COLUMN: US averts war, Russia gives up an ally

Last week, the same day the Bashar al-Assad-Charlie Rose interview aired, in which Assad chucklingly denied knowledge of Syria’s chemical weapon stockpile, US Secretary of State John Kerry declared out loud that if Syria turned over its entire stockpile to international authorities, a missile campaign against Assad’s country could still be stopped. This peace branch was immediately pounced upon by Russia: yes, we think Syria would be willing to turn its chemical stockpile over to international authorities to avert a bombing campaign against the regime.

Russia’s actions (1) amounted to an admission of what Assad was unwilling to admit: in fact, Syria does have chemical weapons; (2) acknowledged there is a compelling global reason for the US and France to hold Syria accountable for these weapons, especially but perhaps not solely as a result of Assad’s use of them against civilian populations; and (3) suggested that Russia was willing to severely damage the weaponization of a main ally, as a way of ensuring their guy — Assad — stay in office.

This was Russia taking a bad outcome, in order to take off the table an even worse outcome: regime-change. This was the US getting a great outcome (Syria turning over their chemical weapons, sans war), in place of a worse outcome (a bombing campaign), that could turn out to be a very, very bad outcome: a bombing campaign would be highly unlikely to do any damage to Syria’s stockpile; would, by Obama’s admission, have nothing to do with ridding the world of Assad; and could, in the end, strengthen Assad as he survives the rubble, chemical weapons in hand.

In sum: The United States won, Russia lost, Syria is severely damaged. And this is objectively the case despite the prevalence of noise shouting otherwise. If you disagree, engage in the following thought exercise. Consider the hypothetical equivalent, in which Russia threatens to bomb Israel, and the US counters not by declaring an unwavering and full defense, but instead first acknowledges and then offers Israel’s nuclear weapons as a way out. In this hypothetical, Russia would have won, US would have lost, and Israel would have been badly damaged. But that’s just a hypothetical. In the actual present case, the damage will be inflicted upon Russia and one of its main allies.

US interests were furthered here in another way too, beyond the damage done to two adversaries. US interests were also furthered by being able to avert war altogether (at least so far; I hold open the possibility this “deal” does not itself take future war off the table; the journalist Ryan Lizza makes this argument here and here).

Indeed, the only intellectually objective criticism of Obama (and no, I don’t count the criticism that Obama “appears” to be bungling this, that he “appears” to be in over his head, that he “appears” to be this and that, to be remotely intellectually objective. Foreign policy is done behind closed doors, and neither you nor I have any real access to what is really going on. Thus, we have to debate outcomes, not appearances) can come from those who want regime-change on the table. Who want an all-out war. Who want to continue the neoconservative vision of toppling regimes in Afghanistan, then Iraq, then Syria, then Iran, then Saudi Arabia. The only criticism of Obama is he is willingly preventing this vision from going forward, even as an opportunity (i.e. a justification) presents itself.

I do not share this criticism; an all-out, soldiers-on-the-ground war for regime-change is not my preferred means, not because there is any reason to defend Assad, but because (1) success in this kind of regime-change war in the Middle East has proven to be fleeting; and (2) who or what replaces Assad?

I admit that advocacy of “regime-change” is at least a position from which to criticize Obama, unlike the empirically foundation-less accusation he “appears” to have been outwitted by Putin.

That is not to say “regime-change” is a good position from which to criticize the President. Lest we forget what happened after the US toppled Saddam and thereon owned Baghdad, I will quote at length the stunning 2005 report by Patrick Cockburn in the New Left Review (behind a paywall, unfortunately), which shows with expertise the inarguable failures and unprepared-for obstacles of the last attempt by the US at regime-change. The details should bring back memories, and cut off at the knees the only actual position from which to criticize the outcome currently being negotiated.

I first went to Iraq in 1978, and I’ve been there I suppose fifty or sixty times. Sometimes for as long as three months, at other times for a fortnight or so. In all I have spent a bit more than half my time in Iraq since the occupation. I was there before, during and after the invasion, initially based in Kurdistan since I couldn’t get a visa to Baghdad …. as soon as the road south was open, I drove down the main highway from Arbil to Baghdad.


[O]ne of the surprises of the resistance is just how swiftly it developed. I think this has never quite been explained. The speed with which it took off was very striking. The Americans were starting to suffer casualties as early as June, within a couple months of the invasion. Occupations often do lead to resistance against them, but it’s difficult to think of another example of it happening so quickly. After the British captured Baghdad in 1917, it took three years before the rebellion against them started. During the Second World War, the resistances in Europe or Southeast Asia all took much longer to get going than the present insurgency in Iraq.

One of the main reason most Iraqis wanted to be rid of Saddam was the degradation of life because of the UN sanctions against Iraq, which destroyed most of the economy, coming on top of the effects of the Gulf War in 1991 and the eight-year war with Iran. There was a widespread sense among Iraqis that they couldn’t take it any more — they wanted some form of normal life to return. I think it took about two month for them to realize that the American Occupation wasn’t going to deliver this. The electricity supply was poor from the start, and it stayed poor. Looting didn’t stop. At first, most Iraqis looked on the disasters at the time of the fall of Saddam as a sort of one-day or rather week-long wonder. Then they discovered it just rolled on — in fact it has never really come to a halt since. They began to realize that everything in life was now chronically insecure. It took a bit of time for me to realize how dangerous it was getting quite early on — because it’s got so much worse since, I tend to think of those first months as almost halcyon days, when one could jump in a car and drive up to towns north of Baghdad, like Samarra, or west to Ramadi and Fallujah. But actually it got pretty risky from the start, which wasn’t the way Iraq had been before, even during the first Gulf War. During the American bombing in 1991, I remember going from Baghdad to Mosul, and we’d been sold bad petrol, the car broke down, so we just got out and hitched lifts right across central Iraq up to Mosul, without any sense of danger. So it took a bit of time to realize the degree to which the insurgency, and banditry, were spreading. There were already assassinations that summer. I’d go to places where American soldiers had been attacked, or killed or wounded, and a couple of hours later I’d find crowds still rejoicing, jumping up and down and dancing around bloodstains on the road or the wreckage of a vehicle. The Occupation became unpopular pretty fast.

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