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Obama’s Syria Speech — A Diplomatic Solution?

By Taylor Marvin

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Yesterday President Obama gave an important speech on Syria, asking Congress to delay a decision on whether to strike the Assad regime in favor of a diplomatic option off-handedly proposed by Secretary of State John Kerry and endorsed by the Russians earlier this week. Under this proposal Assad would give up his government’s chemical weapons — which Syrian Cabinet Minister Ali Haidar called “the nuclear of the poor” — and their destruction would be verified by the international community. In addition to Russia, the UK and France also back the initiative, and Kerry is expected to meet with Russian Minster of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov later this week.

In a speech that Max Fisher deemed more political science than scare tactics, Obama pushed for a diplomatic solution that would eliminate Assad’s chemical weapons stockpiles without the need for direct US military action. Despite his move to put airstrikes, which seemed inevitable two weeks ago, on hold, Obama made a strong emotional case against chemical weapons. Describing in detail scenes from the August 21 Ghouta chemical attack, Obama argued that “on that terrible night, the world saw in gruesome detail the terrible nature of chemical weapons, and why the overwhelming majority of humanity has declared them off-limits — a crime against humanity, and a violation of the laws of war.” Saying that an end to the anti-chemical weapons norm would eventually put US soldiers in danger — “as the ban against these weapons erodes, other tyrants will have no reason to think twice about acquiring poison gas, and using them” — Obama argued that punishing Assad was the US’ responsibility. While America should not be, in Obama’s words, “the world’s policeman”, its position as the anchor of global security means it must enforce international agreements. Obama also stressed that the threat of American military action was critical to Assad’s apparent willingness to cooperate, and maintained that US airstrikes in Syria, if they occur, would not be a “pinprick” — though the statement that the US “will not pursue a prolonged air campaign like Libya or Kosovo” is as much an acknowledgement that the Syrian rebels aren’t a unified force the US can comfortably militarily cooperate with as an admission of US war-wariness. 

Diplomatically destroying the Assad regime’s chemical weapons would, in Jean Pascal Zanders and Ralf Trapp’s words, “strengthen the norm and international agreements against CW and their use in armed conflict much more than any military strike might be able to achieve” (via Dina Esfandiary). Even if an international effort fails to destroy all of Assad’s chemical weapons it would still be a victory, writes Jeffrey Lewis, and would make CW far less likely to be used again in the Syrian war. Assad’s apparent willingness to deal is also evidence that he fears the consequences of US airstrikes, and further evidence that Obama’s red line has influenced his behavior.

The prospect of diplomatic cooperation between US and Russia is also a win for Obama. The President’s high-profile push for striking the Assad regime appeared unlikely to win approval from Congress, and “Putin’s move rescues Obama from what would almost certainly have been the most devastating defeat of his presidency,” writes Fred Kaplan. As Kaplan also notes, if this international diplomatic push fails the US and France are more likely to then win broad global backing for hitting Assad. In domestic politics, Obama’s shift towards diplomacy is making for odd bedfellows in Congress.

But it is unclear if this diplomatic process can be successful, with Yochi Dreazen arguing that there’s “almost no chance” it will work. First, cataloging and destroying the world’s third-largest chemical weapon stockpile in an environment as violent as Syria’s war is unprecedented, and no one knows exactly how to go about it: moving chemical weapons to disposal sites in the midst of a many-sided war zone is a recipe for catastrophe. Secondly, even if Assad does give up his chemical weapons, it just returns the civil war to the status quo. Assad appeared to be slowly gaining the military momentum before the August 21 massive chemical attack, and there’s no reason to think that depriving the regime of these arms will make the rebels more militarily competitive — at the very least, even if perfectly successful the initiative will not stop the killing. Finally, the diplomatic process shortchanges the West’s even-nominal support for the rebels. Some have argued that diplomacy’s required cooperation between the regime and global powers — if the international community wants to peacefully eliminate Assad’s chemical weapons, it has to work with him — legitimizes Assad’s government. It’s also worth noting that an international effort to destroy Assad’s chemical weapons would likely involve the US in Syria’s civil war to a greater extent than simply firing cruise missiles into the country.

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  • […] Yesterday at Political Violence @ a Glance I posted a brief piece summarizing President Obama’s Tuesday speech on Syria, in which he called on Congress to delay a decision on whether to strike the Assad regime in favor of a potential diplomatic solution that would, with Russian support, see Assad give up his chemical weapons under international supervision. Commentators’ reaction to the diplomatic initiative was mixed. On the one hand, it allows Obama to avoid either the unpopular airstrikes that his previous ill-advised red line had rhetorically committed him to or an unprecedented rejection of his plan in Congress. If the initiative succeeds it will also strengthen the international norm against chemical weapons use much more effectively than limited, internationally unpopular, and likely irrelevant airstrikes. However, it remains unclear if the diplomatic plan will succeed, effectively cataloging and destroying Assad’s chemical weapon stockpiles in Syria’s chaotic civil war looks to be an extremely difficult and risky task requiring extensive international commitment, and the plan does nothing to end the war that has already killed over 100,000 people and appears to be degenerating into a bloody three-sided stalemate. […]

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