Setting the Record Straight on the Obama Administration’s Chemical-Weapons Deal with Syria

April 20 2018

Responding to Syria’s murderous poison-gas attacks on its own people earlier this month, Matthew Continetti looks back to the reporting on Bashar al-Assad’s chemical-weapons stockpiles five years ago:

I spent a few hours after the [recent] attack rereading the ludicrous coverage that greeted President Obama’s announcement in 2013 that, rather than taking military action, he had entered into an agreement with the Russians to remove and destroy Bashar al-Assad’s chemical stockpiles. The Obama administration knew at the time that the deal would leave Assad plenty of armaments, but officials were happy nevertheless to make statements that left the public with a different and mistaken impression. These statements were often lawyerly, sophistic, and deceptive, using weasel-phrases like “declared chemical weapons.” They assumed that the everyday voter would not recognize that the word “declared” signified a loophole Assad could drive a tank through.

What followed was a dress rehearsal for the Iran nuclear deal of 2015: the agreement was bad and not subject to congressional oversight or approval, the media happily retailed the Obama administration’s message, and now that we are dealing with the fallout in lives and lost credibility from a bad deal deceptively marketed to the public, no member of the Obama-media echo chamber wants to be reminded of his colossal misjudgment and credulity. Let’s remind them. . . .

Assad began transferring weapons to international authorities in the summer of 2014. As liberal pundits and journalists celebrated this supposed victory of diplomacy, they made sure to include caveats allowing that Assad and the Russians—perish the thought—might be lying. . . . On December 6, 2016, Barack Obama bragged, “We’ve eliminated Syria’s declared chemical-weapons program.” But eliminating declared programs does not matter if an undeclared program exists—as Assad demonically revealed in 2017 when he used chemical weapons to attack a town in northern Syria.

Even after the deal was exposed as a farce, however, Obama’s friends were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. On April 7, 2017, a New York Times headline read, “Weren’t Syria’s Chemical Weapons Destroyed? It’s Complicated.” . . . Also last spring, [another] article in the New York Times quoted Tony Blinken, the former national-security adviser to Vice-President Biden. “We always knew,” Blinken said, “we had not gotten everything, that the Syrians had not been fully forthcoming in their declaration.”

Now they tell us.

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More about: Barack Obama, Media, Politics & Current Affairs, Syrian civil war

A Better Syria Strategy Can Help Achieve the U.S. Goal of Countering Iran

While the Trump administration has reversed much of its predecessor’s effort to realign Washington with Tehran, and has effectively used sanctions to exert economic pressure on the Islamic Republic, Omar Hassino argues that these measures might not be enough:

Iran and its militias control more territory and natural resources in Syria and Iraq than before President Trump took office. . . . The U.S. should back the low-cost insurgency approach that has already shown potential in southwest Syria to bleed the Iranian forces and increase the costs of their expansion and [of Tehran’s] support for the Assad regime. It makes no sense that Iran can fund low-cost insurgencies to bleed American allies in the region, but the United States cannot counter with the same. The administration should also consider expanding support to the proxy forces that it currently works with—such as the Revolution Commandos near the [U.S.] al-Tanf garrison in southwest Syria—for the purpose of fighting and eliminating Iranian-backed militias. This limited escalation can curb Iranian expansion and put pressure on the Assad regime in the long term.

Furthermore, in this vein, the U.S. should empower peaceful Syrian civil-society groups and local councils operating outside Assad-regime control. Last year, the Trump administration eliminated assistance for stabilization in Syria, including funding going to secular anti-Assad civil-society groups that were also combating al-Qaeda’s ideology, as well as the Syrian [medical and civil-defense group known as] the White Helmets, before quickly [restoring] some of this funding. Yet the funding has still not completely been resumed, and if this administration takes an approach similar to its predecessor’s in relying on regional powers such as Turkey, these powers will instead fund groups aligned ideologically with Muslim Brotherhood. This is already happening in Idlib.

The United States must [also] jettison the Obama-era [strategy of establishing] “de-escalation zones.” These zones were from the start largely a Russian ruse to help the Assad regime conquer opposition areas, and they succeeded. Now that the regime controls most of Syria and Iranian proxies are dominant within the regime side, support for de-escalation is tantamount to support for Iranian expansion. The United States must [instead] prevent further expansion by the Assad regime and Iran in parts of the country that they still do not control.

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More about: Iran, Israeli Security, Syrian civil war, U.S. Foreign policy