Syria – the waiting game

President Obama's decision to seek approval from Congress for airstrikes in Syria looks like a smart move, at least in terms of American politics.

Following the parliamentary vote in Britain last week which left him without a key ally, and in the face of a discordant clamour from critics who said his plan for limited airstrikes was either a step too far or a step not far enough, Obama was beginning to look isolated. So he has done what any clever politician would do, and shifted the onus elsewhere. Congress will now carry the can for whatever decision is made.

There's a detailed analysis by Amy Davidson for the New Yorker who says:

"This may be the first sensible step that Obama has taken in the Syrian crisis, and may prove to be one of the better ones of his presidency – even if he loses the vote, as could happen. Politically, he may have just saved his second term from being consumed by Benghazi-like recriminations and spared himself Congressional mendacity about what they all might have done. It will likely divide the GOP [the Republican Party]."

In addition to that, by referring it to Congress (while claiming that he is not obliged to do so), Obama has further undermined the notion that we're seeing a re-run of Bush's Iraq war conspiracy. No one can still seriously claim that the president is clutching at chemical weapons as a pretext for invading Syria.

But let's look at the wider implications. What does it mean for Syria, for Russia and the United Nations?

First, it means a delay but Obama says that doesn't really matter: "The Chairman [of the Joint Chiefs of Staff] has indicated to me that our capacity to execute this mission is not time-sensitive; it will be effective tomorrow, or next week, or one month from now."

Meanwhile, the Assad regime has gone into lock-down mode to await the missiles. Reuters reported last week that military command centres were being evacuated from their normal buildings and, according to the opposition, being transferred to underground bunkers of civilian buildings such as schools.

That could make targeting of any airstrikes more difficult but it was already happening when the British parliament met on Thursday, so a further delay may not make much difference on that count.

The US Congress will not return from its summer break until September 9, so there will definitely be no bombing before then. Hopefully, this period of uncertainty and waiting will have some impact on the regime, distracting it from its battle with the rebels as it focuses on its strategy for surviving airstrikes. It might even decide that any more chemical attacks in the meantime would not be a brilliant idea.

On the propaganda front, the regime hasn't made much effort to catch up with the latest developments. This morning, the main story from SANA, the government news agency, is an attack on 
Kerry's statement last Friday which it says "brings to mind the lies promoted by Colin Powell before the invasion of Iraq" and is "a desperate attempt to talk the world into accepting the upcoming US aggression". This, it adds, "only serves the political interests of the United States, not the interests of its people."

So far, Russia seems as intransigent as ever. On Friday, President Putin said he was "convinced" that the chemical attacks near Damascus were "nothing more than a provocation by those who want to drag other countries into the Syrian conflict, and who want to win the support of powerful members of the international arena, especially the United States."

If the Americans had evidence that Assad's forces were responsible they should present it to the UN weapons inspectors and the Security Council, Putin said.

The question this raises is what evidence – if any – would persuade Putin to change his mind. He has already said that intercepts of regime communications cannot be used to take "fundamental decisions", but what if the inspectors find that the chemical used was indeed sarin and that it came from weapons that only the regime possesses?

Putin's insistence on irrefutable proof is not reflected in his own government's evidence-free claims about who was responsible or in various "news" websites like Russia Today and The Voice of Russia which constantly regurgitate the Assad regime's propaganda and highlight the flimsiest of stories from the internet (so long as they cast doubt on Assad's culpability).

The latest of these is that rebels have suposdely "admitted" causing the deaths on August 21 by their own mishandling of chemical weapons supplied by Prince Bandar of Saudi Arabia. 

In theory, the delay waiting for Congress to make up its mind could also provide time to explore alternative solutions to the chemical weapons crisis, but that doesn't look very promising at the moment.

Up to now, Russia has blocked moves in the Security Council to get tough with Syria on the grounds that it wants to prevent military intervention. This is partly because it says it was misled over the earlier intervention in Libya but mainly it is aimed at shielding Assad – probably not for Assad's own sake but to maintain some influence in the region.

That stance now, though, is having the opposite effect and is pushing the US in a military direction. Yesterday, Obama justified his call for Congress to back military action by saying he was "comfortable going forward" without UN approval because the Security Council "so far, has been completely paralysed and unwilling to hold Assad accountable".
Posted by Brian Whitaker
Sunday, 1 September 2013