Resolving the Syrian Chemical Weapons Crisis: Sunlight and Shadows

15 Sep


            The Putin Moment: Not only did Vladimir Putin exhibit a new constructive role for Russia in 21st statecraft, spare Syria and the Middle East from another cycleof escalating violence, but he articulated this Kremlin initiative in the form of a direct appeal to the American people. There were reasons to be particularly surprised by this display of Russian diplomacy: not since Nikita Khrushchev helped save the world from experiencing the catastrophe of nuclear war in the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 by backing down and agreeing to a face-saving formula for both superpowers, had Moscow distinguished itself in any positive way with respect to the conduct of international relations; for Putin to be so forthcoming, without being belligerent, was particularly impressive in view of Obama’s rather ill-considered cancellation only a few weeks ago of a bilateral meeting with the Russian leader because of Washington’s supposed anger at the refusal of the Russian government to turn the NSA whistleblower, Edward Snowden, over to the United States for criminal prosecution under American espionage laws; and finally, considering that Putin has much blood on his hands given past policies pursued in relation to Chechnya and in the autocratic treatment of domestic political opposition, it was hard to expect anything benevolent during his watch. And so Putin is emerging as a virtual ‘geopolitical black swan,’ making unanticipated moves of such a major character as to have the potential to transform the character of conflict management and resolution in the 21st century.  It should be understood that Putin could have stayed on the sidelines, and benefitted from seeing Obama sink deeper and deeper into the Syrian quagmire, and instead he stepped in with a momentous move that seems to have served the regional and global interest.

Putin has explained in a coherent manner in his opinion piece that was published in the NY Times on September 11th (without invoking the symbolism of  the twelfth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks) that his approach to Russian foreign policy relies on two instruments: soft power and economic diplomacy. He acknowledged American leadership, but only if exercised within a framework of respect for international law and the UN Charter. And he appropriately took issue with Obama’s sentiments expressed a night earlier to the effect that America in its leadership role had a unique entitlement to use force to overcome injustice in situations other than self-defense and even without authorization by the UN Security Council. It was Putin, perhaps disingenuously, who claimed (quite correctly) that such a prerogative was “extremely dangerous.” He rejected Obama’s pretension that a unilateral discretion with respect to the use of force could be inferred from American exceptionalism. Whether disingenuous or not, the requirement of a Security Council authorization for non-defensive uses of force, while sometimes preventing a peacekeeping response by the UN to certain tragic situations of civil strife and humanitarian crisis overall contributed to finding diplomatically agreed upon solutions for conflict and enabled the UN (unlike the League of Nations) to persist despite severe tensions among its dominant members. Let hope that this Putin vituoso exhibition of creative diplomacy prompts his counterpart in the White House to explore more diligently soft power opportunities that will better protect American national interests, while simultaneously serving the global interest in war prevention and the rejection of militarism, and might also have the added benefit of reversing the steady decline of American credibility as a benevolent global leader ever since the end of the Cold War.

Constitutional Balance: Perhaps what might be of even greater importance than averting an ill-considered punitive attack on Syria, is the grounding of recourse to war on the major republican premise of Congressional authorization. There is little doubt that here the efficient cause and anti-hero was David Cameron, who turned to Parliament to support his wish to join with Obama in the attack coalition despite the anti-war mood in British public opinion. Cameron was politically spared by the vote of the House of Commons to withhold authorization. It is hard to believe that Obama’s decision to seek authorization from the U.S. Congress was not a belated realization that if Britain deferred to its Parliament as an expression of constitutional democracy, it would be unseemly for the United States to go to war without the formal backing of Congress. Of course, the Putin initiative saved Obama from the near certain embarrassment of being turned down by Congress, which would mean that either he would follow in Cameron’s and face savage criticism from his hawkish boosters or insist upon his authority as Commander in Chief to act on his own, a prerogative that seems constitutional dubious to support a bill of impeachment. Beyond this, the War Powers Act that would seem to require some emergency justification for the presidential bypassing of Congress in the context of a proposed military action. Hopefully, we are witnessing, without an accompanying acknowledgement, the downfall of the ‘imperial presidency’ that got its start during the Vietnam War. The governmental pendulum in the United States may have started to swing back toward the separation of powers and checks and balances, and thus be more in keeping with the original republican hopes of limited executive authority, especially in relation to war making. This renewal of republican constitutionalism, combined with growing populist skepticism about military adventures abroad, might make this Syrian crisis of decision a welcome tipping point, reversing the unhealthy subordination of Congress in war/peace situations during the last half century and anti-democratic disregard of the views of the citizenry.

