Quotes of the day

After a second day of marathon talks in Geneva between Secretary of State John Kerry and Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov of Russia, both sides expressed optimism, while American officials here said they would give the process a couple of weeks to see if it gained traction. But daunting obstacles remain to dismantling Syria’s vast chemical arsenal as negotiators try to defuse a confrontation that has inflamed politics on three continents.

A significant sign of movement at the United Nations came when the Obama administration effectively took force off the table in discussions over the shape of a Security Council resolution governing any deal with Syria. Although Mr. Obama reserved the right to order an American military strike without the United Nations’ backing if Syria reneges on its commitments, senior officials said he understood that Russia would never allow a Security Council resolution authorizing force.

As a strategic matter, that statement simply acknowledged the reality on the Security Council, where Russia wields a veto and has vowed to block any military action against Syria, its ally. But Mr. Obama’s decision to concede the point early in talks underscored his desire to forge a workable diplomatic compromise and avoid a strike that would be deeply unpopular at home.


Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, head of DOD intelligence, said Thursday it could take as long as seven years to fully account for Syria’s stockpile if a deal is reached.

“I do not have a [high] level of confidence to get through this first iteration” of getting the weapons accounted for, he said.

“I’m hopeful that there’s clear, cool-headed . . . very long-view thinking and decision-making done,” on how to secure the Syrian weapon sites, Flynn said.

That said, “I’m not confident that it’s going to happen overnight.”


Security will be a major worry for the inspectors who are tasked with implementing the agreement; no precedent exists for inspection, removal and destruction of a large chemical weapons stockpile during a raging civil war. Mr. Lavrov said the agreement would require the cooperation of Syrian rebels and not just the government of President Bashar al-Assad. Much of the Syrian opposition is bitter about President Obama’s decision to shelve the threat of military action and to negotiate with Russia, which is a major arms supplier to the Assad government.

“This is very, very difficult, very, very difficult,” an American official said of the agreement. “But it is doable.”…

The document also says that there is to be “complete elimination of all chemical weapons material and equipment in the first half of 2014.”

The framework agreement and the annexes are to be incorporated in a United Nations Security Council resolution that is to be adopted New York. A senior administration official said the schedule outlined in the documents “is daunting, to say the least.”


The head of the opposition Syrian Supreme Military Council said on Saturday a U.S.-Russian agreement to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons was a blow to the two-and-a-half-year uprising to remove President Bashar al-Assad from power…

“All of this initiative does not interest us. Russia is a partner with the regime in killing the Syrian people. A crime against humanity has been committed and there is not any mention of accountability.”

Asked if rebel brigades would facilitate the work of any United Nations weapons inspectors, Idris said: “This is very complicated … If investigators come, we will facilitate the mission. In the regions under our control there are no chemical weapons. I don’t know if this will just mean that investigators will pass through the regions that are under rebel control. We are ready.”

But another military council official, Qassim Saadeddine, said: “Let the Kerry-Lavrov plan go to hell. We reject it and we will not protect the inspectors or let them enter Syria.”


[T]he [new NBC/WSJ] poll also finds 54 percent think Obama has not made a convincing case for action, versus only 33 percent — one third! — who say he has. And 59 percent say they’d oppose it if Obama, “in his role as Commander-in-Chief” (more generous wording), pursues military action absent Congressional approval.

It’s hard to see how this basic dynamic could get shaken up anytime soon, absent something truly dramatic. If diplomacy falters it’s still hard to imagine Congress authorizing action at this point. And the public is clear: No strikes without Congressional approval.

So it seems likely we’re down to two possible outcomes: Either a diplomatic solution will be reached, or the whole thing — when it comes to the American political conversation, at least — will just be allowed to fade away quietly. A diplomatic outcome could certainly upend the politics of all this. I’d argue that previous missteps could well be forgotten in the event of a relatively positive resolution averting war (the public just doesn’t care about process), and it could even conceivably turn into a positive for the White House. But for now at least it seems opposition to any military action is only hardening.


A Military Times survey of more than 750 active-duty troops this week found service members oppose military action in Syria by a margin of about three to one

The results suggest that opposition inside the military may be more intense than among the U.S. population at large. About 64 percent of Americans oppose air strikes, according to a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll published Monday…

“People are just sick of it,” said Lt. Cmdr. Jeffrey Harvey, a nuclear-trained officer who works at Newport News Shipbuilding in Virginia.

“It’s like the old pre-World War II isolationism, I hear grumblings of that. People would rather withdraw all our troops and let the rest of the world figure out what to do. I think there is a lot of credence to that argument.”


U.S. President Barack Obama’s missile strikes against Syria may be off the table for now as diplomatic attention shifts to talks with Russia and the U.N. Security Council. But while negotiators from Moscow and Washington meet in Geneva, the increasing tempo of Washington’s public commitment to a strategy of arming parts of the Syrian opposition continues, with the aim of forcing President Bashar al-Assad to the bargaining table. Such efforts come with a hidden price tag, though: They are not only unlikely to rapidly end the war, but they carry enormous opportunity costs.

