US Negotiating Position in Lavrov-Kerry Deal Depends on Expansive Commander-in-Chief Claims

Four weeks ago, our goal in Syria was regime change — to back the purportedly vetted rebels we’ve been training covertly in hopes they could defeat not only Bashar al-Assad, but also the more extreme (and better trained and more determined) Al Qaeda-tied fighters seeking to overthrow him.

Now, we are partners with Russia in ridding Syria of its chemical weapons. Congratulations to Putin on pulling this off (and to Obama for responding to a lifeline to at least get some positive benefit out of this, assuming Assad complies). May this save the lives of innocent Syrians.

While the framework that Sergei Lavrov and John Kerry just agreed to does allow the US to demand a UN resolution backing use of force in case Assad does balk,

The United States and the Russian Federation concur that this UN Security Council resolution should provide for review on a regular basis the implementation in Syria of the decision of the Executive Council of the OPCW, and in the event of non-compliance, including unauthorized transfer, or any use of chemical weapons by anyone in Syria, the UN Security Council should impose measures under Chapter VII of the UN Charter.

The proposed joint US-Russian OPCW draft decision supports the application of Article VIII of the Chemical Weapons Convention, which provides for the referral of any cases of non-compliance to the United Nations General Assembly and the United Nations Security Council.

According to the AP the US does expect Russia would still veto such a resolution, and has instead made it clear it would act using Commander-in-Chief authority to protect “US interests.”

The resolution would come under Chapter 7 of the United Nations charter, which allows for military action, but U.S. officials acknowledge Russia would veto such a step and do not contemplate seeking authorization for the use of force. U.S. officials stress that President Barack Obama retains his right as U.S. commander-in-chief to conduct military strikes to defend American national security interests in the absence of U.N. authorization.

In other words, the US at least anticipates going to war unilaterally in any case. (For a laugh, read this John Bellinger piece which claims this makes this agreement just like Iraq because we went into Iraq because Saddam was insufficiently cooperative with inspectors looking for the WMD he didn’t have.)

Unlike Saddam, Assad has at least the hypothetical ability to comply with this agreement (though I expect Jim will have a lot to say in coming days about the practicality of the plan to move and destroy the weapons).

But as Marc Lynch made clear in a piece written before this agreement, we continue to be captive to the Gulf sheikhs’ demands.

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.


The proxy-war strategy means that managing Syria’s civil war will consume America’s diplomatic and strategic agenda for the foreseeable future to the exclusion of many other important goals. That means giving up on pushing for important regional policy initiatives that Riyadh or Abu Dhabi oppose, such as promoting democracy and human rights in the region or finding a diplomatic resolution with Iran.

And those Gulf-backed fighters — at least the ones with the guns — have already made it clear they have no intention of standing down or even allowing CW inspectors to do their work.

In Istanbul, the head of the opposition Syrian Supreme Military Council, General Selim Idris, said the rebels regarded the deal as a blow to their struggle to oust Assad. But they would cooperate to facilitate the work of any international inspectors on the ground, he told Reuters.

But another military council official, Qassim Saadeddine, said the opposite.

“Let the Kerry-Lavrov plan go to hell. We reject it and we will not protect the inspectors or let them enter Syria.”

If Assad successfully eliminates his CW, the rebels know, they’ll lose their leverage to force the US into the fight, which may make it impossible to overthrow Assad. But, because we exercise little leverage over them, we may not be able to prevent them from scuttling the disarmament process and therefore force the US back to the position of enforcing a policy it says it backs.

Which leaves Obama where he was: with his claim that he can go to war against a country where we’ve got only secondary national interest based on Commander-in-Chief authority. Perhaps a failed CW disarmament — even one thwarted by the rebels rather than Assad — will provide Congress with reason to approve a war in Syria, but I doubt it, especially not if it is clear the rebels were responsible (which I assume the Russians have every intention of ensuring).

I really don’t know what will happen. Either we will be forced — after having taught, via Saddam and Qaddafi that disarming is a good way to be killed — to let Assad retain hold of power. Or we’re going to be back where we were last week, where we threaten dubious authority to use force in a pyrrhic hope yet more regime change will actually solve the underlying issues we won’t actually address.

In any case, I’m pretty sure I know what the Russians — who, after all, won this round — intend: that’s to protect Assad’s hold on power, via whatever means. And frankly, that’s what we are — explicitly, at least — seeking as well, even while we continue to arm rebels trying to overthrow him.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

23 replies
  1. SpanishInquisition says:

    No matter what Obama is going to find an excuse for war – and all the better to disarm Syria first. This is the same thing as Iraq, Libya, etc. Look at the Libyan regime change under merely a theoretical threat, which this regime change was done by Obama after Libya gave up chemical weapons. Pseudo-humanitarian excuses are always made to get us into ME regime change wars, like look at the Obama administration paid fraud O’Bagy who the Obama administration was using as justification for war.

