Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Last Call For Obama's Syrian Endgame

So what's the goal in Syria?  We fire cruise missiles at the Assad regime and...then what?  TNR's John Judis has some thoughts on what would follow after John Kerry's testimony yesterday:

—The administration is not just contemplating a single punitive strike against Syria’s Bashar al Assad for using chemical weapons; it is planning a repeatable military campaign that would strike again if he were to use these weapons again.

—The military campaign would also have the “collateral” or “downstream” result of weakening Assad militarily and politically. It would cause defections and significantly weaken the Assad government.

—The goal of the military campaign, combined with aid to the opposition, would not be to defeat Assad. Instead, the war would be ended by an international negotiation in which Russians would play a very important role. Such a deal would eliminate any role in Syria’s future for jihadist elements, but it might include a role for allies of Assad, if not for Assad himself.

This all seems like three fundamentally incompatible goals.  The 60 or 90 day option for repeatable strikes does seem like a way to buy time for diplomacy, but only if diplomacy can actually settle this.  Weakening the Assad regime isn't exactly going to make them want to come to the table, not if they know they can wait it out and then resume the fighting.  And what about the rebels?  There are a number of pretty bad guys in there opposing Assad, but what will they do if Assad is sidelined?

And we're counting on diplomacy with the Russians?  OK.  I'm not holding out hope, but Putin isn't ruling out backing our strike now.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said he has not ruled out backing a U.S.-led military operation in Syria if the Kremlin gets concrete proof than an alleged chemical attack on civilians was committed by Bashar Assad’s government.

“I don’t rule this out,” Putin said during a televised interview with First Channel, a Russian federal television network, and the Associated Press. “But I want to draw your attention to one absolutely principled issue: In accordance with the current international law, a sanction to use arms against a sovereign state can be given only by the U.N. Security Council.”

In other words, Russia may drop its blockade of UN Security Council action and back a coalition move on their timetable, which would granted, slow things down somewhat.  But, if that's what it takes, that's fine.

The question is can we get Russia and Putin on board before a strike is launched?  I think we should make every effort to try.

On the other hand, Joshua Foust sums up the Obama case for Syrian strikes thusly:

The logic for striking Syria is as bizarre as it is unconvincing:
  • Assad used chemical weapons. This is bad.
  • We should make chemical weapons use unacceptable and impose punishment.
  • BUT, that punishment should not be regime change, because we don’t want Syria to “implode.”
  • AND, that punishment should be narrowly focused only on chemical weapons.
  • DESPITE our official policy of “Assad must go,” Assad will not be forced to go.
  • THEREFORE, strikes will be limited enough to only attack his chembio weapons, but not his actual capabilities, nor his regime, nor is it calibrated to directly help the rebels apart from removing a single weapon that hasn’t killed 99% of all casualties in the conflict.

If this makes any sense to you — logically, tactically, strategically, or operationally — I’m sure there’s a bridge for sale somewhere. So what is the point of this? It is a terribly empty gesture that serves vanishingly small purpose. I don’t get it. Even our own senior intel officers say Syria is going to get worse whether Assad stays or go — so why aren’t we focusing on how to prevent, mitigate, or manage that rather than all this empty nonsense? It’s like the White House is determined to only accept blame but not help. It’s madness.

I don't know if I'm ready to go that far despite my continued misgivings about action in Syria.  There's still the very real concern of 100,000 dead, 2 million refugees fled, and another 5 million displaced within Syria's borders.  Doing nothing is still not going to improve anything.

But these are pretty crazy hoops to jump through just to get Russia to say "alright already" and agree to UN action on Syria, and this is still an abysmal situation we've gotten into in the first place.  Cleaning up the mess in Syria where there are no good guys?  That'll be loads of fun.

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