Obama is willing to lead from behind, but he did not want to be left completely behind
Susan Rice’s Talking Points: The Syrian Chapter
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Outgoing United States Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice delivered the latest set of the Obama administration’s talking points to reporters on Friday June 14th, this time regarding the Syrian government’s alleged use of chemical weapons and the U.S. response. Rice said that U.S. intelligence agencies had determined with “high confidence” from “multiple streams of information” that the Assad regime has used the chemical weapon sarin multiple times in small amounts over the last year. There was no reliable, corroborated reporting, according to Rice, that the Syrian opposition possesses, or has used, any chemical weapons.
Rice declared that President Obama’s “clear red lines” had been crossed. She added that the U.S. will “increase in scope and scale” the support provided not only to civilian authorities in the opposition, but also to the Supreme Military Council.
Rice also informed reporters she had just delivered a letter signed by her to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon containing evidence which she requested be shared with the UN expert team investigating the use of chemical weapons in Syria.
Rice was evidently reading off the same talking points used the day before by Ben Rhodes, the White House Deputy National Security Adviser for Strategic Communications. Rhodes had been involved in the re-drafting of the infamous Benghazi talking points, which Rice used in her appearances on five Sunday television talk shows to deliver the false narrative explaining the reason for the tragic killing of four Americans including the U.S. ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens.
Now Rice and Rhodes are back with another set of talking points. Secretary of State John Kerry remained in the background, while the future Chief National Security Adviser and the current Deputy National Security Adviser for Strategic Communications took center stage. Obama himself attended to more ceremonial functions.
Like Rice, to whom he will presumably report when she takes over the White House position of Chief National Security Adviser, Rhodes said the U.S. intelligence services relied on “multiple, independent streams of information” and have “high confidence” in the conclusion that the Assad regime had used chemical weapons.
“The president has made a decision about providing more support to the opposition that will involve providing direct support to the [Supreme Military Council]. That includes military support,” Rhodes said.
Obama views the use of chemical weapons as a “red line,” Rhodes added, which would prompt greater U.S. involvement in the Syrian conflict.
Both Rice and Rhodes would not elaborate on precisely what arms might be involved in transfers to opposition forces, although heavy weapons systems appear to have been ruled out for the time being. However, three hundred U.S. Marines have reportedly been deployed to northern Jordan to pave the way for the West to arm Syrian rebels. Neither Rice nor Rhodes dealt with the issue of what measures would need to be taken to ensure that the weapons we will be providing to the opposition do not fall into the hands of the al Qaeda-affiliated Al Nusra Front or other jihadist groups.
Rice and Rhodes both said that no decision has been made yet regarding the establishment of even a limited no-fly zone, although they both noted the difficulties associated with pursuing military engagement through a no-fly zone.
Obama drew his red line last August. Chemical weapons use by the Assad regime, and quite possibly by the opposition as well, has been suspected for months. The Rice-Rhodes talking points focus on the “high confidence” that the intelligence services now have as to the Syrian government’s use of sarin on several occasions, allegedly killing about 150 out of around 93,000 people estimated to have been killed altogether since the start of the Syrian civil war. In April, the operative phrase was that the intelligence services had “varying degrees of confidence” that Syrian government troops had used chemical weapons. However, without careful on-site investigations by trained experts who can establish the full chain of custody of the weapons used, one has to question the basis for the intelligence services’ moving from “varying degrees” just a couple of months ago to “high” confidence now.
As UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said in his own remarks to the press the same morning as Susan’s Rice’s delivery of her talking points, “the validity of any information on the alleged use of chemical weapons cannot be ensured without convincing evidence of the chain-of-custody. That is why I continue to emphasize the need for an investigation on the ground in Syria that can collect its own samples and establish the facts. Our goal remains a fully independent and impartial inquiry.”
The team of chemical weapons experts appointed by Ban Ki-moon to undertake such an on-site investigation has not yet been able to enter Syria because of a dispute with the government over the scope of the investigation.
Predictably while our allies such as the United Kingdom expressed agreement with the U.S. assessment that chemical weapons, including sarin, have been used in Syria by the Assad regime, Russia dismissed the evidence presented by the U.S. as unconvincing.
