Bob Schwartz

Tag: Bashar al-Assad

Suit and Tie: The Sad and Silly Syrian Election

Syrian President Assad Votes

It is reported that President Bashar al-Assad wore a dark suit and light blue tie for voting in today’s Syrian election. Good reporting. He looked good. So did his wife Asma.

Assad actually had opponents, the first time Syria has had a contested presidential election in fifty years. No one could think that this opposition meant anything. The other candidates could not think so. And yet there were supporters and voters at the polls, maybe out of fear, maybe out of hope, maybe just wanting to pretend things are normal. Some new normal, so that with one more term, a few more years added to his enlightened regime, there would be no more deaths after the 160,000, no more displaced and refugees after the millions.

Journalists and other nations are sworn by a sense of fairness and professionalism and diplomacy and sovereignty to pretend that this is an election, even if they have some quibbles. They might, if they had a better sense of irony or humor, treat it like Halloween or Mardi Gras. An occasion on which one dresses up to play the part of something you are not, say, a democratically elected leader in dark suit and light blue tie.

The U.S. also had an election during a civil war. Lincoln did have opposition and he did win. Whatever he wore when he voted, he certainly didn’t look as slick as Assad, nor was Mary Todd as socialite beautiful as Asma. By that point Lincoln was deeply tired and sick of the horrible conflict and would do anything he could to finally end it. The good news is that there would be only a few more months of war. The not so good news is that even with the good that came, it would take decades for the wounds to begin healing. The worst news, for Lincoln and the country, is that he would soon be assassinated.

Lincoln and the civil war were sad but never silly. Assad, in his dark suit and light blue tie, within this hollow semblance of an election, is sad and morbidly silly. Unlike Lincoln, he may be around for years, continuing to rack up votes and deaths. But looking real good.

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Syria: So This Was the Plan All Along

The Sting
The Syria strategy may have looked improvised or haphazard. It turns out that all along it was a master plan. A sting. A long con. Aimed at having Assad turn over his chemical weapons.

It began with President Obama’s mention of a chemical weapons red line two years ago. Even after there was evidence that chemical weapons were being used a year ago, it was too soon to make a play. And then it was time.

Everybody knew their part. The President beat the limited and unbelievably small war drums. The international community and Congress demurred, feigning reluctance. Most of all, John Kerry’s penchant for overtalking was the most valuable tool. One loose remark after another, and then the trap was sprung. He mentioned the “impossible” possibility that Assad would turn over his chemical weapons in a week. The State Department would pretend that this offhanded remark was not administration policy. Assad and his Russian handler took the bait. Very soon—maybe not a week but soon—Syrian chemical weapons would be in the hands of the international community, ready to be destroyed.

Back in the real world, here is another possible behind the scenes scenario.

John Kerry continued to say stuff, lots of stuff. Asked if there was any way for Assad to avoid a strike, Kerry did indeed mention turning over the chemical weapons in a week. It was an accident.

Vladimir Putin and Bashar al-Assad are power hungry political survivors, one more venal and voracious than the other. One or both of them sensed an opening.

It was Putin who may have said: This chemical weapons business is bad for all of us. The world knows you are our client state, and while I don’t mind defending you most of the time, this isn’t in either of our best interests. You can do whatever you want to hold on to power by conventional means; we will continue to help. The chemical weapons can be our trump card and it is time to play it. Once we come to the table, we can keep this negotiation going for months. As long as there is the appearance or the slightest possibility of progress, there will be no military action. Meanwhile, you can continue to pursue your war with no interference. I get to look a little bit like a hero and statesman—I don’t expect miracles—and you get to look like someone who isn’t averse to being part of civilized humanity. We both win.

The American scenario is already unfolding. While the administration is cautious about this latest development, it does claim that whatever good comes out of it will be due to their willingness to respond militarily. For the moment, it is hard to say who is more relieved, the President or Congress. The President may avoid having his request for authorization turned down. In Congress, those who continued to sit on the fence may be gloating, as a vote may be delayed or never taken.

And John Kerry? With all due respect, when you are smart and articulate, if you keep talking long enough, something good is bound to happen.

“Pentagon Is Ordered to Expand Potential Targets in Syria With a Focus on Forces”

Syria

This headline— Pentagon Is Ordered to Expand Potential Targets in Syria With a Focus on Forces—is from a New York Times story yesterday. It has not been as widely reported as it should. And it should, because it might make some people more uneasy than they already are.

The story begins:

President Obama has directed the Pentagon to develop an expanded list of potential targets in Syria in response to intelligence suggesting that the government of President Bashar al-Assad has been moving troops and equipment used to employ chemical weapons while Congress debates whether to authorize military action.

Mr. Obama, officials said, is now determined to put more emphasis on the “degrade” part of what the administration has said is the goal of a military strike against Syria — to “deter and degrade” Mr. Assad’s ability to use chemical weapons. That means expanding beyond the 50 or so major sites that were part of the original target list developed with French forces before Mr. Obama delayed action on Saturday to seek Congressional approval of his plan.

For the first time, the administration is talking about using American and French aircraft to conduct strikes on specific targets, in addition to ship-launched Tomahawk cruise missiles. There is a renewed push to get other NATO forces involved.

The strikes would be aimed not at the chemical stockpiles themselves — risking a potential catastrophe — but rather the military units that have stored and prepared the chemical weapons and carried the attacks against Syrian rebels, as well as the headquarters overseeing the effort, and the rockets and artillery that have launched the attacks, military officials said Thursday….

Obviously we are not going to blow up stockpiles of chemical weapons, even assuming we know where they are. But this news puts the question in starker relief. If our goal is to both punish Assad and to reduce the possibility of his using chemical weapons again, we are not going to do that by taking them out of his hands. But if not that way, then how? And the answer from this report is that we intend to weaken his ability to make war more generally—because the people and equipment that make chemical warfare possible are the same ones that make the overall bloody war on his people possible. And at that point, intentionally or incidentally, we have generally intervened in the conflict, no matter how limited the basis.

And that, as this news report helps clarify, is what is bothering members of Congress, members of the military and a lot of Americans.