, Salem, MA

September 13, 2013

Watson: Syria has halted its use of gas

Brian T. Watson
The Salem News

---- — The latest developments in the fast-evolving events surrounding the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons came as a surprise to almost everyone. And interestingly, in the United States, everybody from the doves to the hawks can take partial credit for the very appearance of those developments.

It is fascinating, really. Events appear to have followed nobody’s neat geopolitical theories. It appears that the seeming resolution of President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry to take military action against President Assad’s assets was the thing that got Russia’s attention.

And simultaneously, it was Obama’s delay in launching strikes — because he belatedly decided to seek Congressional approval for them — that bought sufficient time for discussion and diplomacy to discover an avenue that may yield a non-violent solution to neutralizing Syria’s chemical weapons.

So there’s something here to make everybody humble, and everybody smarter. Those who are apt to condemn any use of military force can recognize that the credible — imminent almost — threat of American cruise missile strikes is quite possibly the primary reason that Russia and Syria are now willing to negotiate with us. And those warrior-types who were fretting that Obama and America were looking weak and without “credibility” can recognize that our nation’s hegemony is not nearly so evanescent as they apparently believed.

All of that said, the near-standoff is not yet resolved. The world is watching to see if Russia and Syria will really accede to what could be quite severe conditions in any agreement that would halt — possibly permanently — the U.S. or NATO bombing of Syria.

Will President Assad permit U.N. inspectors to survey all of his chemical weapons? In the middle of a civil war, would inspectors even be able to do that?

Will the insurgents cooperate with this entire “peace” endeavor, which actually may have the strange (and unintended?) effect of affirming and legitimizing Assad’s rule as stable, rational and responsible, and one that is sophisticated and businesslike enough to converse within the norms of international diplomacy? Because remember, already it is the religious fanaticism and unpredictable character of much of the Syrian insurgency that has caused the West to doubt that a rebel victory would result in a state more desirable than Assad’s regime. Among other fears, we worry about sarin gas falling into the hands of fundamentalists who would reason with no one.

Lastly, will Assad permit U.N. inspectors to remove his chemical weapons? To destroy them? We don’t yet know, but the sheer magnitude of that task makes it, possibly, improbable.

But as President Obama signaled in his speech on Tuesday night, it is worth pursuing diplomacy before resorting to force.

Two things are worth keeping in mind. One: Assad may not disarm his chemical weapons. But that was never one of our stated goals of bombing him. Deterrence was the goal. Russia and Assad may have the intention of just talking interminably, but even if so, Assad could hardly unleash his chemicals during that diplomatic process. So in fact, we have achieved our primary goal: halting his use of sarin.

Two: it is an immense distraction to keep referring to American “credibility.” We should instead focus on the circumstances of the problem in front of us and bring our best creative efforts to solving it. We are already the biggest, baddest, most capable — and plenty unpredictable — nation in the world, and everybody everywhere already knows it.

We need to understand the facts that we have accepted, facts that tie our hands somewhat and that certainly limit the extent of the influence that we can have in affecting the outcome of the civil war in Syria.

For now, we are accepting Assad’s rule. For now, we are not picking winners among the insurgent groups. For now, we are not interested in American military involvement in Syria. And we hold as a goal not doing anything to enlarge the war — especially beyond Syria’s borders.

So, it looks like we’re where we want to be — which also is only where we can be. For now, we have accomplished all that it is possible for us to accomplish. It may not feel good to have not accomplished more, to have not “punished” Assad, or deposed him, or aided the rebels in Syria who would install a pluralistic, representative democracy. But those are not our goals, and they are well beyond our control, in any event.

Even though for now we are abstaining from military intervention, we do have a dog in this fight, and that is our common humanity and the necessity of crafting ways for all of us to live on a small and shrinking planet. Achieving that goal will probably become harder and harder. Witnessing Syria, where tens of thousands more deaths will almost surely occur, is an excruciating thing to do.


Brian T. Watson is a Salem News columnist. Contact him at