But it is also possible that the imprudence of the proposed punitive strike against Syria will turn out to be a one-off experience, and that when and if Iran clearly crosses the weapons threshold in its nuclear program, the presidency will retrieve its lost claims to be the unilateral guardian of national, regional, and global interests without feeling that it must await authorization from the Congress and the UN. Note that Congressional approval, even if in concert with the President, cannot sanitize a use of force that is illegal under international law. It is the state as a whole that is bound by the constraints of international law, and not just the head of state. There are two distinct issues present: the domestic constitutional requirement of collective authorization for recourse to war by the United States; and the complementary international requirement of acting in compliance with international law and the UN Charter (which is itself acknowledged in supremacy clause of the Constitution with respect to validly ratified treaties).

Coercive Diplomacy: Obama/Kerry contend that Syria’s chemical weapons would never have been put under international controls and in an atmosphere of unprecedented international cooperation, but for the credible threats mounted by the U.S. Government. In this regard, the poker style bluff can be said to have worked without any sure proof that the threat would have been carried out in the face of a refusal by Congress to authorize and the public failure to show support for an attack. As matters now seem to be unfolding, assuming that the plans for abolishing the chemical weapons of Syria proceed as agreed, threat diplomacy will be applauded by the Obama administration without any widespread sensitivity to the fact that the international law as embodied in Article 2(4) of the UN Charter prohibits ‘threats’ as well as ‘uses’ of force, although such a prohibition has not been taken seriously as part of the ‘living law’ despite its status as a prime instance of ‘positive law.’ The categorical language of Article 2(4) is unmistakeable: “All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity and political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.”

Syria and its People: In the background of the diplomatic controversy about what to do in response to the large-scale lethal use of sarin gas against the people of Syria on August 21st, was the awareness that such an attack did not even pretend to end the violence in Syria or to produce regime change in Damascus or to change the balance of force in the civil war. From this perspective, it seemed mainly a punitive strike that upheld Obama’s red line credibility, although there was an additional argument set forth that a military strike would have a deterrent impact on any contemplated future recourse to chemical weaponry by the Assad regime and other political actors, assuming that the allegations that the Syrian government order the attack are confirmed and reinforced by the reports of the UN inspection team and other respected sources.

What tends to be given only a secondary glance is the effects of an attack on the Syrian people who have been subject to a harrowing ordeal these past two years that has resulted in over 100,000 deaths, countless wounded, and an estimated 7,000,000, almost one-third of the population, as either internally displaced or forced into overcrowded and under-resourced refugee camps in neighboring countries. Beyond this, the always vulnerable Palestinians have endured Syrian attacks on their refugee camps forcing them to flee once more, to become, quite incredibly, refugees from their refugee arrangements, a largely untold Palestinian tragedy hidden within the larger Syrian tragedy. There is almost no political will on the outside to do anything to stop either the proxy war being waged by states external to Syria or the internal struggle being waged by a fragmented opposition against a discredited government that has been incredibly cruel to its own citizens and strangely indifferent to the great cultural and religious heritage of their own country. There are even grotesque murmurings in the background of strategic chatter in Western circles, suggesting that the best outcome is not an end to the violence, but its indefinite continuation with an effort to calibrate future arms supplies and humanitarian aid with the principal aim of making sure that neither side can achieve victory. If this is not an exposure of the raw immorality of strategic discourse at its immoral nadir, I am not sure what would be.


12 Responses to “Resolving the Syrian Chemical Weapons Crisis: Sunlight and Shadows”

  1. truthaholics September 15, 2013 at 6:46 am #

    Reblogged this on | truthaholics.

