Syria Musings

Nob Akimoto

Nob Akimoto is a policy analyst and part-time dungeon master. When not talking endlessly about matters of public policy, he is a dungeon master on the NWN World of Avlis

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32 Responses

  1. Kolohe says:

    “My sense of resignation comes from the rather cavalier attitude taken by the US Congress”

    It’s a two-plus year old conflict with at least the 2nd allegation of WMD use in a country situation that, by your own analysis, is both sui generis and not an imminent threat to the security of the United States of America or treaty allies.

    They are plenty of google hits for this President (and previous ones) saying “I call on Congress to ‘x'” – (for instance here; aka Stop Me Before I Destroy the 1st Amendment Again – but nothing I can find on Syria.

    I myself was perplexed how a team that handled Osama Bin Laden and Libya – yes Libya – rather well, has been so unfathomably bad with the current situation. But then I was reminded that it’s not the same team (h/t Kevin Drum)

    So if Congress is the problem, why are we even paying a National Security Council and staff?Report

    • Kolohe in reply to Kolohe says:

      Ok, President Obama, in Rose Garden remarks at literally the same time I wrote the above, asked Congress for authority. It’s now indeed on Congress.Report

      • Nob Akimoto in reply to Kolohe says:

        Given the amount of operational leaks that also seems to be happening, I think there’s some serious divisions even within the Pentagon. That said, I welcome putting the US Congress on notice that they have responsibilities, too.Report

  2. Chris says:

    Nice post. The info about the CWC was particularly helpful.Report

  3. Stillwater says:

    I’ll throw this in for Tim K. From Obama’s Rose Garden speech:

    Make no mistake — this has implications beyond chemical warfare. If we won’t enforce accountability in the face of this heinous act, what does it say about our resolve to stand up to others who flout fundamental international rules? To governments who would choose to build nuclear arms? To terrorist who would spread biological weapons? To armies who carry out genocide? We cannot raise our children in a world where we will not follow through on the things we say, the accords we sign, the values that define us.

    Slippery slopes!Report

  4. greginak says:

    So i got a few hundred quatloos to bet that the House will try to bargain by offering O authorization for an attack if he defunds the ACA. At least a few of the nutballs will raise it.Report

    • Stillwater in reply to greginak says:

      I have to admit that the more I think about this, the more I’m inclined to believe that Obama being incredibly sabby about this. He’s effectively expressed his best case for why intervention is necessary (NECESSARY!) while turning control over the decision to act to the House GOP. If they approve, then they can’t Benghazi him. If they reject, then he’s all cool with Democracy and the Constitution. At this point, he can’t lose.

      Of course, it’s sort of sickening to think that a President would play politics with something like bombing another country and all. But he seems to thinks it’s actually the right thing to do. He even talked about slipper slopes, so you KNOW he’s serious.

      Also too, I’ll only take that bet with some heavy odds.Report

      • Glyph in reply to Stillwater says:

        Obama being incredibly sabby about this. He’s effectively expressed his best case for why intervention is necessary (NECESSARY!) while turning control over the decision to act to the House GOP. If they approve, then they can’t Benghazi him. If they reject, then he’s all cool with Democracy and the Constitution. At this point, he can’t lose.

        This was my thought as well.Report

      • greginak in reply to Stillwater says:

        agreed, it is certainly convenient that what is right and correct is also good politics. in a better world those three would coincide more often.Report

      • North in reply to Stillwater says:

        All I can say is I’m utterly delighted with this development. It’s good to know some elements of Obama the campaigner are still in his admin and good to see that his hyper-cautiousness has an up side.Report

      • Stillwater in reply to Stillwater says:

        Well, me too North. I don’t like all the Cheney-Addingtin inspired The Unitary Executive nonsense, and as Jason’s post clearly demonstrates the constitution limits the power of the Executive in these areas.

        If we bomb the now-emptied chemical weapons sites, we’ll create havoc and kill lots of innocent people. But we can feel better knowing the action was undertaken in accordance with domestic law and custom.Report

      • George Turner in reply to Stillwater says:

        Or not. James Rosen is reporting that a senior State Department official is saying Obama’s will strike, regardless of the Congressional vote to authorize it, and that the NSC is on board with that. The vote will delay the strike, but it’s outcome won’t affect carrying it out.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Stillwater says:

        If that is true… good lord. That might result in a Constitutional Crisis.

        Hee. J/K.Report

      • Stillwater in reply to Stillwater says:

        James Rosen is reporting that a senior State Department official is saying Obama’s will strike, regardless of the Congressional vote to authorize it, and that the NSC is on board with that. The vote will delay the strike, but it’s outcome won’t affect carrying it out.

