Monday, September 09, 2013

President Obama May Be About To Achieve His Syria/Chemical Weapons Objectives

Congress is considering a resolution that would authorize the President to use force against Syria for a limited period of time and restrict the force that could be used by excluding ground troops. Recent developments suggest that the resolution will soon be amended. Secretary Kerry stated that one way for the Assad regime to avoid military strikes was to relinquish its chemical weapons stockpile. Apparently Kerry has suggested this in the past to his Russian counterpart, Lavrov, but made little progress in getting Russian agreement, something that is critical to getting Syria to act. Now the Russians are jumping on the idea and Lavrov offered a proposal for Syria's chemical weapons to be turned over to an international body. The Assad regime has given its initial support to the Russian initiative.

It remains to be seen whether either the Russians or Syria are serious about this but the concept is a useful one that could be included in the resolution for the use of military force. For that reason look for the resolution currently under consideration to be be amended to include some form of trigger that would allow Syria to avoid military action by relinquishing its chemical weapons stockpile to international control. How that is worded and what form the trigger will take is yet to be seen. But there is a reasonable possibility that the resolution will take this form in the coming days.

From the beginning of the Syria conflict President Obama has opposed United States intervention. Initially he opposed giving even non-lethal aid to the Syrian rebels and was only committed to aiding the countries that were taking in Syrian refugees. As the pressure from war hawks mounted and as the conflict became more intense he decided to start giving non-lethal aid to the rebels. Then, after the initial reports of possible gas attacks,but which were convincing not sourced well enough to justify a firm response, the President warned Assad against further use and agreed to provide lethal aid to the Syrian rebels. Finally, after the August 21st chemical weapons attacks in Damascus, attacks which the intelligence community gave its highest rating of probability as having been conducted by the Syrian government, the President decided that the only way to deter further use was to launch a limited military strike.

But the goal of the military strike has always been clear - to deter the Assad regime from using chemical weapons, to degrade their ability to use such weapons and to reinforce the international norm against the use of such weapons. While are the goals it was also recognized that a side affect of the military attacks would be to degrade Syria's overall military capabilities and by extension, benefit the Syrian rebels.

The President's attempts to get Congress to pass a resolution authorizing the limited use of force for this limited purpose have been met with considerable opposition. Some of the opposition has been based on totally valid reasons and some has not.

Valid reasons for opposing the resolution include the belief that it will not achieve its objective; general opposition to the use of force under any circumstances; overall war weariness; and the belief that chemical weapons do not deserve special treatment. This reasoning holds that if we were unwilling to act when 100,000 people were killed using bullets and bombs, the death of an additional thousand people through chemical weapons should not change that equation.

Invalid reasons include the position that anything this President proposes must be opposed because of who he is, or that since the resolution does not provide for full scale war against Syria it is insufficient and therefore limited strikes will not be supported.

But with this new development the level and nature of the opposition to a Syria resolution may now change. There will of course be some persons who will continue to oppose any resolution, including one that enables Assad to avoid military action by ceding control over his chemical weapons. But for others it may well make a difference. Those are the people who, notwithstanding their war weariness and their determination to avoid our getting directly involved in the Syrian conflict, believe that chemical weapons truly are different. They believe that it is critical that the United States and the international community do more than pay lip service to the international norm against their use.

In connection with this amended Congressional resolution, there is a likelihood that we will see an effort to pass resolution out of the United Nations Security Council that condemns the use of chemical weapons and establishes a framework for Assad's weapons to be turned over to international control. The United States may also try to see if it can convince the Russians to include a specific condemnation of Assad and the type of trigger that would authorize the use of military force in the event Bashir Assad does not comply. It will be interesting to see if the Russians continue to object to this last element. It is also unknown how the Chinese will respond.

What is arguably most important about this new development is that it will focus all this discussion on chemical weapons and enable the President to achieve his twin objectives of deterring the further use of chemical weapons in Syria and reinforcing the international norm against such weapons.

Friday, September 06, 2013

Assad Gassed His People, Even Opponents Of Syria Resolution Agree. Question Is What To Do

The Senators and Representatives who have seen the classified materials agree that Assad gassed his people. That includes those who are strongly against intervention. The debate is over what if anything should be done.

Here are some samples of statements by opponents of intervention on the question of whether Assad perpetrated the Damascus attacks:

Senator Tom Udall (D-NM)

I want to repeat that I am horrified by what Bashar al-Assad has done to his own people. He has committed a heinous act and a violation of the Geneva Convention no doubt about it. However, I still believe this proposal is the wrong course of action for the United States and its military.

I am voting no because this policy moves the United States toward greater American conflict and increasing regional conflict.

Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT)

Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons against the people of Syria is a human rights atrocity and a blatant violation of international law. It’s impossible to see the horrific images of death and suffering in Syria and not feel compelled to act in some way. But there is not always an American solution to every international crisis. For me, today's vote was a close call, but in the end, I voted no because I believe that the downside risks of military action, both for U.S. interests and the Syrian people, outweigh the potential benefits.

Senator John Barrasso (R-WY)

“Over the last two years, the Assad regime has committed terrible atrocities against thousands of innocent men, women and children in Syria. I join the rest of America in strongly condemning these awful acts of violence.

“This past week, I’ve participated in both open and closed hearings with the Administration about the President’s call for military strikes in Syria. Like most folks back home, I am concerned about the Administration’s willingness to commit to military action without providing an ultimate objective and an overall strategic plan in Syria.

Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-SC)

“I don’t see where any imminent threat to the United States is evident,” he said. “I do believe that chemical weapons were probably used in Syria but I don’t understand and don’t see a way that we involve the United States in this. So I plan on voting no.”

Michael McCall (R-TX)

I think what gives Congress great pause, and the American people great pause, is there's no good outcome here. They don't see a good side versus a bad side. They see Assad as a bad actor who's used chemical weapons. There's no question about that. But then who is the other side? Who are the rebel forces?

Ted Yoho (R-FL)

The use of chemical weapons is deplorable and should be decried as such by the rest of the world, yet for some reason some people think it is the United States alone who must enforce the world’s outrage. The philosophy that the United States should be the world’s police is one that will lead to our own demise.”

The members of the House and Senate of both parties who have seen the materials agree on two things - there was a gas attack on Damascus and Assad's troops did it. They disagree on the response.

This is not Bush and Iraq, and bogus intelligence to support a war that was unjustified even if the intelligence had been accurate. This is a question of Assad using gas increasingly over several months until the last usage was so egregious that some response is warranted.

When earlier uses were suspected but not conclusively confirmed, Assad was warned directly, and through intermediaries like Russia, that he needed to cease. Instead he escalated. The only debate now is what, if anything, that has not already been tried should be done.

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Congressional Letter On Syria AUMF

The following was sent to my Members of Congress, Senator Bennet, Senator Udall and Representative Tipton.

"I urge you to Vote for the Syria Joint Resolution to "Authorize The Limited And Tailored Use Of The United States Armed Forces Against Syria." It is absolutely essential that the United States take action to respond to the use of chemical weapons by Syria. The last time we faced this issue in the Iran-Iraq war we did nothing when Iraq killed tens of thousands of Iranians with chemicals weapons.

To put my position in perspective I view this as analogous to the naked aggression of Iraq against Kuwait, which is why I supported the Gulf War resolution. Similarly, I supported the Afghan resolution because it was a response to aggression. On the other hand I opposed the Iraq AUMF resolution because it was not in response to anything and was based on ridiculous assertions of a future threat to the United States.

I do not believe the United States should be actively engaged in the Syrian Civil War. But I also believe that unless we respond to this use of chemical weapons there will be two consequences. First, Syria will be emboldened and will continue to use chemicals weapons realizing that there will be no consequences. Second, for all intents and purposes there will be no enforceable international norms on any issue moving forward. Rights without remedies are not rights. And prohibitions without penalties are not prohibitions. It is time to make clear that the rules against indecency and inhumanity will be enforced."

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Why Did Assad Use Chemicals? We Finally Have A Plausible Answer

On August 30 I heard an interview on NPR with retired General Jack Keane that had the effect of prospectively fleshing out an important part of Secretary Kerry's presentation that was made a few hours later. I did not write about Keane's NPR interview at first because, although thought provoking, I had never heard it before. While Keane often has good inside information I'm a real skeptic when it comes to his policy judgements and recommendations. But confirmation came for me in Secretary Kerry's speech. With that I think I'm officially off the fence.

In his presentation on Syria Kerry stated,

We know that the regime was specifically determined to rid the Damascus suburbs of the opposition, and it was frustrated that it hadn’t succeeded in doing so.

But the details of what Kerry was saying were not included in his speech. As it turns out that detail had been provided earlier in the morning by Gen. Keane in his NPR interview.

Keane said that Assad's regime has been trying to clear the rebels from this Damascus suburb for some time without success using aircraft. Then a few weeks ago the rebels received a shipment of arms from Saudi Arabia that included shoulder fired antiaircraft weapons. Using those weapons the rebels shot down two of Assad's aircraft. Since then, no aircraft have flown. Instead, Assad tried continual barrages of conventional artillery but had no luck in dislodging the rebels. That is why he decided to use chemical weapons.

I have thought that the use of chemical weapons would be suicidal for Assad and that most regimes are not suicidal. That is why I was highly skeptical that Assad had use these weapons, believing it equally likely that this was a disinformation campaign. This had the feeling of a Syrian version of the Iraq curveball exercise , where the anti-Hussein factions used every conceivable form of deceit to dupe us into invading. However, it is not suicidal to use chemical weapons when they are your only choice in defeating an enemy. That is why Saddam Hussein use them when he was losing the war against Iran and apparently that is why Assad is using them now.

As a general matter I agree that "dead is dead." Generally it makes no difference what the means of your demise is. But chemical weapons are different in the sense that their affects are usually indiscriminate. And in this case they are being used deliberately against civilian targets. Additionally, the method of death can be important if it is one that causes long periods of extended suffering. That is what chemical weapons do. They often don't kill but leave the victims maimed. In the case of blister agents, they also leave the victims horribly disfigured and in terrible agony.

Since Assad has apparently decided that he can use chemical weapons I am now convinced it is incumbent upon someone, anyone, and if no one else, the United States, to tell him no. You are violating international norms and you will be held to account. You must understand that he cannot adopt a strategy of using chemical weapons against his people.

I believe the President makes this decision very reluctantly. I suspect that he may see it as the moral equivalent of Rwanda or maybe trying to undue the precedent of the US ignoring Iraq's use of chemical weapons in the Iran/Iraq War. But while he makes this decision reluctantly, I'm certain he feels he has no other choice.