A Comedy of Errors


Nothing highlights the strategic irrelevance of Syria to the US than how much the farcical diddle-do about Syrian chemical weapons has been driven by miscalculations and diplomatic gaffes.

Slightly more than a year ago, President Obama made an unprepared remark about the potential use of chemical weapons by Bashar al-Assad, saying that “it would change his calculus,” later elaborating that it would constitute a “red line.” The president almost surely did not expect this blunder to corner him into taking military action against Syria under the threat of undermining US credibility.

Bashar on his part used chemical weapons at a small-scale for tactical reasons. It is likely that, even in East Damascus, his instructions were for a small-scale attack to flush out the insurgents. Perhaps his military commanders screwed up, loading a larger stock of sarin than authorized into specially designed field guns. Maybe someone made a typo and put an extra zero on the order sheet, or maybe like the bankers at JP Morgan, the Syrian military uses Excel, and the damn thing auto-converted an order for thirty pounds into per cent format that printed out as three thousand units to be delivered to the tactical squad responsible for delivering the goodies to the fair people of East Damascus.

In any event, when nearly fifteen hundred people were killed bearing obvious symptoms of chemical weapons use, it was perhaps the only thing that Assad could’ve done to prompt the US into action. Faced with such blatant disobedience, Obama was cornered into proposing surgical strikes. The administration quickly settled on a precision strike with enough punch to “deter and degrade” Assad’s capabilities to use chemical weapons, but not enough to “deter and degrade” Assad’s capabilities to continue to butcher his own people and crush the uprising against his rule.

This was the state of affairs when the Policy Tensor reported on August 29, 2013, arguing that this was a police action intended to punish insubordination and thereby restore the authority of the United States as the guardian of the international order. The comedy of errors continued unabated as the UK Parliament refused to authorize British participation in any US-led military action. Thus shorn of the fig-leaf of support from the “international community,” President Obama made the biggest foreign policy blunder of his administration by passing the buck to Congress.

Initially, it seemed to be working. Washington heavy-weights endorsed Obama’s plan, and Congress seemed to be headed towards endorsing the symbolic action. Around the time of the G20 summit in Russia, the administration suddenly realized that it might not, in fact, have enough votes to push this through. The opposition from knee-jerk anti-war Democrats and the libertarian wing of the GOP was expected but it’s strength had been underestimated. On the one hand, polls showed the American public opposed to the strikes, and on the other, there was considerably dissatisfaction with the purpose and design of the surgical strikes. Suddenly, the White House was facing its biggest political debacle in six years.

Enter John Kerry. Now, from the video footage it seems to be a gaffe. The Policy Tensor is not so sure. It could very well have been designed to get the White House out of the pickle it found itself in. The administration has certainly shown itself to be manipulative enough to have engineered this. But who knows? In this comedy errors, its hard to tell machinations from blunders. In any case, everyone has come onboard in short order. The strikes are off and a UN resolution to secure Syria’s chemical weapons is in the pipeline.

Whether by design or divine intervention, the Kerry gaffe has finally pulled the White House out of the pickle of its own making. The administration will spin this as the effectiveness of the threat of the use of force to get Assad to “behave responsibly.” There is a degree of truth to this. Fear of a US intervention has certainly made Russia and Assad much more compliant. Let us not fool ourselves however. The only person whose problems have been solved is President Obama. The butcher in Syria will continue to slaughter his own people with bombers and artillery; acceptable weapons, whose use against lightly-armed militias and the defenceless populace has been effectively authorized by the “international community.”

The baseline scenario going forward is continued instability for the foreseeable future. The Assad regime will continue to consolidate its control over the north-south industrial corridor, even as the rebel militias retain control of the hinterland. Regional powers will keep supplying arms and money. The sectarian blood-letting will continue. The Islamist extremists will continue to gain ground at the cost of the moderates. Syria will effectively splinter into competing statelets under the control of different warlords: a big one for Assad, a Kurdish one under Turkish protection, and smaller ones for the more successful of the rebel commanders. Perhaps an Islamic Statelet of Iraq and Syria.  

At least the neoisolationists and the ideological anti-war left will obtain some misguided psychological satisfaction from the US staying out of Syria. Syrians, on the other hand, are more frightened than ever. There is no help on the way. The Nobel laureate just acquiesced to their slaughter.      

One thought on “A Comedy of Errors

  1. Indeed with the sudden turn of events and Russia proposing a ‘solution’ that involves ‘international monitoring’ of Syria’s chemical weapons, last few weeks of Obama jumping up and down and swaying indecisively between deciding to attack Syria and taking shelter of the Congress, now seem completely farcical.
    Having said this, do you think Russia’s proposal is indeed a credible one? What does it even mean ‘placing Syria’s chemical weapons under international observation?’ Does it mean Assad’s regime has agreed to surrender its chem. weapons and will no longer have any control over these?
    I think once the Aug 21 massacre news was out, Obama had little option but to make some kind of a threatening announcement, given the international prohibition of chemical weapons’ use. I don’t think anyone in his position would then consider whether it was an order-error or excel-mistake; it was hardly relevant anymore once the weapons had been used for whatever reason.
    Also irrespective of what the outcome was of Obama’s histrionics, don’t you think discussing an issue as this with the Congress and seeking their opinion was relatively better than single-handedly deciding to launch an attack, the way US Presidents have done in the past, especially given the complexity of issues in this particular case?
    Finally, I am no expert on anything, but international intervention in Syria’s affairs hardly seems to be a solution considering the opposition there has strong ties with Al Qaeda-an organization with no nationality or boundary. What’s the alternative to Assad’s regime anyways? Whenever I think of it, the enormity of the impending disaster in that region of the world and the apparent helplessness of the international community to do anything completely baffles me.

    Thank you so much for writing on these critical geopolitical matters that few people of our generation actually give any thought to unless they are directly affected by it. Your writing gives a refreshing perspective and several of your posts provoked me to spend quite sometime thinking about the underlying issues. Will look forward to reading more.

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