        Well, if James Rosen says it…Report

      • George Turner in reply to Stillwater says:

        Well, that’s the headline they’re running with, and it does match up with Obama’s Rose Garden statement, where he left himself a big out:

        Yet, while I believe I have the authority to carry out this military action without specific congressional authorization, I know that the country will be stronger if we take this course, and our actions will be even more effective.

        Of course Republicans are reading all this, too, and while they already have doubts about the intelligence, doubts about the effectiveness of a limited strike, doubts that there’s any actual plan, doubts that such a strike will change anything on the ground in Syria, even doubts that Assad was responsible for the attack, they’ll have no doubt that if they vote against the strike and Obama carries it out anyway, they will beat him like a pinata in 2014. If pressed about their vote, they could even point out that they voted to make a statement, knowing he was going to attack anyway. If Obama doesn’t attack, he looks even weaker, having followed the red line statement with frightening but idle threats.

        Politically, the administration leaking that Obama would strike regardless of the outcome of the vote has probably just determined the outcome of the vote.Report

      • North in reply to Stillwater says:

        George, if you’re correct then my read on this is Obama doesn’t want to strike, he’s playing the GOP in congress to give him a reason not to and once they vote against it he’ll abide by that and the constitutional crisis they’re hoping for won’t materialize. Certainly that’s what I hope he’s up to.Report

      • BlaiseP in reply to Stillwater says:

        I’m not sickened by Obama’s throwing this into the Congressional hog pen. The pro-war blowhards, McCain, et al. will have their say, to the lasting consternation of the GOP leadership, which is still trying to make hay on the Benghazi fiasco.

        The gods answer the prayers of the stupid. The GOP has been yammering about Executive Overreach since the minute Barack Obama took office. America’s sick of endless wars on the horizon. Let the Chicken Hawks bloviate and rant and fume and stamp their Florsheim shoes, for all the good it will do them.

        So what if Russia and China don’t want us to attack Syria? They have their reasons, some excellent reasons. We can’t just get rid of Assad without someone to replace him. Nor will a Shot Across the Bow suffice. Assad must go and everyone knows it. Americans sorta forget the Russians have been fighting Islamic fundamentalism in Chechnya, Ingushetia and many another little shithole for many decades, with no more results to show for that fight than we have in our somewhat larger wars.

        China and Iran, well, we could do worse than get all the players in one room and sort out what’s possible in this situation. Saddam Hussein gassed Iran’s troops back in the day, they know the score. I can’t believe Iran is so stupid as to back Assad on a per-se basis. We’ve already set up a China-friendly, Iran-friendly regime in Iraq. China have huge oil concessions in Iraq. Iran is hugely involved in Iraq’s economy. One curious side-effect of our war in Afghanistan is how much trade has developed between Iran and Afghanistan along their common border. Iran knows we gave them a precious gift, the defeat of Saddam Hussein. Iran is the big winner in Iraq. They’re not idiots, Iran and China. So let’s quit treating them as such. We may not like their choices but Syria will never get on its feet without the tacit consent of the Larger World.

        The Big Players need to quit acting like horse’s asses and come to some conclusions about what needs doing in Syria. It’s bad for business, for everyone.Report

      • BlaiseP in reply to Stillwater says:

        Iran isn’t all that enthusiastic about Assad: he’s not a Shiite like they are. He’s sorta Shiite, he’s Alawi, which is different from mainline Shiism. Shiite Hizb’allah is fighting for Assad because he’s not a Sunni but that doesn’t mean they particularly like Assad. Assad has not exactly been nice to his Shiites. Syria’s little adventures in Lebanon have not been forgotten.

        Hizb’allah is fighting for its life. If an Qaeda-friendly, Sunni-majority government comes to power in Syria, Hizb’allah is toast. Put aside all the people’s names in this situation, Assad is a nebbish nobody in this picture. Syria is about to become a larger version of Lebanon, with little enclaves of power, run by local militias. The central government will be irrelevant.Report

      • George Turner in reply to Stillwater says:

        Let the Chicken Hawks bloviate and rant and fume and stamp their Florsheim shoes, for all the good it will do them.

        Hey, the hipsters take heart because Obama is being a chicken-hawk neocon ironically. ^_^

        However, I think we need to take a step back instead of spasmodically shooting from the hip. Kerry is out claiming that the evidence of chemical weapons use is irrefutable (duh), but so far the evidence they’ve marshaled doesn’t really implicate Assad. In fact, to me it kind of indicates he may have been the target, not the perpetrator.

        And that’s where things get interesting. As the Russians and others, even Americans, have pointed out, it makes no sense for Assad to order such an attack because the gains are small and the consequences for him are potentially huge. The Russians even suggest that the most likely culprits are the rebels. Yet that’s doubtful based on what we know from both sides.