  2. jo6pac says:

    Well this just gives the Russian, China, and Iran more time to ship in more arms and that works for me. I don’t how accrete this sites are but they are interesting.

    I think Assad will remove the chemical weapons, anything to get rid of some rusting old weapons that become someone else problem. Then we’ll will attack, pretty F$$$$$$ sad.

  3. ess emm says:

    I am actually hopeful that the US’s very public anti-CW policy causes it to abandon its arm the insurgents covert policy. The covert policy works to the detriment of the other—which needs Assad to carry through on destroying the CW.

    This has been a victory for the ordinary American who opposes war. The political coalition that opposed it must be strengthened, and then no matter what Article II arguments are made they wont be politically achievable.

  4. CTuttle says:

    According to the AP the US does expect Russia would still veto such a resolution…

    Actually, I think Putin can checkmate it still, by merely abstaining and letting the Chinese veto the Chapt. VII actions…! ;-)

  5. TarheelDem says:

    The claims by the FSA that Assad is moving his chemical stocks into Lebanon means that the FSA realizes that they have already lost their leverage to entrap the US into supporting their war based on the “red line” statement. Logistically, moving the chemical stocks through Lebanon and loading them on a ship to the US or Russia is the most efficient way to expedite compliance with today’s agreement. The chemical stocks will be destroyed out-of-country based on the Nunn-Lugar agreement between the US and Russia and supervised by OPCW inspectors. The mixing equipment and production equipment will be destroyed in Syria and verified by OPCW inspectors by the end of November.

    Any future chemical attacks after, say December, will be assumed to be D-I-Y stuff from the rebel side, the “non-state actors”.

    Likely the necessity of UN Security Council enforcement or Presidential Article 2 war powers being invoked is remote.

    That however does not make the President’s absolutist interpretation of Article 2 war powers less disturbing.

  6. VC says:

    I see a very plausible win-win here. If Assad chooses to comply the int’l community will probably begin pushing for a ceasefire to make the plan workable. If he does not comply there is the possibility of security council or unilateral “consequences”. But breaking the deal may also give the int’l community the leverage necessary to impose measures that would make it difficult for Russia to continue arming the regime. Are sanctions and arms embargoes measures that could get through the UN mechanism over Russia and China’s objections?

  7. Bay State Librul says:

    “You can not step into the same river twice; for other rivers are ever flowing on to you.” Heraclitus

    What upsets me most about Syria, Obama, and the Kerry debate was the assumption that this situation would follow like Iraq and Bushie.
    We elected a Prez with a far different world view and can’t we give Barry a pat on the back once in a while? The anger against Obama bothers me……….
    Putin is an ex KGB dick and will fuck us at every point, as one blogger said (Rising Hegemon), let’s not turn him into a hero…

  8. Breton says:

    “…can’t we give Barry a pat?”

    Try this: Obama is a former Harvard Law Review dick and will fuck us at every point!
    Have you been in a coma for the last 5 or 6 years?


  9. ess emm says:

    @Bay State Librul:

    the anger against Obama bothers me

    Maybe if he fires Clapper, Alexander and Brennan he might mitigate that anger. Maybe if he had prosecuted a bankster. Maybe if he had decided against the surge in Afghanistan. Maybe if he reined-in the CIA’s paramilitary mission. Maybe if he personally hadnt decided to extra-judicially kill US citizens.

  10. SpanishInquisition says:

    “We elected a Prez with a far different world view and can’t we give Barry a pat on the back once in a while? The anger against Obama bothers me”

    It’s his worldview that is precisely why he shouldn’t receive a pat on the back. The worldview that you can go around assassinating intentionally assassinating your own citizens is not something I feel should be applauded; Now specifically with Syria I do not share an imperialist warmonger worldview that the President can unilaterally attack Syria or any other country that isn’t threatening us, so I categorically won’t be praising Obama for that.

    “Putin is an ex KGB dick and will fuck us at every point, as one blogger said (Rising Hegemon), let’s not turn him into a hero”

    Putin was still Putin when Bush was President. That would have hardly been a reason to pat Bush on the back.

  11. fatster says:

    @CTuttle: Interesting stuff about Georgia, CTuttle. “Georgia has regularly ranked among the top world states in terms of per capita U.S. aid.” $3.37bn between FY 1991-2010. $85.5m in FY 2012 and requested $620m for FY 2014. “U.S. Security Assistance” , including US troops training, begins on p. 30.


  12. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Doesn’t say much for Mr. Obama’s knowledge of the constitution that he thinks he can start another offensive, pre-emptive war that does not directly and imminently threaten United States territory without congressional approval. That is, unless he views US territory as including the entire world as its imperial territory. Mr. Obama may be taller, but he’s doing a good job imitating Harry Truman, attempting to prove to his inveterate opponents that he’s more like them than they are. Didn’t work out so well for Mr. Truman, either.

Comments are closed.