by Mitchell Plitnick
It’s too early to tell yet whether Russia’s initiative has removed the threat of a U.S. strike on Syria over the alleged use of chemical weapons. While the signs are as good as could be hoped for at this point, a lot can happen in the upcoming weeks. And, whatever the final disposition of a U.S. strike on Syria, the plight of the Syrian people, which has played almost no substantive part in this debate and has largely been reduced to a propaganda tool for whomever is making their case today, isn’t going to be affected much one way or the other.
But we have already seen enough to determine some winners and losers in this political drama:
AIPAC: Loser The major pro-Israel lobbying organization made a serious mistake by taking their advocacy for a strike on Syria to such a public forum. It would have been easy enough for them to quietly bring their lobbyists to the Hill and advocate their position. The decision to do so as loudly as they did is puzzling to say the least. It seems pretty clear that the Obama administration actually recruited AIPAC to try to drum up support for their position. The extremely powerful lobbying group had followed Israel’s lead and stayed generally silent on Syria until Obama’s announcement of a strike, then suddenly dove in with both feet.
It didn’t work. Based on reports, it seems clear that the lobbyists were less than enthusiastic and their efforts didn’t sway lawmakers. AIPAC’s attempts to keep Israel out of it also failed. They were scrupulous about not mentioning Israel’s security in their talking points, but the very presence of a lobbying group whose raison d’être is protecting Israel’s interests overwhelmed that attempt. AIPAC thought it could separate itself, in the public eye and on this one issue, from Israel, but that was a fool’s game. It doesn’t help that it was untrue that this was not about Israel. While Israel would surely prefer that Syria not have any chemical or biological weapons, whatever the outcome of the civil war, it’s not that high a priority for them.
But Iran is. Part of the case for a Syria strike has been the notion that backing off would show weakness and embolden Iran in its alleged quest for nuclear weapons. Israel, therefore, backed Obama’s decision, but this wasn’t a compelling reason for it to get publicly involved in the domestic quarrel over the strike. Indeed, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was said to have made a few phone calls to allies on the Hill, but it was clear from the outset that he had learned well the lessons from the 2012 election about being seen as meddling too much in domestic US politics. He cannot be happy with AIPAC’s strategy here of doing this so loudly and publicly.
Between the bad strategy and the ineffectiveness of their lobbying, at least for now, AIPAC takes a hit here. It’s by no means a crippling one, but it is significant. When the issue can be framed in terms of Israeli security, there is little doubt AIPAC will have as much sway as always, and when the issue is not one that the U.S. public feels strongly about, their ability to move campaign contributions will have the same impact it has had before. But every time AIPAC is seen to be advocating policy for the U.S. based on Israeli interests, the lobby takes a hit. Enough of those over time will erode its dominance.
John Kerry: loser If Kerry was still an elected official, this might be a different score. But he is a diplomat now and his standing on the world stage was clearly diminished by his actions in this drama. He gets the benefit of it being better to be lucky than good, as his now-famous gaffe ended up being exactly the plan Russia put forth for averting a U.S. strike. But few, aside from fawning Obama boosters, are buying that this was a plan. If it were, the State Department wouldn’t have immediately walked back the statement; it would have waited to see if Russia would “take the bait.” Kerry has come off in all of this as looking all too similar to his predecessors in the Bush administration, talking of conclusive proof while U.S. military and intelligence officials said that his evidence was far from a “slam-dunk.” Kerry is now trumpeting the upcoming UN report that is expected to conclusively state that chemical weapons were used. But everyone, with the exception of a marginal few, believes that already. The question is whether the Assad regime carried out the attack under Assad’s authority. That is far less clear, and the UN does not appear to be stating that conclusion. The evidence thus far suggests that, while Assad having ordered the chemical attack remains a distinct possibility, it is at least as possible that the attack was perpetrated by a rogue commander who had access to the weapons, and against Assad’s wishes.
In any case, Kerry’s eagerness for this attack, and his disregard for international law and process, contrasts starkly with the Obama administration’s stated preference to act differently from its predecessor. Kerry’s standing in the U.S. can easily recover from this, but in the international arena, which is where he works, it is going to be much tougher.