  2. Francis Oeser September 15, 2013 at 7:09 am #

    There is another truth emerging from the Syria situation: that no matter how big the armaments bill, the armaments, the armies, are, there IS another way of resolving conflict – (call it political, if you want). Surely this flies in the face of, ‘being armed is strength’ an indisputable argument against the misguided arms race.
    Regarding your views about the strength of public opinion, I feel they are optimistic. But there are, in spite of politicians’ lies and the white-washing media, regular elections which (if not Zimbabwi’d!) do change our rulers – something they are sensitive about. Maybe that creates enough doubt to resist temptations forced on government by arms industries, the Israeli pressure groups and the self-serving interests of decision makers and the thoughtlessly warlike who loiter in shadows everywhere.
    Is it the systems of democratic societies which act as a steering rudder in the seas made choppy by our behaviour and our rigidity? (Maybe that’s something of the tragedy of Egypt, that destroying its democratic system by military coup is very long-term harm on the country and the region). A lesson worth learning for Syria and the M.E.

  3. A. Clare Brandabur September 15, 2013 at 12:37 pm #

    Dear Dr. Falk, Thank you for your positive analysis of the new developments regarding Syria, and especially for drawing attention to the monstrous injustice to the Palestinians who are facing new assaults and dispossession while no diplomatic efforts are being made to push Israel to comply with the condition under which it was accepted by the UN decades ago: that they allow the Palestinians displaced in 1948 and 1967 to return to their homes. Why should the continued illegal occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights and the siege of Gaza be ignored while Jewish settlements proliferate and Israel continues to profit from selling weapons? Just when it seemed the EU was waking up to Israel’s profiteering from the Settlement economy, the US appeals to the EU to rescind its belated attempts at righting a long- standing wrong. The Palestinians now more than ever should be able to return to their homeland. Cordially yours, Clare Brandabur

    • Mike 71 September 15, 2013 at 2:11 pm #

      Clare, you are obviously ignorant of the history of Israel. In 1948, Israel accepted partition under UNSCR 181, dividing the former British Mandate into two states, one Arab and one Jewish. The Arab League rejected the U.N. decision and sent the armies of Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq into Israel to destroy it. Exercising its rights to “armed self-defense” under Article 51 of the U.N Charter, Israel fought off the invasion. The displacement of those Palestinians was the result of a failed “War of Aggression,” not a condition of Israeli acceptance of the partition. Since 1948, a similar number of Jews were expelled from homes in Baghdad, Benghazi, Cairo, Damascus and many other Arab cities, yet no one has offered them a “right to return.” If one searches Israel looking for squalid refugee camps filled with those Jews, they will not find them. Rather than using refugees as “political footballs,” Israel absorbed them as citizens with full rights. The Arab states showed no such compassion for their Palestinian brethren. The Arab state which was to be created under UNSCR 181, was divided between Egypt and Jordan. That was the first “occupation,” until the Israeli victory of 1967!

      In 1967, facing an imminent “War of Annihilation Against the Jews,” announced by Gamel Abdel Nasser, Israel initiated a defensive pre-emptive strike, taking out 90% of the Egyptian Air Force on the ground and expanding to its current borders, with the exception of Sinai, returned to Egypt under Peace treaty. Following the “Six Day War” victory, Israel offered return of ALL captured land for peace. The Arab League response was the infamous “Three No’s (No negotiation, recognition, or peace with Israel)” of the 1967 Khartoum Conference. Rather than offer peace for the return of captured lands, the Arabs preferred to leave it in Israeli hands.

      In 2000, and again in 2008, Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas, respectively, walked away from Israeli offers to return most of the West Bank and East Jerusalem in return for peace. Some have suggested that Jewish settlers beyond the “Green Line” could be accepted as a Jewish minority within the future Palestinian state. Mahmoud Abbas rejected the suggestion, decreeing that there would be no Jewish residents in the Palestinian state, in effect making it “Judenrein.” And yet, Mr. Abbas insists on a “right to return” for displaced Palestinians, but not for displaced Jews. This is the most blatant example of “Do as I say, Not as I do” hypocrisy!