In any case, whatever degree of confidence U.S. intelligence services may have in their conclusions - and they have been very wrong in other assessments they have made over the years - the fact is that the limited amount of alleged chemical use by the Syrian government has resulted in less than one fifth of one percent of the total fatalities in the conflict to date. The intelligence services have not claimed any large scale, systematic use of chemical weapons by the regime or imminent risk that the chemical weapons are falling into Hezbollah’s or other terrorists’ hands.
Why, then, the sudden urgency? Why the carefully coordinated talking points we have heard from Rice and Rhodes, moving from the intelligence services’ “varying degrees of confidence” to “high confidence?” One very plausible explanation is that the Obama administration is so alarmed by the momentum achieved in recent weeks by Assad’s forces, backed by Hezbollah fighters, that it sees no alternative but to provide arms directly to the opposition forces in order to stave off their complete collapse. After defeating the rebels in the strategically important city of al-Qusair, the regime’s forces and Hezbollah are taking the offensive to recapture other rebel-held territory such as Aleppo, the nation’s largest city and commercial capital. This turn of the tide has “triggered concern in Washington that Iran and its Lebanese ally are tipping the balance in favor of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad,” according to a Bloomberg report.
In this context, the upgraded chemical weapons assessment can be seen as a convenient excuse for a decision the Obama administration was prepared to make anyway. Also, the administration is trying to entice representatives of the opposition to participate in the peace conference the U.S. is working with Russia to set up in Geneva, but may want to improve the rebels’ position on the ground first to enhance their negotiating position. Opposition leaders have said they will not participate unless they receive more arms. At the same time, the Obama administration may be trying to send Assad and his main allies, Russia and Iran, a message that the U.S. will not let Assad roll over the opposition cost-free.
President Obama has also been feeling heat domestically and overseas for what some have perceived as weakness for not getting more directly involved in providing the rebels what they need to turn the tide against Assad. Obama has faced sharp criticism not only from Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham for not doing enough to help the Syrian rebels, but also from members of his own party, including Bill Clinton. Our Middle East allies have also been critical, while France and the United Kingdom have led the European Union’s move to lift its arms embargo as a prelude to providing arms to the rebels.
Obama is willing to lead from behind, but he did not want to be left completely behind.
With the G-8 summit coming up in Northern Ireland this Monday and Tuesday, Obama’s policy shift will most certainly push Syria to the top of the agenda with our allies and Russia.
Whatever his reasons, President Obama’s decision to plunge the United States into another Middle East Muslim quagmire is misguided. First of all, it is too little too late to make any appreciable difference. “Arming the Syrian rebels is unlikely to tip the balance in their favor,” said Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Institution’s Doha Center, as quoted by Bloomberg. “It might have made a difference a year ago, but, today, the Assad regime—particularly after re-taking Qusair—has the advantage.”
Secondly, we have no way of knowing for sure where our weapons will end up. Operation Fast and Furious and Libya are testaments to the Obama administration’s failure to keep track of weapons transfers to prevent them from getting into the hands of our enemies.
Third, U.S. military involvement at this time will only serve to make the Assad regime even more reliant on Hezbollah and its state sponsor Iran, increasing the chance that they will get their hands on Assad’s chemical weapons stockpile. Obama’s decision to intervene at this time, based on the excuse of Assad’s alleged use of small amounts of chemical weapons, will most likely accelerate the proliferation of those weapons to even more dangerous players in the region.
Fourth, we are being drawn more deeply into a proxy war between Sunni Muslim rebels, backed by Sunni majority countries such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey as well as Western European countries appalled by Assad’s brutal repression, and the Alawite Assad regime backed by Shiite Iran, Hezbollah as well as Russia, which feels betrayed by what ultimately happened in Libya when Russia had stepped aside.
Finally, there does not appear to be any long term strategic plan for what happens if Assad’s rule were to come to an end. According to the Bloomberg report, two administration officials familiar with the internal policy debate who asked not to be identified said “the Obama administration has done virtually no planning for a postwar Syria.” We find ourselves on the same side as the Islamist jihadists who also want to see Assad go. However, as one of the administration officials Bloomberg had spoken to pointed out, the Islamists know precisely what kind of post-Assad Syria they want. Obama may have a general hope of fostering a pluralistic democracy, but has no idea whatsoever of how to get there. Egypt and Libya show how tragically such hopes fail to materialize.
In sum, well-crafted talking points are no substitute for a well thought out foreign policy in one of the world’s most volatile places. The Obama administration is well-practiced in producing talking points but clueless in the foreign policy it is pursuing in the Middle East.