Barack Obama: loser Obama has been in a tough position regarding Syria. He surely does not want to get involved there; such action stands in stark contrast to his desired “pivot to Asia,” as well as his promise to “end wars, not to start them.” And he is as aware as anyone else that the U.S. has little national security interest in Syria. Moreover, despite his opposition to Assad, the U.S. is less than enamored over the prospects of a Syria after Assad, which is likely to be the scene of further battles for supremacy that are very likely to lead to regimes we are not any more in sync with than we are with Assad, quite possibly a good deal less.
But his “red line” boxed him in. It was his credibility, more than the United States’ that was at stake here, and it takes a hit. While it is highly unlikely that anyone in Tehran is changing their view of the U.S. and their own strategic position because of this, it is true that this will shake the confidence of Israel, Saudi Arabia, the al-Sisi government in Egypt and other U.S. allies in the region. That might be good in the long run, but in the short term, it will harm Obama’s maneuverability in the region.
Domestically, Obama reinforced his image as a weak and indecisive leader on foreign policy; his appeal to Congress pleased some of his supporters, but few others were impressed. He has been blundering around the Middle East for five years now, and he doesn’t seem to be getting any better at it, which is discouraging, to say the least.
Vladimir Putin: winner Putin comes out of this in a great position. He really doesn’t care if Assad stays or goes as long as Syria (or what’s left of it) remains in the Russian camp. Acting to forestall or possibly even prevent a U.S. strike on another Arab country will score him points in the region, although after Russia’s actions in Chechnya, he’ll never be terribly popular in the Muslim world. Still, capitalizing on the even deeper mistrust of the United States can get him a long way, and this episode is going to help a lot in the long run. More immediately, it helps Putin set up a diplomatic process that includes elements of the Assad regime, something he has been after for a long time but the rebels have staunchly opposed. With the U.S. now on the diplomatic defensive, he might be able to get it done, especially as war-weariness in Syria grows.
Israel: winner Israel has stayed out of the debate to a large degree. Their rebuke of AIPAC and their public silence on the U.S. debate has helped erase the memory of Netanyahu’s clumsy interference on behalf of his friend, Mitt Romney a year ago. Israel is in no hurry to see the civil war in Syria end, as the outcome is unlikely to be in its favor whichever side wins. And, while all eyes are on Syria no one is paying attention to Palestinian complaints about the failing peace talks. That makes it even easier for Israel to comply with U.S. wishes and keep silent about the talks, planting seeds for blaming the Palestinians for the talks’ inevitable failure. Unlike Obama, Netanyahu seems to be learning from his mistakes, which is not a pleasant prospect for the Palestinians.
Iran: winner While it’s true that the Syria controversy will have little impact on the U.S.-Iran standoff, the show of intense reluctance to stretch the U.S. military arm out again can’t help but please Tehran. It doesn’t hurt either that when, a few days ago, the U.S. tried to appease Israel by mumbling about some “troublesome” things regarding the Iranian nuclear problem, no one took it very seriously and hopes remain high that President Hassan Rouhani will change the course of the standoff. Russia’s maneuvers to keep Syria within its sphere of influence bode well for Iran as well.
The Syrian people: slight winners A U.S. strike would have almost certainly caused an escalation in the Assad regime’s conventional warfare in Syria. Ninety-nine percent of the deaths and refugees have been caused by conventional weapons — that was a good reason for the U.S. not to do it. But increased momentum behind the Russian push is also likely to ensure the war goes on for some time and this increases chances that remnants of the current regime will remain in place at the end of it, even if Assad himself is ousted. Now that the U.S. is determined to arm the rebels to a greater degree, an increasing war of attrition is more likely and that bodes very ill for the people caught in the middle. Considering that some one-third of the population is now either internally displaced or seeking refuge in other countries and a death toll of over 110,000, one must consider avoiding an escalation a victory for these beleaguered people. But outside intervention to stop the killing seems as remote as ever, and the hopes for an international conference to try to settle the conflict are advanced by this episode a bit, but are still uncertain at best.
-Photo: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry directs a comment to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after a meeting that touched on Middle East peace talks and Syrian chemical weapons, in Jerusalem on September 15, 2013. Credit: State Department