The Leopard and the Impala: Putin astutely plays Obama for a chump

We can’t know for sure what the outcome will be with respect to the Russian proposal to put chemical weapons in Syria under international control and eventually to destroy them.

But I have a sinking feeling in my stomach, as al-Assad argues that Israel will have to give up its chemical and nuclear weapons and Russia cuts down a French proposal for a strong Security Council resolution under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter, adding that it doesn’t think anything more will be necessary than a (legally meaningless) Security Council “Presidential Statement” taking note of Syria’s accession to the Chemical Weapons Convention.

The “international control” that would be exercised under the ordinary terms of the Chemical Weapons Treaty would give al-Assad infinite opportunities to quibble with the inspectors, while his armies continue to commit war crimes and crimes against humanity against his people.

Several observations are in order:

1. Obama has shown through his vacillating and weak-kneed “pivots” on Syria that he doesn’t have the intestinal fortitude to pull the trigger on planned military action against Syria.

His character is weak. The world now knows this. The consequences to our national security are likely to be grave.

2. Obama has also shown that he is not a stalwart ally or leader, and instead is one who doesn’t hesitate to pull the rug out from under those whose help he has enlisted. A powerful example of this was offered by his decision to undercut Turkey and others who were planning military action a year ago, deciding instead “to work through the Russians”.

In this last week, we have seen multiple examples of how he undercuts members of his own team, e.g., after John Kerry made a strong case for military action and then Obama gave it the “soft-sell” in what was almost a casual manner. Or, following Samantha Power’s strong words regarding the perfidious role the Russians have played in the Security Council, when Obama made a 180 degree turn on a dime and ignored all of that, looking instead to the Russians to lead the effort to get Syria to give up their chemical weapons.

3. The president has also shown that he is the ultimate loner, deciding without consulting anyone else to submit a request for authorization for military action against Syria to the Congress.

It was a moment when he might have pulled the trigger. He flinched. Now his fleet that was on station in the Mediterranean, according to DEBKAfile, has dispersed.

Pulling the trigger in public, as opposed to pulling the trigger in the black shadows of the basement of the White House during a drone strike operation, turns out to be incredibly difficult for the president.

The Russian plan if fully implemented would solve the problem of chemical weapons in Syria. But it would also legitimize al-Assad’s hold on power, potentially at the cost of an undertaking to forswear the use of force against Syria no matter what happens there.

Just as he pulled the rug out from under the Turks a year ago, Obama is willing to pull the rug out from under the Syrian opposition forces we have been encouraging, in word if not in deed, for the last two years. Nor has Obama publicly supported the French who were preparing to present a strong draft Security Council resolution on Tuesday.

However abhorrent their support for and complicity in the crimes against humanity and the war crimes Bashar al-Assad and his regime have committed against the Syrian people, including through the use of chemical weapons at Ghouta on August 21, 2013, it is hard not to appreciate on a technical level the cold-blooded effectiveness with which Sergei Lavrov and Vladimir Putin have sized up Obama, and successfully played him for a chump.

Nonetheless, their bad faith is manifest from the simple fact that Putin continues to insist the attack at Ghouta was by rebel forces, contrary to all available evidence and without producing a shred of evidence himself for that baleful proposition.

The only way a chemical weapons ban in Syria would make any sense would be if it were imposed by the Security Council on Syria through a binding resolution adopted under the authority of Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter.

Even then, it would not make sense unless it opened the way to further collaboration with the Russians in an urgent effort to establish a ceasefire at the earliest opportunity.

Otherwise, the U.S. will have handed Putin and al-Assad an enormous military and diplomatic victory. Having forestalled a palpable risk of military action by the United States against Syria, they could now play the old delay and divide game where any solution depends on al-Assad’s agreement to this or that provision of this or that agreement. The impeteus for military action by Obama will have passed, after his powerful demonstration of weak resolve when the cards were in his hands.

One further point is that Obama’s failure to offer any detailed legal justification for military action against Syria has made it almost impossible for him to build a coalition and a base of support outside the circle of the oldest friends of the United States in Europe and the Gulf, and undoubtedly has also hurt him on Capitol Hill.

