democracy is the task of a generation.”
“The United States,” he continued, “is prepared to use all elements of our power, including military force, to secure these core interests in the region.” They included (1) “external aggression against our allies and partners;” to (2) “ensure the free flow of energy from the region to the world;” to (3) “dismantle terrorist networks that threaten our people;” and to (4) prevent “the development or use of weapons of mass destruction.”
By “partners” (1) Obama means Israel and Arab countries that serve U.S. interests. “Free flow of energy” (2) evidently means Washington can cut Tehran’s flow by 50% through the use of sanctions, and by grossly limiting Iraq’s capacity to sell oil between 1991-2003, then obliging Baghdad to denationalize Iraq’s petroleum resources. By dismantling terrorist networks (3) — as in Afghanistan for the last 12 years, or in Syria against al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra fighting against the Assad government, or against the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, which is fighting Shia and Shia-related regimes in Iraq and Syria. Preventing nuclear weapons (4) evidently means concealing that Israel is a major nuclear power and opposing the idea — put forward by Iraq — of making the Middle East a nuclear free zone.
Everything is still in flux, but it is possible to trace the incredible course of events that have transpired so far since mid-August, beginning with Syria, then going on to growth of jihadism and other matters.
Just as Obama was reaching to pull the trigger of war, two things occurred to stay his hand:
1. Obama was demanding to attack Syria because he had publicly established a so-called “red line” against the use of chemical warfare by Assad. The president and his more hawkish advisors evidently believed the U.S. would appear weak if it did not retaliate with violence. As soon as attack plans were made public, the criticism began — at first mostly from the peace movement, which staged many protests across the country, but soon became a popular crescendo throughout the nation.
The White House tried to turn the tide by arranging for Obama to speak to Congress Sept. 10 when it returned from vacation but the opposition mounted. Eventually Kerry — Obama’s passionate public advocate for war — toned down his inflammatory rhetoric to the point of promising “an unbelievably small” act of retaliation.
But the majority of the American people intervened with a loud “No! Another war in the Middle East was not acceptable, at least now. And for the first time in decades of America’s wars of choice, Democrats and Republicans in Congress acted on behalf of the people and let Obama know he may well fail to obtain congressional approval.
Evidently with no way out, Obama decided to face Congress anyway in the vague hope that he could win enough votes from loyalist Democrats and Republican war hawks to engage in a quick war against Syria. It was an enormous political risk.
2. At precisely that moment there materialized a deus ex machina in unlikely personage to extricate the American leader from a serious dilemma of his own making. In the words of the New York Times: “President Obama awoke up Monday (Sept. 9) facing a Congressional defeat that many in both parties believed could hobble his presidency. And by the end of the day, he found himself in the odd position of relying on his Russian counterpart, Vladimir V. Putin, of all people, to bail him out.”
A month earlier Obama aborted a planned summit with Putin “given our lack of progress” on many issues and “Russia’s disappointing decision to grant Edward Snowden temporary asylum.” Bloomberg news reported: “From the Russian perspective, it’s a bit of a joke. One freshly minted Russian witticism, portrayed the U.S. president as a jilted suitor: ‘Obama won’t see Putin because Putin is already seeing Snowden.’” Humor aside, Putin can now mark “paid” to this debt, whether or not Obama agrees.
The president grabbed Putin’s offering of the Damascus government’s willingness to transfer its entire chemical war arsenal to international control and ran with it. Obama’s biggest worry wasn’t that Assad may use such weapons (which the Syrian leader kept to ward off a possible Israeli attack) but that they may fall into the hands of the ever larger jihadist element of the resistance.
Putin devised a plan based on an offhand non-binding comment from Kerry that Assad could avoid war if he destroyed his chemical weapons. Then Putin ran with it — evidently first consulting with Obama at the G20 summit in St. Petersburg on September 5-6, and then dealing with the Syrians.
According to journalist Robert Fisk in a Sept. 22 article in the Independent (UK), Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem received an urgent summons to Moscow Sept 7. He and his delegation met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov the morning of Sept. 9, evidently not knowing what was up the Kremlin’s sleeve but hoping it was a reprieve from bombing. Assad appears nonchalant now, but he was worried about an attack until Obama himself began to minimize the size of the effort to gain public approval.
During the discussion, Muallem stated Syria’s position: “If the real reason for the proposed aggression against Syria was the chemicals, then diplomatic means have not been exhausted.” Then according to Fisk: “Lavrov broke off the conversation by telling Muallem that he was going at once to see President Putin at the Kremlin. ‘I will get back to you,’ he peremptorily told the Syrians…. At 5 p.m. Lavrov called Muallem. They should meet in an hour. There was to be a press conference.”
“Now Lavrov told Muallem of Putin’s deal: all Syria’s chemical weapons to be monitored, details handed over within days, all stocks to be under international control within a year. And the Russians would be most grateful if Muallem – at a press conference that evening – would be good enough to agree. Muallem called Damascus. He talked to Assad. He agreed. And so a long-faced, exhausted Muallem appeared in front of the world’s television cameras – apparently almost overwhelmed with exhaustion – to “say yes….
“Afterwards,” Fisk wrote, “Muallem told Lavrov that the agreement took from Syria its ‘No 1’ weapon. And Lavrov replied: ‘Your best weapon is us.’”
Obama welcomed the last minute news and changed the text of his speech to Congress the next day from justifying a bombing campaign to explaining the agreement Putin had contrived. The last time Obama had spoken to Putin was at the G20 meeting, according to Asia Times correspondent M. K. Bhadrakumar, who suggested Obama’s “understanding of the resolution probably needed a clarification by Lavrov on Russian state television the next day.”
The upshot is that both Obama and Assad got reprieves, thanks to Putin’s extraordinarily adept deadline diplomacy. He ran the entire show.
Commenting on Putin’s role, George Friedman of Stratfor Global Intelligence wrote Sept.17: “The most important outcome globally is that the Russians sat with the Americans as equals for the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union. In fact, the Russians sat as mentors, positioning themselves as appearing to instruct the immature Americans in crisis management. To that end, Putin’s op-ed in The NewYork Times was brilliant.”
On Sept. 27, the Security Council voted to approve a resolution requiring Syria to eliminate its chemical weapons. All 15 members of the U.N. Security Council voted unanimously to approve the measure, which will impose binding obligations on the Syrian government to destroy its chemical weapons, but at Russian insistence it does not threaten military action should anything go wrong. That would require a separate resolution.
China usually joins Russia in the UN Security Council on issues pertaining to Syria, as it does regarding Iran, much to Washington’s chagrin. “China has been intensely critical of proposed U.S. military action in Syria,” writes David Cohn in China Brief Sept. 23. “Unlike Russia, China does not appear to believe that it has any direct interests in the issue, and seems more concerned with upholding the principle of unlimited sovereignty in internal affairs.”
Meanwhile, of course, the slaughter goes on in Syria. So far over 100,000 people have been killed and millions displaced. The media and many opponents of the Syrian government often accuse Assad of killing 100,000 of his own civilians, but the situation is bad enough without such exaggerations. According to an article by Micah Zenko in Foreign Policy Sept. 17, based on figures from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), the breakdown for deaths is: Civilians, 40,146; Rebels 21,850; Pro-regime army and government militia, 45,469; Hezbollah members 171; unidentified, 2,726. Total 110,371.