Has Obama Found a Peaceful Solution in Syria?


Robin Poulton – TRANSCEND Media Service

While the gladiatorial statements of Senator John McCain and other right wing militarists in America have been constantly favorable to the Sunni aggressors in Syria (led by Iraqis dissatisfied with the Shia-led regime of Prime Minister Nouri al-Malaki and  supported by Al-Qaeda look-alikes funded by Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States), President Barack Obama has shown considerably subtlety in his approach to the Syrian problem.

Unlike his predecessor George W. Bush. Obama understands that the Sunni-Shia split dives Arabs as it divides Islam. He is not at all keen to become bogged down in Syria’s civil war: and that is very smart of him! Despite the imperialistic rhetoric of France’s Laurent Fabius and Britain’s William Hague, Obama has resisted the knee-jerk foreign policies of the American Right, which follow the precept: “Shoot first, take aim later.”

The Syrian war is terrible. The deaths of 1200 or more people from sarin gas is horrible – but not as horrible as the death of 100,000 Syrians in the conventional war since 2011. So the French want to ‘punish’ Syria’s President Asad for using sarin gas. But how? It is very difficult for a reasonable man to understand how killing more Syrians with Cruise Missiles – but deliberately avoiding Asad himself – would provide any sort of useful ‘punishment’. Indictment by the International Criminal Court might fit the bill, but surely adding more deaths to the dreadful toll of civil war would simply be proving our impotence?

While Republican Party commentators naturally accuse Obama of hesitation, of vacillation, of a lack of leadership – for that is how negative opposition politics works in America – the exact opposite has been true. President Obama has been very careful to avoid knee-jerk. He has been thoughtful, and careful. He has been quite un-American in his moderation. He has carefully and cleverly modulated his tone and his vocabulary, and thanks to this we find ourselves today with a negotiation.

President Obama said to the United Nations General Assembly on September 24th: “The ban against the use of chemical weapons, even in war, has been agreed to by 98 percent of humanity. It is strengthened by the searing memories of soldiers suffocated in the trenches, Jews slaughtered in gas chambers, Iranians poisoned in the many tens of thousands.

“The evidence is overwhelming that the Assad regime used such weapons on August 21st. U.N. inspectors gave a clear accounting that advanced rockets fired large quantities of sarin gas at civilians. These rockets were fired from a regime-controlled neighborhood and landed in opposition neighborhoods.

It’s an insult to human reason and to the legitimacy of this institution to suggest that anyone other than the regime carried out this attack.

“Now, I know that in the immediate aftermath of the attack there were those who questioned the legitimacy of even a limited strike in the absence of a clear mandate from the Security Council. But without a credible military threat, the Security Council had demonstrated no inclination to act at all.

“However, as I’ve discussed with President Putin for over a year, most recently in St. Petersburg, my preference has always been a diplomatic resolution to this issue. And in the past several weeks, the United States, Russia and our allies have reached an agreement to place Syria’s chemical weapons under international control and then to destroy them.”

We seem to be on the cusp of a great success for President Obama.

Respect for the views and opinions of other nations has never been an American strength; but Barack Obama understands that the Russians – just like the Turks and the Arabs and the Israelis – have different sets of interests and opinions from Washington. For a start, they live near Syria. The USA lies on the other side of the world.

For the Russians, Syria is a near neighbor: only Turkey separates them. Russia has an important naval base in Syria, its only port on the  Mediterranean Sea. More important still, the southern borders of Russia are almost entirely Muslim. It matters to Russia whether or not Sunni extremists run Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and the other Stans. Russia does not want fanatical jihadists funded by Saudi Arabia to overthrow the stable, non-religious regimes that lie along its long Asian frontier.

From the very first, I have been impressed by the arguments of Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, who has consistently offered wiser counsel than the British or the French.

The BBC’s Steven Rosenberg wrote on September 27th:

“Averting a US military strike on a key ally in the Middle East, while removing the threat from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons: that would already be seen as a stunning success for Moscow.

“According to several Russian newspapers this morning, it would also allow US President Barack Obama to “save face”, by removing the need for a military action most Americans are uneasy with. On the issue of Syria, Russia seems to have kept one step ahead of the United States.

“While President Obama has been accused of U-turns and zigzags, of drawing red lines and being slow to act on them, President Putin has been as solid and unshakeable as the Kremlin walls: consistently opposed to a US strike. The Kremlin’s not for turning. What’s more, Russia believes that its message has been getting through and that its tough stance has helped dilute international support for US military action.”


Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov is one of the heroes of this diplomatic dance, and we should tip our hats to him – especially if we can both avoid more war and get rid of the chemical weapons. But we should not forget that President Barack Obama is the person who has invested the most Western political capital in avoiding war.

Obama runs the world’s most aggressive nation, and he has to face down (almost on a daily basis) the impossible arrogance of the Pentagon, the CIA and the Nations Security apparatus that has been shown time and again to operate an Orwellian system of spying and manipulation on its enemies, its allies and its citizens. As a constitutional lawyer, we must suppose that he is distressed by the unconstitutional behavior of his massive security apparatus. The fact that he has kept America out of the Syrian civil war is a tribute to his strength and determination, and also to the subtlety of his political maneuvering. And he seems to have maneuvered the United States into a position of potential success with this thorny problem of chemical weapons.


Robin Edward Poulton PhD – Professor of French West African Studies (affiliate), School of World Studies, Virginia Commonwealth University. Senior Fellow, UNIDIR Geneva, United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research. Member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace, Development and Environment.


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 30 Sep 2013.

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