So, we can conclude that Obama is not likely to use force against Syria, even under the most compelling of circumstances.

His argument for military action against Syria is divorced from a cogent strategic rationale, while he shows that despite the gassing of over 1400 civilians in Ghouta on August 21, 2013, he remains determined not to try to shift the balance in Syria. Nothing in his policy towards Syria has changed; only the chemical weapons issue has grabbed his attention, and he appears willing to sell out the Syrian opposition and the Gulf states in order to pursue a solution to “his Syrian problem” by “working through the Russians”.

For the moment, he is left with his Russian friends, and what they might deign to do to help him extricate himself from the utter fiasco he has created in the last two years, and the last month in particular, in Syria–and politically back in the United States.

It is bad enough to have a president who is an incompetent foreign policy leader. That misfortune is infinitely compounded when that president is a control freak, and insists on making every foreign policy call himself.

Given his incompetence and that of his White House team, “the gang who couldn’t shoot straight”, the best we Americans can hope for is that through some kind of miracle Obama will relinquish tight control over foreign policy and allow his Secretary of State, who seems eminently qualified for the job, to take the lead. The president’s job would be to back him up.

But of course we live in a world of infinite possibilities, where elephants can fly. Maybe there will be a deal for al-Assad to surrender his chemical weapons, under the terms of a strong Security Council resolution.

Maybe Obama will find the intestinal fortitude to stand up to the Russians when they don’t play nice.

Maybe Obama will remember America’s friends in the Gulf, and how they are likely to react to a U.S. betrayal of the Syrian opposition.

Maybe the Republicans and Democrats in Congress will grasp the disastrous fiasco in Syria the United States has fallen into in the last month, and decide to provide the bipartisan support the president may need to act effectively in the current situation.

One can hope for the best, and hope to be surprised in a positive sense. Maybe elephants can fly.

The Trenchant Observer

About the Author

James Rowles
"The Trenchant Observer" is edited and published by James Rowles (aka "The Observer"), an author and international lawyer who has taught International Law, Human Rights, and Comparative Law at major U.S. universities, including Harvard, Brandeis, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Kansas. Dr. Rowles is a former staff attorney at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) of the Organization of American States OAS), in Wasington, D.C., , where he was in charge of Brazil, Haiti, Mexico and the United States, and also worked on complaints from and reports on other countries including Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. As an international development expert, he has worked on Rule of Law, Human Rights, and Judicial Reform in a number of countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and the Russian Federation. In the private sector, Dr. Rowles has worked as an international attorney for a leading national law firm and major global companies, on joint ventures and other matters in a number of countries in Europe (including Russia and the Ukraine), throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and in Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, China and Japan. The Trenchant Observer blog provides an unfiltered international perspective for news and opinion on current events, in their historical context, drawing on a daily review of leading German, French, Spanish and English newspapers as well as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and other American newspapers, and on sources in other countries relevant to issues being analyzed. Dr. Rowles speaks fluent English, French, German, Portuguese and Spanish, and also knows other languages. He holds an S.J.D. or Doctor of Juridical Science in International Law from Harvard University, and a Doctor of Law (J.D.) and a Master of the Science of Law (J.S.M.=LL.M.), from Stanford University. As an undergraduate, he received a Bachelor of Arts degree, also from Stanford, where he graduated “With Great Distinction” (summa cum laude) and received the James Birdsall Weter Prize for the best Senior Honors Thesis in History. In addition to having taught as a Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, Dr. Rowles has been a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University's Center for International Affairs (CFIA). His fellowships include a Stanford Postdoctoral Fellowship in Law and Development, the Rómulo Gallegos Fellowship in International Human Rights awarded by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and a Harvard MacArthur Fellowship in International Peace and Security. Beyond his articles in The Trenchant Observer, he is the author of two books and numerous scholarly articles on subjects of international and comparative law. Currently he is working on a manuscript drawing on some the best articles that have appeared in the blog.