        However, in a bitter civil war, there aren’t just two players, their are scads of them. The Syrian government posted that it the commander of the Republican Guards, who was in charge of the chemical weapons, was taken out an executed. If he really was, it indicates that either they’re trying to make him the fall guy (yet they don’t seem to be overly publicizing the execution, or else the Western media is largely ignoring it to stick with the narrative), or he attacked without authorization (and thus brought potential hell down on the regime), or they’re faking the execution so he can retire to Southern France — or his attack is part of a very clever, yet simple coup attempt (which would definitely get him shot).

        In support of that last possibility, look at our own Civil War. People loved Lincoln, people hated Lincoln, but people were really frustrated with General Meade, the course of the war, the failings of various commanders, the political maneuvering of different factions, the inept conduct of the War Department, and all sorts of other things. Lincoln, blessedly, got things pretty much straightened out regarding his generals. What if Assad hasn’t?

        There’s also the backdrop of the bitter sectarian conflicts, Hafez Assad’s ascension to power and his dictatorial rule, and the naming of his son as his successor, a move that wasn’t particularly popular in many Ba’athist circles and among some other prominent Syrian families and power players.

        There are undoubtedly Shi’ite, Alawite, Christian, and some Sunni families that are supporting the Syrian government side yet who despise Assad’s family and think his leadership in the war has ranged from wildly barbaric to blindingly incompetent. I’m sure there are countless players who are confident that they could do a better job of conducting the war and a far better job of ruling Syria.

        For those rival leaders, whether generals, families, or tribes, Assad, his family, and most of his inner circle are in the way and need to be removed. Given the high level of emotions involved in the war, many would be willing to martyr themselves in a failed attempt if it could accomplish something good. However, this would make their family, friends, and tribe targets not just for retribution, but condemned by everyone on their own side of the conflict for ever after, because Assad has a lot of loyal support. Just marching into his office and shooting him won’t do the job. They need Assad and his croanies taken out by an outside player so they don’t get the blame for it.

        But for something like that to work they’d need a powerful nation with the ability to possibly wipe out the regime without the will to put boots on the ground and occupy the country, and a nation with a leader stupid, vain, and hot-headed enough to do it before what’s really going on becomes apparent, and do it in a way that doesn’t implicate the actual players and factions setting Assad up for a fall. They need Obama, and the perfect opportunity would be the first anniversary of his “red line” statement.

        It may be that Obama’s stance on chemical weapons was the overwhelming reason that somebody launched chemical weapons. A rival faction that wants to bump Assad aside and take power could well be using us as their bag man.

        Part of their justification might be that the Syrian civil war cannot end while Assad and his cronies are still in power. His very existence spurs on the rebels, the Gulf states, and the international community, therefore his continuing rule is the greatest obstacle to any kind of Syrian government victory – especially if the eye-doctor in chief is particularly inept as a war leader, which is something that all other war leaders would naturally think since the government is bogged down in its second year of fighting rag tag dipshits.

        Even if Assad wins, the country will never heal, violence and strife will never really abate, and the international community will keep the place buried under sanctions for the rest of history. Even worse, an Assad victory will just give Assad’s family something to gloat about in the state propaganda mills as they grind Syria under their heals for the next forty years, blocking the path to power of more worthy families.

        For bitter and committed rivals, especially ones absolutely committed to the cause of Alawite and Syrian government dominance, there are no upsides to keeping Assad’s family alive. The only downside to removing him is the bitter backlash of the Assad loyalists and patriotic Syrians, and that backlash won’t matter if it’s directed at B. Obama and John Kerry.

        So we might be the policeman, or we might be the patsy. Patsy seems more likely. If that’s the case, then our strike would in effect represent an unwitting military alliance with the individuals, families, and factions who used chemical weapons to kill children.Report

  5. George Turner says:

    I have a feeling the debate won’t go the way he thinks it will. Pete Hoekstra, former chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, wrote this piece saying that the intelligence needs to be strongly challenged.

    It’s time for a Red Team to challenge the conventional wisdom that Assad ordered the gassing of the Syrian population. Are there answers for all the questions that need to be asked to reach the conclusions currently being posed? Those questions include: Does Assad have full control of all WMDs in Syria? Are there those who would try to stage a chemical weapons attack to implicate the Assad regime to generate American engagement? There are more.

    I have talked to enough chemical-weapons experts who have raised serious questions about the gassing videos and the circumstances surrounding the attacks. They see some inconsistencies that raise red flags.

