With the bottom falling out of the world’s financial markets, economies seizing up, panic setting in, one of President Obama’s top advisors, Rahm Emanuel, added this gem to political wisdom:
You never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that it's an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.
And Obama then launched into the Stimulus program, rescuing – at taxpayers’ cost – both the large banks and the remnants of the auto industry.
Is the imminent decision to launch “limited strikes” against the Syrian government’s stockpiles of chemical weapons and delivery systems, another “serious crisis” that Obama will not let go to waste?
The straws in the wind are visible.
Syria is a regional disaster, especially to Turkey, as Doug Saunders points out in an excellent article in today’s Globe & Mail:
The damage is region-wide. Bashar al-Assad’s senseless war has not just ruined millions of lives; it has destroyed the longstanding ambitions of the Arab, Persian and Turkish leaders who have pinned their ideological fortunes to stability in Damascus. Things will never again be the same.
And Jeffrey Simpson is right that intervening in Syria is easier said than done:
Ideally, the Americans seek a political solution, although how one might be achieved remains unclear. What they have in mind is obviously at variance with what the Russians want when they preach a political solution. The Americans want one without Mr. al-Assad; the Russians want one with him.Absent a clear winner of the war, a political solution would require compromise in a society wounded by decades of repression, defined by desires for vengeance and riven by sectarian divides among Shiites, Sunnis and Alawites, the smallest of the three groups from which Mr. al-Assad’s family and its staunchest supporters come. There are also external forces using Syria as a battleground to suit their interests: Iranians, Hezbollah from Lebanon, al-Qaeda fighters.
As I see it, right now Obama has three options regarding America’s role in Syria.
Option 1: Obama intervenes to change the civil war in Syria
Obama has resisted this approach. This is consistent with his slow and methodical approach to foreign crises. He is not one to rush into a problem area, throwing the weight of the superpower around to fix things, the American way. His preference is to have the major stakeholders in the region around a regional conflict, work together as far as possible to solve problems.
This philosophy (let’s call it the Involved Stakeholders Model, or ISM) has guided Obama’s response to the Arab Spring in Egypt, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and up to now, the Syrian civil war.
To take the unilatertal steps that Senator Maclean and others now call for (arm the rebels; declare a no-fly zone; create buffer zones on the borders of Syria; take out Syrian armed forces; choose sides with some rebels) conflicts with Obama’s Involved Stakeholders Model, and is, in my view, unlikely.
Option 2: Obama sits on the sidelines and hopes for a UN-agreed solution
This hope has now died, for the moment, given Russia and China opposition to the Obama “limited strike” proposal. It is still high on Obama’s list, though, as it is consistent with his Involved Stakeholders Model. The timing is just not right at the moment.
Option 3: Obama uses the serious crisis to change the dynamics for a negotiated solution
Obama is an opportunistic president. When the 2008 meltdown presented itself, he jumped on it to negotiate a stimulus and bailout package with Congress which enabled his Administration to shift large sums of money towards programs dear to his heart (alternative energy, for example).
And he showed an ability to out-negotiate many of his fiercest opponents when the rubber hit the road.
This is the most likely outcome at this time, in my view.
Several things point in this direction.
For one, we are seeing Mission Creep in the stated outcome of the Obama limited strike option. When his Administration first announced this, he took care to define the strike as being a limited one, designed to punish the use of chemical weapons so as to deter Assad and others from breaching the inernational agreement not to use them.
His framing expressly excluded using the limited strike to change the balance of forces between the government and its many enemies on the ground. It was not, he declared, regime change.
However, now we see signs that the limited strike is considered by the Administration as achieving a change in the balance of power within Syria.
We see the weapons to be used going from a short, sharp burst of missile strikes, to the use of long range bombers with missiles.
We hear Obama and his team talk about seriously degrading Assad’s capacity to launch future chemical attacks. Implicit in this is the targeting of delivery systems (missiles, planes), control centres, the Syrian government forces involved in the delivery of the chemical weapons used in the recent attacks within Syria.
It is highly likely that the limited strike will include the use of American weapons designed to destroy chemical weapons themselves (high heat missiles and bombs), as well as drones and other missile strikes aimed at taking out any Syrian air to ground missile systems.
The result will most likely be a substantial blow to the ability of the Syrian government to use its aircraft to bomb the rebels, a sharp drop in the morale of Syrian government forces, an increase in the ability of the rebels to hold their own and launch further attacks.
The US, according to reports in the press, has been training rebels in the use of weapons supplied by others in the region. This will increase.
France has stated that it will increase the type and volume of arms for the rebels, which will complement the weapons being provided to rebels by Turkey and Saudia Arabia.
And we have seen a subtle shift in public statements by Russia towards some kind of international backing for a negotiated settlement, that does not direcly involve regime change.
So the limited strike will tilt the fighting in Syria towards stalemate, encourage the Assad forces to reconsider a negotiated settlement, and move international discussion closer to Obama's favoured Involved Stakeholders Model, with Russia sending out feelers to work with the USA and other states to start the long and painful process towards negotiation of a cease fire and a brokered settlement.
Very signicant is the imposition by the Senate committee on the Administration of the delivery to Congress of a written statement of its policy to bring about a negotiated settlement. When this White Paper sees the light of day, we can expect a vigorous debate within the US on the objectives, methods and timing of American steps to implement the Involved Stakeholders Model.
As part of this, I would expect ideas to be floated of some form of federal system for Syria, aimed at bringing Russia and China to the table because it allows them to back an international sponsored solution that does not overtly include regime change (Assad’s tribal stronghold could be one region in such a federation, with substantial powers, including armed forces for defensive purposes). This type of solution could allow Russia to exert pressure on the Assad government to join in the negotiations (perhaps Putin will deliver a few copies of Harvard’s Getting to Yes to Assad).
At the very least, by not letting a serious crisis go to waste, Obama will be able to use American unilateral force to break the deadlock that is now the state of play within Syria.
Will it work? For the sake of the millions of war-weary Syrians, let us hope that it does.