Saturday, September 14, 2013

Russia’s intervention gives diplomacy a chance in Syria

M. Serajul Islam

President Barak Obama addressed the nation on Tuesday, September the 10th on Syria a day before the 12th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers. In his 15 minutes long speech, he conveyed to Americans that his administration would give diplomacy a chance. The President said that his administration would wait to see the outcome of a Russian proposal to talk Syria to hand over its chemical weapons arsenal to international observers. He also mentioned in his speech that he would ask Congress to postpone considering and voting his request for a green signal for limited air strikes on Syria.

The President’s speech thus ended speculations that was rife in Washington that the United States was on the verge of attacking Syria after undeniable proof emerged that the Syrian regime had killed over 1400 Syrians including over 400 children in 11 residential districts where the anti-regime residents lived on August 21st using chemical weapons. That speculation was based on the promise that President Obama had made earlier that with proof of use of chemical weapons, the regime would be considered to have crossed the Red Line when the USA would have no alternative but to attack.

The prospect of imminent US attack on Syria was paused when the British Prime Minister David Cameron’s proposal to join the United States led international coalition was defeated in the British House of Commons. The failure of David Cameron’s move affected France that distanced itself from joining the USA for action against Syria. President Obama then decided to take the Congress on board for military action against Syria. The House Foreign Affairs Committee backed the President and passed a resolution 10-7 for consideration of the House that recommended limited air strike.

Immediately after that resolution, the President went on a bilateral visit to Sweden and then joined the G20 Summit in St Petersburg. In the G20 Summit, the President’s urged the European leaders for an international coalition but received only lukewarm response. The President argued that the Red Line was not set by him but by the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) that demanded action by signatories against countries caught using those weapons. Therefore, the President further argued that failing to take action against the Syrian regime would damage not just his credibility but of all the signatories of the CWC. The Russian President also upstaged the US President in St. Petersburg. He argued against the international coalition for attacking Syria. Instead he proposed that Russia would convince the Syrian regime to put its arsenal of chemical weapons under international control. Russia also held out the possibility of Syria not just giving up its chemical weapons but also becoming a signatory of the CWC. That proposal won the support of the members of the G20 countries.

Meanwhile, upon returning home, the US President found that the prospect of the Congress backing him for a limited strike on Syria was not bright. Although the Senate Foreign Relations Committee had enhanced the President’s hopes, the House was not in the mood to toe the line of the Senate. In fact, opinion polls that create great pressure for the members of the Congress of such vital issues were consistently against any military action in Syria, even limited ones. The President also made his case for attacking Syria to the nation by interviews to major TV stations upon returning from St Petersburg. These efforts did not change the nation’s mood in any major way.

The President’s speech to the nation therefore underscored the reality he was facing with Syria, that he did not have the nation or the Congress behind him to intervene. Thus he made the best use of airtime with his address to the nation to place before the Americans undeniable proof that the Syrian regime had killed 1421 fellow Syrians in the most abhorrent manner by using chemical weapons. He compared the despicable act of the Bashar Regime to those committed by Adolf Hitler in the genocide against the Jews and by Saddam Hussein against the Kurds. He used the comparisons to convey to his fellow Americans about the necessity of holding the Syrian regime responsible for its ghastly crimes.

The President spent major part of his speech making the case for military strike. He thus allayed the concern of putting lives of American soldiers on line by stating unequivocally that not one US soldier would put foot on Syrian soil. On concerns that limited strikes would be “pinpricks”, the President said, “The United States military does not do pinpricks. Even a limited strike will send a message to Asaad that no other nation can.” On concerns of retaliation, he also dismissed it as unfounded. On concerns that the forces opposing unknown elements and perhaps even al-Qaeda operatives, the President argued that “al-Qaeda will only draw strength in a more chaotic Syria if people there see the world doing nothing to prevent innocent civilians from being gassed to death.”

The President Obama touched on the Russian proposal near the end of his speech but only after making his case that Syria had crossed the Red Line and international obligations make it obligatory on USA and signatories to the CWC to take military action against Syria. He said that it was his administration’s efforts that led, first, to encourage Russia to make its move with Syria, and second, the acknowledgement by Syria that it had an arsenal of chemical weapons that it had previously denied and Russia had adamantly supported. Thus the president took credit for the way the Syrian issue has been handled by the international community where the Syria has admitted to be in possession of an arsenal of chemical weapons, showed willingness to give up that arsenal and even sign the CWC.

US Secretary of State John Kerry left Washington for Geneva a day after the president’s speech for talks with his Russian counterpart to implement the Russian plan. There are many doubters both in USA and abroad whether the Russian plan would succeed. Nevertheless, from the US perspective and that of President Obama, the developments are positive. The developments have shown that he has led the US as leader of the world; that he has succeeded in establishing the fact that the Syrian regime has crossed the Red Line and assured action by the international community against the regime where diplomacy has been preferred ahead of military action.

The president’s decision to seek Congressional approval was received favourably by most Americans. Americans have bad memories on this issue left from the administration of President Bush. Nevertheless, in USA’s highly partisan domestic politics, there are his detractors who criticised the president for letting the Russian President upstage him after he had created world opinion against the regime of Bashar Al Asaad. The diplomatic solution is being worked out at the time of filing this article. On the first day of negotiations in Geneva, significant differences arose between the US and Russians on a framework for documenting the Syrian chemical weapons arsenal and on a time frame for destroying them. Also, the Russians still maintain that the Syrians did not use chemical weapons on August 21st. At this stage, it looks like Bashar Al Assad has received temporary reprieve for missiles falling on Damascus. He should consider himself lucky, at least for the time being, because fellow dictators like Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gadhafi became history for similar crimes perhaps less.

The writer is a retired career Ambassador.

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