    And from Foreign Policy comes this:

    American intelligence agencies had indications three days beforehand that the Syrian regime was poised to launch a lethal chemical attack that killed more than a thousand people and has set the stage for a possible U.S. military strike on Syria.

    The disclosure — part of a larger U.S. intelligence briefing on Syria’s chemical attacks — raises all sorts of uncomfortable questions for the American government. First and foremost: What, if anything, did it do to notify the Syrian opposition of the pending attack?

    The story includes quotes from outraged Syrian rebels who were not warned, along with some tidbits about the intercepted, angry, and confused conversations as the Syrian army tried to find out what had happened hours after the attack, which implies they were in the dark as well.

    It seems the only people who knew the attack was coming were possibly rogue elements of the Syrian army and the Obama Administration, which did nothing to prevent the attack or to warn the potential targets of it, leading to the death of hundreds of children.

    Just as in Egypt, he somehow turns everyone into an enemy. It’s simply amazing. A brutal tyrant uses nerve gas on civilians and Obama somehow manages to make the US look like the bad guy because we’re the only people who clearly knew what was about to happen – and did nothing.Report

  6. Creon Critic says:

    a rather fragile and weak norm against the use of chemical weapons

    This isn’t absolutely central to the discussion, but Syria has ratified the 1925 “Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or Other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare”. Source, ICRC. The ICRC also presents a more detailed analysis under the title: “Rule 74. The use of chemical weapons is prohibited.”Report

    • Yeah, but they rather pointedly stayed out of the CWC. I know the Geneva Protocol had things to limit the use of chemical weaponry in the 20s after the experiences of WW1, but if it was ratified in 1925, then it was during the Great Uprising, and the French didn’t leave until ’46. Since then they’ve had a couple of coups and eventually the consolidation of Hafez Assad’s presidency, so I don’t think something they signed pre-independence can be considered binding.Report

    • That is to say, something signed by Mandate era Syria is probably less than worthless, in fact it can be viewed as an imposition of imperialist policy by the French. (Which can then lend some shadowy connotations to Francois Hollande’s announcement)Report

      • ICRC lists ratification as 17.12.1968. Also,Report

      • Hafez Assad took power I think in 1970, so I’m not sure if a 68 ratification would matter, either….but that does put a different spin on it.Report

      • Worth noting they’ve ratified a whole bunch of stuff they don’t seem to be following on right now.

        I’m just saying it’s probably easier to nail them on something other than the prohibition on chemical weapons use.Report

      • Hafez Assad took power I think in 1970, so I’m not sure if a 68 ratification would matter, either….but that does put a different spin on it.

        Checking with more well versed students of this area of law would help, but my understanding is that Syria would have to denounce or withdraw. Treaties aren’t invalidated by regime change according to the doctrine of state continuity.

        Worth noting they’ve ratified a whole bunch of stuff they don’t seem to be following on right now.

        Yep, that’s pretty much what’s at issue. A quick look at indicates Syria’s ratified most of the major human rights conventions (pdf). That hanging also at 11:01pm, there’s also the issue of customary international humanitarian law, here is the ICRC’s treatment,

      • Held for moderation unfortunately…Report

      • George Turner in reply to Nob Akimoto says:

        I’m not sure I’m following this. Are you saying that if we catch them violating some codicil of a treaty we can make him surrender his nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons to Al Qaeda – who can use them to kill hundreds of our children instead? Would this be the same line of thought that would’ve charged the Japanese Emperor with violating FAA altitude regulations at Pearl Harbor?Report

      • George Turner,
        (tl;dr) The consequences of intervention aren’t what’s at issue in this thread – more a “describe the current state of law on chemical weapons” issue than a “what happens if the US does X” issue.

        Your comment brings getting Al Capone for tax evasion to mind. Unfortunately state sovereignty means for states that kind of thing, relatively low level or minor violation accompanied by major punishment, is not possible. I’m mainly contesting Nob Akimoto’s contention that the norm against the use of chemical weapons is “fragile and weak”, and the notion that because Syria hasn’t ratified the CWC they can skirt the prohibitions on the use of chemical weapons.

        First, there are other relevant treaties besides the CWC. Syria did ratify the 1925 Geneva protocol. Also, customary international humanitarian law applies (as outlined by the ICRC link above). Additionally, there are the other laws of war to consider; Syria would have a tough time arguing chemical weapons use adheres to the principle of “distinction”. By way of contrast the responsibility to protect dates from the late 1990’s, 2001 ICISS, and 2005 General Assembly resolution. There’s a pretty new and thus maybe described by some as a fragile and weak norm – I prefer emergent norm myself. But the ban on using chemical weapons, that’s at least 1919, and the ICRC lays out all the details on examining state practice and the relevant international instruments that address chemical weapons use.Report