      Once refuges are re-settled, refugee status cannot be passed on to successive generations. Somehow, Palestinians believe themselves immune from this rule. Refugees should be dealt with symmetrically: no “right of return” for either Jews, or Palestinians; compensation and resettlement for both groups of refugees. The displacement of refugees is a consequence of war, irrespective of whether one of aggression, or defense. The world presently needs to focus its attention on 6 and1/2 million Syrian refugees, which need food, housing and medical care.
      But in the interim, Israel, no less than Syria, Iran, or any other nation, is still entitled to “Armed self-defense” against foreign aggression!

      • Albert September 16, 2013 at 3:47 pm #

        You obviously never heard the names Sabra and Shatilla, nor the name of one of your hero murderers.
        On the issue of Syria, what has Syria done to Israel, to deserve its attacks by air? They did not happen either, nor did ‘cast lead’, and Israel sure did not use white phosphor on defenseless unarmed civilians. That would be too repulsive to even consider, wouldn`t it? Yes, Israel lives up to its obligations as set out by the UN Security council, doesn`t it? I am glad they stopped building all those illegal settlements on the occupied lands. That shows their sincerity.
        I am sure glad, that Israel is more considerate then Hitler was. After having endured the horrors of that Holocaust, they would never commit those kinds of atrocities against other innocent victims, would they? Would they???

      • oldguyincolorado September 20, 2013 at 6:49 pm #

        T0 Mike 71,

        You are wasting your time trying to point out the facts to these folks. If they really want to be as “idealistic” as some of them pretend to be, let them first read something I pointed out to them before: the correspondence between Einstein and (I believe it was Weizmann) in the 1930s. Albert to Chiam : “… Chiam, the politicians can’t seem to solve our issues with the Arabs, so lets just forget them and, as one people to another, we should approach the Arabs with love in our hearts and no guns in our hands and everything will turn into milk and honey..”. Chiam to Albert “…Boycheck, the Grand Mufti just told all Arabs that it was their duty to kill all Jews and the Arabs follow what the Mufti says. What part of ‘KILL ALL JEWS’ is it that you seem not to understand?”.

        Jews are not allowed to exist in Gaza, Jordan, any future “State of Palestine”, etc. The Right of Return is a fiction; it is really the Right to Expell all Jews. These lemmings need to read the Charter of Hamas, the Constitution of Jordan and the proposals for the Constitution of the future “State of Palestine”, but I doubt that any of them has or will. They should take a look at the Koran while they are at it: Jews and Christians must “submit” to Isam, the males pay a special tax and then they can become second-class citizens (but certain Islamsts and muslim countries wont even allow them to be that). Let the lemmings try to be a Christian (Copt) in Islamic Egypt (have they read what the Copts are going thru?). Don’t these lemmings listen to the Copts in Syria when they try to explain why the are fighting for the Alawites? Where do they think Syria is headed anyway? It will be lucky to end up like Switzerland – more likely to become Sudan or, G-D forbid, like Somalia. All Obama has said is: stop with the gas and try to negotiate a peace. Use gas again and we will destroy that part of your war-making machine – not that we will destroy your entire army. This is a bad thing? Without our pressure this stopping with the gas will never happen. Putin should be kissing our backsides for helping him out, and not the other way around. He is not the good guy, Obama and we are. The UN is usless in this type of situation: headless and without any army, just bluster.

        Arafat said that the Mufti was his “Hero”! He was also his uncle!

        Most of the crowd on this blog are lemmings. And it is Always the fault of Isreal. Go Figure!

        These lemmings think that Putin is a good guy? All Putin wants to do regarding Syria is to be sure that the gas is destroyed so it will not fall into the hands of the Chetnicks and be used against Russia; keep the Chetnicks ( who are fighting in Syria ) fighting there.

  4. john francis lee September 15, 2013 at 4:32 pm #

    ” Putin has much blood on his hands given past policies pursued in relation to Chechnya ”

    But in Chechnya the CIA is arming and funding ‘jihadis’ just as they are in Syria !

