“Trust but verify” is a phrase being tossed around a lot in the last week. It makes you wonder whether Ronald Reagan was paranoid when he said it or was it said in a moment of (rare) clarity. Either way, President Barack Obama has decided, that what started as a toss-away idea from Secretary of State John Kerry, is the new(est) American policy towards Syria. The question is, “why?” Was this the grand plan all along or simply a lucky “out” for the president to avoid taking military action and/or losing a vote in Congress?
By reaching an agreement with the current Syrian government, isn’t the president going back on his policy of getting rid of Bashar al-Assad? Yes and no. And here is where it begins to get strategically complex. There are a number of large factors at play.
In a recent interview, former CIA deputy director Mike Morrell said that the only way the Syrian civil war ends is through a negotiated settlement that includes al-Assad stepping down. Morrell went on to say that there are two possible outcomes to a military end to the conflict: (1) a stronger, more brutal Assad regime or (2) a rebel government influenced by radical elements such as al Qaeda. Either one would be disastrous for the region specifically and the world in general.
Morrell made another interesting point when he said that the fall of the central Syrian government could lead to sectarian rule similar to what has filled the void of centralized government in Afghanistan and Iraq. He suggested that the only way to ensure that the extreme elements of the rebel forces do not take control of an Assad-less Syria, or that Syria becomes a safe haven for extremists, is to have a negotiated settlement where the Syrian military and government infrastructure can be used to rid the new government of their influence. Evidently, the rebel forces are not particularly big fans of the extremists but the “two groups that are in some way affiliated with al Qaeda — al-Nusra and then Ahrar ash-Sham — are the two most effective organizations on the battlefield. And because they’re so good at fighting the Syrians some of the moderate members of the opposition joined forces with them to fight the Syrians.”
If President Obama believes Assad is the devil he knows and therefore better than the one he doesn’t, reaching an accord with him at some point was necessary. The president has not backed down from his goal to get rid of Assad, but he has recognized he needs the Assad government and military to ensure a negotiated settlement doesn’t lead to chaos.
While it seems that Vladimir Putin has decided to keep the Cold War going, his foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, has been looking to take advantage of the American offer to “reset” relations. Lavrov cannot be pleased with China’s rise a global power-broker and America’s “pivot” towards Asia. He wants to establish Russia’s role in the world as the balance to U.S. power and an outlook “which favors state sovereignty and status quo stability over the spread of Western-style democracy.” Perhaps Russia’s reemergence as power broker will help in getting Iran to cease their nuclear weapons program.
I, for one, do not fully buy the idea that the reason the Syrians were willing to admit to having chemical weapons and seek a negotiated agreement was because of the threat of American force. Nor do I believe that the Russians were the deciding factor either. Assad, like all dictators has one desire – to remain in power. It’s why he hasn’t attacked Israel. He knows as soon as his troops cross the border, Bibi won’t hesitate for a moment to send a missile into Assad’s bedroom. He won’t seek American approval or U.N. approval he’ll just call for the strike and be done with it. Good ol’ Basher bought himself a few more weeks/months/years in the palace.
No one should doubt President Obama may still use force, in fact, should the Syrians not uphold their end of the deal the president will have far more justification and support to launch an attack. This president is all too aware of America’s role and responsibility in the world and he won’t hesitate to use force to enforce international norms.
“America doesn’t do pin-pricks,” the president has said over and over. While this agreement buys Assad time and buys Obama time to find another way to get rid of Assad, it’s not a fix to the problem. It *may* prevent the use of chemical weapons and deter others from using them, but in the end the world needs to look at Obama’s record and his willingness to use force to protect America and its allies (drone strikes, Bin Laden raid, new approach to Afghanistan, etc) as the only proof the other “trouble makers”, as former President Bush dubbed them, should need that President Obama means business.