When Washington talks about supporting the “moderate opposition,” what it means is leaning on the Persian Gulf regimes to arm and finance its preferred proxy armies (and not the jihadists who have also benefited from Gulf funding). But the current strategy of arming the “good guys” to marginalize the “bad guys” likely means extending the long, grinding civil war with an ever-escalating civilian toll. We should not be fooled by overly rosy assessments of the size, ideology, coherence, or prowess of the Syrian good guys. The Syrian insurgency on the ground is localized, fragmented, and divorced from the external political leadership. Extremists typically thrive in the chaos of civil war, not moderates. And proxies, such as the ever-ungrateful Gen. Salim Idris, will never be satisfied with the aid they receive — nor be reliable allies down the road if a better offer comes along…

Many in Washington are deeply worried about the spreading Sunni-Shiite sectarian conflict reshaping the region. They are right to be concerned. The deepening sectarian divide poses profound risks and threatens to become a self-fulfilling prophecy of regionwide conflict, with a ceaseless stream of blood, repression of minorities, and torn social fabric. But ramping up the armed insurgency in Syria virtually guarantees that these divides will get worse, not better. The Sunni Islamist networks and individuals mobilizing public support for the Syrian jihad across the Gulf tend to be highly sectarian in their discourse. The United States should be pressuring Gulf states to crack down on this sectarian hate speech, but Washington isn’t going to be in a position to pressure the Gulf on anything.


The benefit for Putin in cutting this deal, multiple analysts say, is not only that it protects Assad from American military might — Moscow also hopes that it will strengthen a norm against unilateral intervention. Russia aims to delegitimize military strikes not sanctioned by the U.N. Security Council, where it holds a veto, and fears that this principle was badly eroded by the NATO campaigns in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s, and the Libya campaign more recently. Putin harped on this point in an op-ed published in the New York Times this week, where he argued that Moscow was “not protecting the Syrian government, but international law,” which was one of the only tools to “keep international relations from sliding into chaos.”

The chemical weapons deal, therefore, provided Putin with an opportunity “to make sure that the U.S. is more firmly embedded in international institutions,” according to Gorenburg. “They are the weaker power, and throughout history weaker powers have tried to use international powers to constrain stronger powers.”…

“Here’s what I heard from many people, [who are] not very sympathetic with the Russian position: OK, the Russian line is horrible — but at least Russia has one. Compared to Europe, compared to America, compared to all the rest,” said Lukyanov. “And in a way, this didn’t give more popularity and more sympathy to Russia in the Arab world, but it produced a certain respect. Russia at least knows what it wants.”


Where is the moral outrage from the president, the elite media, the foreign-policy community, or the broader public about Assad’s mass murder of over 100,000 by conventional arms? Where are the liberal protests in solidarity with the victims of the regime in Damascus? Where is the concern about how the ongoing Syrian civil war could affect other countries in the region—potentially destabilizing Lebanon or Jordan? Where is the sense that America has an obligation not just to do what it can to help Syrians, but to prevent the entire surrounding area from sliding into chaos? Except for Sen. John McCain and a handful of columnists and war correspondents, few seem to care about the larger Syrian calamity, which the United Nations has called the worst refugee crisis in that institution’s history. And even fewer call for a humanitarian intervention to stop the Assad regime from slaughtering its own people and flooding the region with desperate refugees…

While Americans may be encouraged by Obama’s assertion that “the tide of war is receding,” the greater Middle East—Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Bahrain, Egypt, Yemen—is in turmoil; the Taliban rules in many parts of Afghanistan; Pakistan’s border regions are still ungoverned; Iran’s nuclear program marches on; and North Korea has just restarted its plutonium production in order to multiply its nuclear-weapons capability. If America is not to be the indispensable nation any longer, as President Obama has signaled, and if liberal internationalism is in decline, who and what will substitute for American leadership on this vast array of global challenges? For the people of Syria, meanwhile, the question is more immediate: will anyone even try to stop the slaughter?


Every war I have ever covered — Kosovo, Bosnia, Sierra Leone and Liberia — withstood all diplomatic efforts to end it until Western military action finally forced a resolution. Even Afghanistan, where NATO troops stepped into a civil war that had been raging for a decade, is experiencing its lowest level of civilian casualties in more than a generation. That track record should force even peace advocates to consider that military action is required to bring some wars to an end

The civil war in Syria has killed more than 100,000 people essentially one person at a time, which is clearly an abomination, but it is not defined as a crime against humanity. The mass use of nerve agents against civilians is a crime against humanity, however. As such, it is a crime against every single person on this planet…

At some point, pacifism becomes part of the machinery of death, and isolationism becomes a form of genocide. It’s not a matter of how we’re going to explain this to the Syrians. It’s a matter of how we’re going to explain this to our kids.