Earlier, Allahpundit postulated that the difficulty in disarming Syria’s Bashar al-Assad would result in two choices for Barack Obama — going ahead with missile strikes or further humiliation at the UN. It looks like Assad definitely has the latter in mind, but only after a long period of stalling:
In exchange for relinquishing his chemical arsenal, Mr. Assad said Thursday, he will require that the United States stop arming the Syrian opposition — a demand that might seem wishful from the leader of a devastated country where civil war has left 100,000 dead, two million living as refugees and large swaths of territory beyond his control.
Mr. Assad outlined his demands on Thursday, telling a Russian TV interviewer that the arms-control proposal floated by his patron in Moscow would not be finalized until “we see the United States really wants stability in our region and stops threatening, striving to attack and also ceases arms deliveries to terrorists.”
Secretary of State John Kerry delivered a blunt response to Mr. Assad’s comments after meeting Thursday with Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, saying the standard procedures for identifying and securing the weapons were too slow in Syria’s case. “There is nothing standard about this process,” Mr. Kerry said. “The words of the Syrian regime, in our judgment, are simply not enough.”
Mr. Assad, sounding relaxed and confident, hinted in his interview that the Russian proposal — which requires Syria to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention — could become a lever for endless negotiations and delays, much as Saddam Hussein delayed arms control inspectors during the 1990s. “It doesn’t mean that Syria will sign the documents, fulfill the obligations, and that’s it,” Mr. Assad said.
No kidding. TNR’s Julia Ioffe told Jake Tapper the same thing last night, noting that this is one of Vladimir Putin’s favorite gambits, and for a specific purpose:
“This is a classic Russian tactic,” said Julia Ioffe, editor at The New Republic who was a Moscow-based reporter for years.
Putin is muddying the waters, said Ioffe, hiding the fact that it makes no sense to deny that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons on his people, but at the same time, express interest in having Assad give up his chemical weapons.
The op-ed also demonstrates what Ioffe calls a cornerstone of Putin’s presidency – raising Russia off its knees.
“He believes Russia was humiliated in the 90s at the end of the Cold War, humiliated by America. This is Russia standing up to America,” said Ioffe. “He’s also obsessed with not having a unipolar world. Not having America call all the shots across the globe.” …
“He’s bought Assad a ton of time. And now he’s gotten Obama to put aside what was one of the goals of military strikes, (which) was to get Assad from power. Now we’ve given up on that, now we’re just talking about this one detail of chemical weapons,” said Ioffe.
In other words, mission accomplished, at least for the foreseeable future. Putin and Sergei Lavrov aren’t risking anything with a failed proposal for reasons Ioffe states, but also because it just will have delayed the perhaps-inevitable. Russia will get credit for having pursued diplomacy first before military strikes, and for momentarily derailing Obama’s strategy. But the Russians want to string this out as long as possible before the effort fails (if it does) in order to take the momentum away from Obama on chemical weapons. If an agreement is reached — and here is where it’s in Russia’s interest to facilitate a “solution” — then Russia ends up controlling the effort to disarm, which means perhaps years of stalling.
The UN, however, might put more pressure on Russia with its report on Syria:
UN experts will confirm in a report to be released next week that chemical weapons were used in an attack near Damascus, UN leader Ban Ki-moon predicted Friday.
“I believe the report will be an overwhelming report that the chemical weapons was used,” said Ban who also launched a new outspoken attack on Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad.
Ban also gave a UN estimate that 1,400 people were killed in an August 21 attack which led to western threats of a military strike on Assad’s forces.
The UN won’t place direct blame, which will leave open the question of which side carried out the attack. They aren’t as reticent in another context, though, accusing the Syrian army of deliberately bombing and shelling hospitals and refusing medical care to captured rebels and sympathizers:
Syrian government forces are bombing and shelling hospitals in rebel-held areas to stop sick and wounded getting treatment, acts which constitute war crimes, U.N. investigators said on Friday.
Fighters loyal to President Bashar al-Assad purposefully denied people medical care as a “weapon of war”, they added in a report. They also had details of a smaller number of incidents when rebel forces attacked hospitals.
“The pattern of attacks indicates that government forces deliberately targeted hospitals and medical units to gain military advantage by depriving anti-government armed groups and their perceived supporters of medical assistance,” the report said. …
The Syrian army has occupied hospitals, using them as bases for snipers, tanks and soldiers, according to the report. Ambulance drivers, nurses and doctors have been attacked, arrested, tortured or disappeared in “insidious” violations of international law.
“Intentionally directing attacks against hospitals and places containing the sick and the wounded and against medical units using the Red Cross or Red Crescent emblem is a war crime in non-international armed conflict,” the independent investigators said, referring to a legal term for civil war.
If the US and UN wanted an entrée into the civil war, that report might make for better fodder than the chemical-weapons reports. However, the kind of intervention needed to prevent these kinds of war crimes would require boots on the ground, which the White House has repeatedly rejected and which the American people would strongly oppose in any case. The new report might give Kerry more leverage to push the Russians farther and faster on the chemical-weapons issue, but first they’d have to see significantly more competence and resolve from Barack Obama than has been demonstrated over the last few weeks.