FOREIGN POLICY

Time to rethink strategy on Syria

 
 
RUBIN
RUBIN

trubin@phillynews.com

When someone throws a drowning man a life preserver, he can’t afford to question his rescuer’s intentions.

Thus, President Obama last week eagerly grabbed a lifeline thrown by the Russians: a proposal that international monitors take control of and destroy Syria’s chemical arsenal. Moscow’s offer gave the president an excuse to postpone a congressional vote on authorizing a military strike against Syria — a strike meant to punish Bashar al-Assad for crossing a chemical-weapons “red line” by gassing civilians. The Kremlin saved Obama from public humiliation since he was almost certain to lose the vote.

Clearly Vladimir Putin, whose relationship with Obama is famously frosty, has no interest in doing him favors. Moscow’s gesture was meant to help its ally Assad by preventing a U.S. strike that could have benefited the Syrian opposition.

Yet this breather offers Obama one more chance to reshape an incoherent Syria policy — on Assad’s chemical weapons, and beyond.

On chemical arms, Obama must decide what he wants to make out of this new diplomatic opportunity.

Most experts doubt Assad will willingly turn over the bulk of these weapons, which will be difficult to find because he has now dispersed them, and even more difficult to destroy. Carrying out such a project in wartime could take months or years.

“We’re just going to have to see how serious the Russians are about telling the Syrians: ‘You have to do this,’ ” says Ryan Crocker, the veteran diplomat and former U.S. ambassador to Syria. “It will take an ‘or else.’ ” Even with pressure, collecting the huge stores of Syrian poison gas may be an impossible task.

Crocker adds, “Most likely Putin and Assad are just playing for time, figuring the more time goes by, the less likely a strike.” Some Syria experts think Assad will try to play out the inspection game until 2014, when he wants to hold new presidential elections. Murhaf Jouejati, a Syria expert at National Defense University, says: “He’s going to cheat, lie, and ‘win’ the election, thumbing his nose at the world. Russia will help him.”

In other words, the new Syria diplomacy might well prove a sham.

To prevent this, the administration will have to insist on deadlines for any project to collect chemical arms. Obama’s team will need to use skilled behind-the-scenes diplomacy — not bluster and public denunciations — to rally broader support for a tough U.N. resolution that holds Assad accountable for crimes against his people. This should be the moment to isolate Assad — and the White House should make public the intercepts that prove his commanders ordered the strike.

Ironically, Iran could play a key role here. While it still backs the Assad regime, Iranians by the thousands were killed by gas during the Iran-Iraq war. It clearly wants to avoid another massacre by sarin. Behind-the-scenes contacts between Washington and Tehran, even indirect, might pave the way for a plausible project to control the bulk of his chemical weapons.

In other words, diplomacy over Assad’s chemical weapons might produce some useful results.

But, if the near-debacle over red lines proved anything, it’s that the White House needs a Syria strategy that goes beyond such immediate crises. Obama also needs to reconsider when and whether he would use force.

Russia wouldn’t have thrown out the idea of curbing Assad’s weapons without the threat of a potential U.S. strike — even though Secretary of State John Kerry insisted it would be “unbelievably small.”

Any further Syrian diplomacy will languish without such pressure behind it. Putin has (unwittingly) given Obama the chance to reconfigure a strategy that deals with the wider Syria problem. Time is short.

©2013 The Philadelphia Inquirer

Read more Other Views stories from the Miami Herald

  •  
Tony Lesesne

    STOPPED BY COPS

    Tony Lesesne: Overkill, and an apology

    Yes, it happens in South Florida, too — and it shouldn’t. Black men pulled over, needlessly hassled by police officers who give the rest of their colleagues a bad name, who make no distinction when a suspect has no other description than ‘black male,’ who harass residents because they can. A North Miami Beach officer pulls over a black man in a suit and tie — and behind the wheel of an Audi that simply had to be stolen, right? In another Miami-Dade city, an officer demands that an African-American man installing a vegetable garden justify why he has a shovel and seedlings. Detained for possession of cilantro? Here are five South Floridians who tell of their experiences in this community and beyond, years ago, and all too recently.

  •  
Delrish Moss

    STOPPED BY COPS

    Delrish Moss: Out after dark

    “I was walking up Seventh Avenue, just shy of 14th street. I was about 17 and going home from my job. I worked at Biscayne Federal Bank after school. The bank had a kitchen, and I washed the dishes. A police officer gets out of his car. He didn’t say anything. He came up and pushed me against a wall, frisked me, then asked what I was doing walking over here after dark. Then he got into his car and left. I never got a chance to respond. I remember standing there feeling like my dignity had been taken with no explanation. I would have felt better about that incident had I gotten some sort of dialogue. I had not had any encounters with police.

  • STOPPED BY COPS

    Bill Diggs: Hurt officer’s feelings

    “I’m the first generation in my family to go to college, and if I wanted to do nothing else, I wanted to make my mom happy. I was living for my parents, I wanted to be that guy, I wanted to go to work and not have to put on steel-toe boots. And here I am in Atlanta, I have finally grown to a particular level of affluence. I wasn’t making a lot of money, but I was a college kid, wearing a suit, driving a nice BMW going to work everyday. Can’t beat that. I would leave my house, drive up Highway 78, the Stone Mountain area, grab some coffee, go to work. So on this particular morning, there’s a cop who’s rustling up this homeless guy outside the gas station where I was filling up. I’m shaking my head, the cop looks at me. This homeless guy is there every morning. I get in my car and on to the expressway. The police officer comes shooting up behind me. I doing 65, 70. He gets up behind me, I notice he’s following me. I get in one lane, he gets in the lane, I get in another lane, he gets in that lane. He finally flips his lights on, he comes up to the car. I’ve been pulled over for speeding before, I know the drill. Got my hands up here, don’t want to get shot, and I think he’s going to say what I’ve heard before: ‘License and registration, please.’ He says ‘Get out of the car!’ and he reaches in and grabs me by my shirt. He says, ‘So you’re a smart ass, huh?’ Finally he says, ‘License and registration.’ I tell him it’s in the car. He says, ‘Get it for me!’ He goes back to his car, comes back and asks, ‘So where did you get the car from?’ I say ‘It’s a friend of mine’s.” He says, ‘Is it stolen? What are you doing driving your friend’s car?’ I finally asked, ‘Is there a reason you stopped me? You followed me, what’s up, man?’ He says, ‘I’m going to let you go with a warning, but if you see me doing what I’ve got to do for my job, don’t you ever f---ing worry about it.”

Miami Herald

Join the
Discussion

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Miami Herald uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here.

Have a news tip? You can send it anonymously. Click here to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category