    And Putin made just that point in his op-ed when he connected Chechnya and the Boston Marathon bombing. The Tsaraev boys’ uncle Ruslan was married to the daughter of the notorious CIA man, Graham Fuller, the man behind the Nicaraguan Contras … Reagan’s archetype of Obama’s Chechen ‘jihadists’ in Chechnya and Syrai … and the godfather of al Qaeda in Afghanistan. He ran his Chechen operation out of Fuller’s house in Maryland !

    It seems clear the the boys’ family was brought to the USA as Fuller’s and Ruslan’s recruits … but as things turned out not to be what they seemed for the boys – Tamerlan at least – in America, so too, the boys turned out not to be what they seemed to the CIA.

    So yes Russia has suffered/is suffering at the hands of the CIA, Syria has suffered/is suffering at the hands of the CIA, and America has suffered/is suffering at the hands of the CIA.

    If we really wanted to end terrorism … we’d destroy the CIA !

  5. john francis lee September 15, 2013 at 4:34 pm #

    … and pay no attention to the hasbaristas, Clare, they’re paid by the word …

  6. john francis lee September 16, 2013 at 5:09 am #

    Taking your points in order of moral importance:

    Syria and its People
    You are absolutely correct to put this in the position of greatest gravity. All the jabbering has completely dismissed the sufferings of the Syrian people and turned this into the duel of the super- and not-so-super-powers over turf and hegemony.

    Climate Change is the secular cause, in the sense that the vicious drought … helped along by Turkish dams ? … provided a very stressful situation, and the population under stress was/is being mercilessly exploited by the US and the new Israeli-GulfOilOligarch Axis for their own ends.

    100,000 Syrians have lost their lives. Millions are displaced. The infrastructure of their country is in ruins. Obama, the Oligarchic Royals, and the Israelis should all be in Court to be tried for their crimes against peace.

    Coercive Diplomacy
    Absolutely right ! The two words cannot go together except in perverse cases such as we see before us. The US and Israel and the GulfOilOligarchshave about pegged the needle of ‘coercive diplomacy’ with their acts of war against the Iranians, Palestinians, and the Syrians.

    Again the principals should be in the dock at the Hague.

    Constitutional Balance
    The circles get smaller. This is a domestic matter, but it’s my domus so I am concerned ! The Congress has degenerated to a rubber stamp on presidential ‘policies’. I join you in hoping that the past perfect has become the pluperfect. We’ll see. What has to happen is for us ordinary Americans to rise and to put ourr entire political class … there are only 546 federal officials at the top of the tripartite structure of the federal government … out to pasture. They are all corrupt by virtue of their embeddedness within the current hopelessly corrupt system. There are 300+ million of us … surely we can find another 546 ordinary Americans of integrity willing to climb in a straighten out the mess our political class has made of our system. And having picked up the reins we must not let them fall too far from our hands, so that we have them ready to hand, and may readily fix future diasters directly once again, whenever our representatives become, once again, unrepresentative.

    The Putin Moment
    It has been so-o-o good to see the phony Nobel Peace Prize Laureate slash War Criminal dealt his due by … a gangster from the KGB ! Shows just how low we have fallen to have elected an amoral nihilist like Barack Obama. And, really, the Russians have saved not only us but the Syrians … at least someone, finally, did act … for whatever reason … to the Syrians’ benefit.

    • oldguyincolorado September 20, 2013 at 7:28 pm #

      You have every right to say what you do and so do I. You are correct in that Isreal is not perfect (nor is the U.S.). I even agree with some of your positions. Try to speak this way about the following states while a citizen thereof: Russia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Iran, Gaza or, G-D forbid, in the wonderful future State of Palestine that you seem to be so supportive of. Frankly, I hope that you are not a Jew so that you will have a chance to become a citizen of “Palestine” or Gaza should you so choose. If you are a Jew then you will probably need a special Constitutional Amendment in order to gain citizenship there.
      You can even say what you do should you be an Israeli (Jew or not).. Can you not see the difference?


  1. TRANSCEND MEDIA SERVICE » Resolving the Syrian Chemical Weapons Crisis: Sunlight and Shadows - September 16, 2013

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  2. Richard Falk: Resolving the Syrian Chemical Weapons Crisis - Guernica / A Magazine of Art & Politics - September 16, 2013

    […] By Richard Falk By arrangement with Richard Falk […]

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