Russian President Vladimir Putin penned a well-articulated op/ed in Thursday’s New York Times, making a strong case against the United States hastily launched military attacks in Syria. Putin’s motivations are somewhat obvious and doubtfully pacifist. It’s in Russia’s best interest to preserve the vitality of the U.N. Security Council and the permanent member veto, as well as to protect the security of a client state.
Still, none of that changes the fact that his argument against unilateral U.S. action is more compelling than those offered in its favor, and the reason is simple: fate has put him on the better side of the argument … at least for now.
Putin’s reverence for the United Nations is undoubtedly a function of necessity. The veto and the unofficial Eastern Hemisphere bloc that his country and China have formed as a counterbalance to Western powers – along with Russia’s massive oil and natural gas reserves – have maintained the status of an international power for Russia in the post Soviet era.
But that leverage has been seen by many Americans as having a de-legitimizing effect on the international body. Many believe that China and Russia protecting every state in the opposite axis of our influence is justification for an independent course, lest we cede American sovereignty to the UN.
But Putin points to our own recent history in Iraq and Afghanistan as arguments in favor of international law and binding councils. He notes that “under current international law, force is permitted only in self-defense or by the decision of the Security Council. Anything else is unacceptable under the United Nations Charter and would constitute an act of aggression,” and suggests that the inability to count on international law and the UN Security Council only promotes the proliferation of WMDs, as nations seek alternative ways to ensure security.
Putin argues that “Millions around the world increasingly see America not as a model of democracy but as relying solely on brute force, cobbling coalitions together under the slogan ‘you’re either with us or against us'” – a none too subtle reminder that the invade first, justify later approach Americans grew tired of under President Bush remains largely unchanged under his Democratic successor.
No matter how lofty his intentions, President Obama does have to operate within the reality that the world has every right to view our unproven claims with skepticism. After all, it is now painfully clear that much of the intelligence used to justify our invasion of Syria's next door neighbor was fabricated. From phantom sales of yellow cake uranium to conjured meetings between terrorist hijackers and Iraqi officials, we went to war with information we knew to be false, reverse engineering the intelligence that might justify a course of action certain parties had long settled upon. For those who’ve stopped keeping score on that misadventure, I’d recommend this excellent update.
The recent U.N. Rights Panel’s Report on War Crimes in Syria also paints a very different picture from the scene being portrayed by American hawks, as to what is happening on the ground in Syria. The idea that there is an organized resistance ready to shepherd that nation toward democracy is a farce. Rather, it seems that there is a brutal and convoluted faction of “perpetrators ... on all sides, (who) act in defiance of international law” and “do not fear accountability.” Supporting those findings is a new video given to Time Magazine depicting Syrian rebel forces decapitating a young boy in public is one of many disturbing images that have surfaced.
It is easy to feel contemptuous of a brutal dictator like Assad. He's smarmy, consistently speaks in terms that suggest he's overplaying his hand, and is just generally the kind of guy you'd like to punch in his chinless face. But that doesn’t mean lobbing cruise missiles at his country or arming an unstable resistance with dangerous weapons will automatically improve the station of his citizens. At the same time, a diplomatic solution would hardly be assured of success. Removing what is thought to be a massive stockpile of chemical weaponry is no easy task and the idea that an agreeable manner in which to do so can be agreed upon is also less than probable.
Yet by genuinely pursuing and exhausting such a goal, only then can we seem credible in arguing for combat alternatives. Also, the events of the past week and the positioning which followed have painted a few of the other parties into a corner. Any credibility gained by Putin will be squandered if Russia acts as a roadblock in future negotiations over an international effort to secure Assad’s chemical weapon stockpile – if that has now become the primary goal, which seems to be the case. Again, that is something that remains somewhat opaque, as we remain mired in the discussion of whether or not to attack.
If the goal is to stop the Assad regime's use of those weapons, that may have already occurred. It seems clear that additional use by either side will be neither tolerated nor defended. U.N. inspectors are expected to present the results of their investigation of the alleged August 21 chemical attacks in Ghouta to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon on Monday. Leaked information from Western sources say that the report will conclude that chemical weapons were used, while providing a considerable amount of “circumstantial evidence” that it was Assad's Republican Guard that deployed them.
That being said, inspectors are then slated to investigate reports of chemical weapon use by rebel forces against the Republican Guard prior to August 21, so we might as well come out of this with indications that not only were such agents used, but that they were used by more than one side, which also makes armed intervention much more complicated. Still again there remains the possibility that we will uncover a false flag event in which some other interest has deployed chemical agents to seize on our “red line” position in order to draw the United States into the conflict.
For their part, the Syrian government has since acknowledged that it has maintained a clandestine chemical weapons program and now says it is willing to abide by the standards of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which is to say ceasing to produce them, cataloging their arsenal, turning over their stockpiles for destruction and submitting to routine inspections of their facilities.
Syria is not a party to the Chemical Weapons Convention, a 1993 treaty administered by the OPCW. They and North Korea are the last holdouts. Syria is, however, party to the 1925 Geneva Protocol, which prohibits the use of chemical weapons in battle, but does not address their production, transfer or storage. They have previously asserted their right to maintain such weapons in a defense/deterrence capacity against Israel, who has never acknowledged having chemical or biological weapons, though much of the international intelligence community (including our CIA) has expressed a belief that they do.
There's also been some expert speculation that at least some of the attacks suspected of being owed to chemical agents were actually the result of fuel-air bombs, a type of thermobaric weaponry, which can have similarly devastating effects. Though they can kill soldiers, civilians, women and children in a manner just as brutal as chemical agents, they are not illegal. In fact, the United States has even used them in recent conflicts.
Here again we get into the difficult matter of splitting hairs over where to draw the proverbial line on what kind of weaponry is the most humane way to separate someone from their mortality. I should note that I was an officer in the U.S. Army Chemical Corps and am a graduate of its its Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear (CBRN) school. Even knowing quite well how devastating such agents can be, I can say that I have not found any of the alternative ways one might kill people on a battlefield to be much more pleasant and have to assume the other 109,000 or so Syrians who have met their end via this conflict found themselves none too much better off.
So far, the best evidence presented certainly portrays a brutally savage, illegal, multi-party, sectarian nightmare – one that's lacking a clear set of good guys by any standard imaginable. It seems one or more factions may have used chemical weapons, leading to hundreds of deaths in a conflict which has already claimed as many as 110,000 lives, while displacing over two million more. However, it does not seem that American security or vital interests are threatened in a way that would justify circumventing (and inherently weakening) the UN Security Council by way of unilateral strikes, nor does it seem that such actions would have a high likelihood of improving the stability in Syria.
If that's not a case for exhausting international diplomacy efforts, I cannot imagine what would be. As of this moment, Mr. Putin seems to be right. Be that as it may, it remains quite possible that if the U.S. and other nations continue to pursue a diplomatic end to the conflict in Syria, somewhere along the line that will cease to be the case, and Mr. Assad will have earned himself a UN sponsored intervention marking the end of his reign. But to act prematurely, merely assuming such will be the case, lends credibility to Mr. Putin's critique of our role in international affairs, and the day that a man like him can fairly chastise the United States for such transgressions is not one we should welcome.
update: The U.S. State Department announced Saturday afternoon that the framework of a deal with Russia regarding Syria's chemical weapon stockpile had been reached.
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