An Opening in Syria for Obama

Had Obama not issued a real military threat and stationed forces off the coast of Syria, it’s inconceivable the Syrians would have agreed to give up their doomsday weapons – about 1,000 tons of poison gas.

Aner Shalev
Aner Shalev
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Aner Shalev
Aner Shalev

What does U.S. President Barack Obama really want? For weeks now, statesmen and pundits worldwide have been debating this question, and so, it seems, has Obama himself.

His first response to the massacre by chemical weapons in Syria was silence. Then he defined the incident as deeply disturbing, but also warned of the risks of a military response. In his next speech, he stressed that he hadn’t yet decided what to do. And when he finally announced that he had decided on military action, he added that he would seek authorization from Congress for this move.

In other words, at the very moment he decided to attack, he simultaneously decided to take the decision out of his own hands.

This week, when Obama had planned on a media blitz to persuade Americans and their representatives in Congress to support his military blitz, a Russian proposal for the international supervision and destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons suddenly arose, causing what appeared to be yet another flip-flop in American policy.

The proposal, unveiled by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, developed from an idea tossed out by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who said the removal of all chemical weapons from Syria within a week could forestall an attack. Nevertheless, the Americans’ first instinct was to reject it. The State Department hastened to announce that Kerry’s proposal was merely a rhetorical remark. But shortly afterward, Obama himself said in an interview that the Russian proposal should be seriously considered, and might prevent an attack.

Many people worldwide, and of course in Israel as well, criticized Obama’s chronic hesitation and reversals and volunteered to give him advice. And indeed, it’s hard to forge a coalition, either at home or abroad, when the leader is stammering.

Nevertheless, there’s something refreshing in a leader who isn’t happy about rushing into battle, and keeps examining all the alternatives until the very last moment. Former Prime Minister Levi Eshkol was the same way, and he too was accused of stammering on the eve of the Six-Day War. But were Golda Meir and Moshe Dayan, who presided over the Yom Kippur War, really preferable?

The Russian proposal should be adopted and implemented swiftly and effectively. It’s reasonable to assume that Syria will try to conduct lengthy, fruitless negotiations over the details of the plan, just as the Iranians have done in negotiations over their nuclear program and proposals to transfer their enriched uranium outside their borders. But such foot-dragging can be prevented by setting a short, rigid timetable and warning that Syria will be attacked if it doesn’t adhere to it.

U.S. acceptance of the Russian proposal would at first glance undermine America’s credibility and standing in the world, since its threats of war would be revealed as empty. But in reality, implementation of this proposal would be an American victory. Had it not issued a real military threat and stationed forces off the coast of Syria, it’s inconceivable the Syrians would have agreed to give up their doomsday weapons – about 1,000 tons of poison gas that could inflict disaster on the entire region and that can’t be destroyed by an aerial assault. American consent to the plan would also test the Russian President Vladimir Putin’s seriousness, as well as his ability to contribute to an immediate neutralization of Syria’s unconventional threat.

Moreover, much has been said about the Syrian campaign serving as a dress rehearsal for the main campaign, which is against Iran’s nuclearization. If the precedent of a genuine military threat leading to an agreed neutralizing of unconventional weapons works in Syria, there’s a good chance it will also work in Iran. A credible threat to attack could well lead to Iran’s nuclear disarmament without a single shot being fired. And that, rather than a bloody war, would be Obama’s greatest victory.

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