Russia helps Obama save face on Syria

Developing Just Leadership

Yusuf Dhia-Allah

Dhu al-Qa'dah 25, 1434 2013-10-01

Main Stories

by Yusuf Dhia-Allah (Main Stories, Crescent International Vol. 42, No. 8, Dhu al-Qa'dah, 1434)

Deft diplomacy by Russia and the Islamic Republic of Iran helped US President Barack Obama save face over Syria. He had got himself into a bind until the Russians’ offered him an escape route.

The Syrian crisis has exposed the limits of brute force as well as the threat of force. No one has come out worse off than US President Barack Obama. He was so carried away by his own rhetoric that he ended up getting egg all over his face. By issuing threats that he could not carry out, quite aside from the fact that such threats are illegal, he dug himself into a hole.

Had it not been for Russia, Obama would have plunged the US into another war whose consequences would be even more catastrophic than Afghan-istan and Iraq. For months, Obama had threatened that the use of chemical weapons in Syria was a “red line.” What he implied without specifying was that the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government was a red line; the rebels could do so without provoking any adverse reaction. This is precisely what happened on August 21 when chemical weapons were used in Ghouta and other localities near Damascus. Instead of condemning the rebels or even bothering to fully investigate, Obama and his NATO allies launched a propaganda campaign against the Syrian government.

There is considerable evidence that the rebels had used such weapons, supplied to them by Saudi intelligence chief, Bandar bin Sultan, the most venal character among the Saudi clan. Reporters on the ground — Yahya Ababneh of Mint Press (www.mintpress.com) — together with Dale Navlak have provided testimony from families of victims as well as some rebel fighters that the chemical weapons were given to them by Bandar without informing them that these contained poison gas.

The allegation that the Syrian government had used such weapons is highly suspicious. Damascus had allowed UN inspectors into the country who were staying at a hotel a mere 15km from where the alleged attack occurred. Immediately, the US, its NATO allies and their lapdog media launched a vicious campaign accusing Damascus of using Sarin gas against its own people. What military or strategic advantage the Syrian government would get and how the West concluded that it was the regime that used such weapons was not explained. American officials, including Obama and his Secretary of State John Kerry kept repeating “we know” President Bashar al-Asad used these weapons. They expected the world to buy into this charade.

Even the American people were not convinced. In fact a poll conducted by Pew Research and published in the USA Today newspaper on September 9 found 63% of Americans opposed to any attack on Syria, large or small. There was similar bad news from town hall meetings across the US. Members of Congress found that a massive 98% opposed another war and many reported they had received not a single phone call in their office in support of the war. Obama was not confident the House of Representatives would give him the backing he was looking for. Even his British allies backed out. On August 29, the British Parliament rejected by a vote of 285 to 272, authorization of war against Syria. Prime Minister David Cameron was visibly shaken and considerably weakened by the vote in parliament. Many of his party backbenchers also voted against the war authorization resolution.

It was in these dire circumstances that the Russians threw Obama a lifeline. He grabbed it with both hands. In his much-anticipated speech from the White House on the evening of September 10, Obama indulged in his usual unsubstantiated allegations accompanied by threats but then he sought refuge in the now familiar refrain. The US is the “greatest constitutional democracy in the world.” He said he was giving diplomacy a chance to resolve the issue of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles. This diplomatic charm offensive was also laced with threats but these began to ring increasingly hollow. His body language clearly betrayed his dilemma. If he could not get the support of US Congress that is infested with hardcore warmongers beholden to the Zionist cabal, how could he rely on NATO allies that offered him only verbal support from the sidelines? Some, like Germany, did not even do that; they openly opposed war without UN Security Council authorization, Obama’s entreaties of limited strikes against Syria notwithstanding.

It was to Geneva that Obama next turned where he sent Kerry to meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to get him out of the cul de sac into which he had driven the American truck. From September 12, Kerry and Lavrov huddled together for three days to hammer out a solution. Initially, the meeting was supposed to last one day, but had Kerry returned empty-handed from Geneva, it would have multiplied Obama’s problems. Lakhdar Brahimi, the veteran Algerian diplomat who is serving both as UN envoy as well as the Arab League representative, was also invited. On September 14, an agreement was finally announced that the Syrians had already accepted on September 10 through its Foreign Minister Waleed Muallem during his visit to Moscow.

Under the agreed framework Syria would confirm it is eliminating all its chemical weapons. Damascus was asked to submit a comprehensive list of its chemical weapons, presumably to the UN, in one week. Syria must destroy its stockpile of chemical weapons by mid-2014.

The Geneva meeting revealed other realities of contemporary global politics. Russia had all the cards while the US had a weak hand, as admitted to even by the former US Defence Secretary William Cohen in a CNN interview on September 13. The US had to accept Russia as and equal; Washington’s European allies Britain, France and Germany were pointedly excluded from deliberations. There were other subtexts as well to Geneva: the resistance front comprising Syria, Iran and Hizbullah had successfully withstood American pressure and threats and it was Obama who blinked.

Obama’s threats of attack did not go unanswered either. Russian President Vladimir Putin, a key ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said any attack on Syria “is unacceptable under the United Nations Charter and would constitute an act of aggression.” Al-Asad also said he would retaliate if his country were attacked and that the US would lose in any such confrontation. He was even given air time on PBS for an interview with Charlie Rose that was aired on September 8.

The Rahbar of Islamic Iran, Imam Seyyed Ali Khamenei also called any attack on Syria a grave mistake that would cost the US dearly. Iranian commanders were more explicit: can the US and the world afford the closure of the Strait of Hormuz (to stop the flow of oil) for even one day? Washington warlords were put on notice. On September 5, a high level delegation of Iranian MPs and other officials visited Damascus to meet Bashar al-Asad. After the meeting the Iranian delegation held a press conference. Western journalists repeatedly asked the Chairman of the Majlis Foreign Affairs Committee Alaeddin Burujerdi what Iran’s reaction would be if the US attacked Syria. His answer delivered the clearest message yet to the US. He said Iran’s response to any such attack would prove that “the era that the US can hit and run is over.” America got the message.

Syria’s acceptance of the Russian proposal to eliminating its stockpile of chemical weapons called Obama’s bluff. On September 11, the Syrian ambassador to the UN, Bashar al-Jafari said his country had become a full member of the international treaty prohibiting the use of chemical weapons when he submitted a letter to the UN agreeing to join the convention.

It would be tempting but erroneous to conclude that it was public pressure that stayed Obama’s hand. While not dismissing the utility of public pressure, the warmongers do not pay much attention to such sentiment. After all, there were far bigger rallies against the 2003 US-NATO war on Iraq in Europe and North America. That did not prevent George Bush from launching a war on a pack of lies. The August 29 vote in the British parliament revealed the first crack in the warmongers’ armor. British MPs had not suddenly become peaceniks; they knew Syria would be no cakewalk like Iraq or Libya. And with the bitter experience of Afghanistan still fresh and the Afghans delivering more blows, the British MPs did not have the stomach for additional misadventures.

It would be wrong to conclude that the Washington warlords have suddenly realized the error of their ways and would like to give diplomacy a chance. The overwhelming weight of the counter current has stayed their hand at present but it will be interesting to see how long this lasts. War is like drug addiction. Its added advantage, from the warmongers’ point of view, is that it is profitable business. How can they be weaned from such addiction? The only antidote is what the Afghans are delivering and what would be delivered in an even bigger dose if the US were to attack Syria.

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