The Middle East Channel

Obama pulls back on military strike on Syria with Russian chemical weapons proposal

Obama pulls back on military strike on Syria with Russian chemical weapons proposal

After a day of lobbying for support of a military action on Syria, U.S. President Barack Obama tentatively accepted a Russian proposal for international monitors to take control of the Syrian government’s chemical weapons. The proposal came on Monday after Secretary of State John Kerry suggested a U.S. strike could be averted if the Syrian regime turned in all of its chemical weapons. Obama said, "it is possible that we can get a breakthrough but we do not want this to be just a stalling or delaying tactic." The U.S. Senate has suspended debate on a strike in light of the new proposal, though the administration said it won’t derail plans to seek congressional authorization for a military action. Syrian Foreign Minster Walid al-Moallem, after meeting with Russian Foreign Minster Sergei Lavrov, said Syria had agreed to the proposal because it would "remove the grounds for American aggression," though it is not clear if President Bashar al-Assad will go along with it. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabrius said France will present a draft resolution to the U.N. Security Council for Syria to relinquish its chemical weapons. Fabrius said the resolution would be based on five points including international inspections and control of the dismantling process, and would threaten "extremely serious" consequences if Syria violates the conditions for giving up its chemical weapons. In an interview with Charlie Rose, Assad refused to discuss whether the Syrian regime possesses chemical weapons and denied responsibility for a chemical weapons attack on August 21 in the Syrian suburb of Ghouta. Human Rights Watch released a report Tuesday saying "evidence strongly suggests that Syrian government troops launched rockets carrying chemical warheads into the Damascus suburbs." Additionally, the report states that claims that rebel forces carried out the attack are "lacking in credibility and inconsistent with the evidence found at the scene."


  • A demonstrator was killed Tuesday in Turkey’s southeastern city of Antakya while protesting the deaths of four activists in June and July’s anti-government protests, however reports vary as to the cause of his death.
  • Multiple bombings across Iraq Tuesday killed at least 14 people and wounded dozens of others, with the worst attacks targeting outdoor markets in the eastern city of Baqouba.
  • Two buses collided on the highway between Qom and Tehran killing 44 people and wounding 39 others, in the most serious road accident in Iran in years.
  • A Jordanian member of parliament fired an automatic weapon inside Amman’s parliament building reportedly after a dispute causing no injuries.

Arguments and Analysis

Rouhani’s New Year‘ (Roger Cohen, The New York Times)

"There is every reason to be skeptical of Rouhani given past Iranian deception, the depth of mutual mistrust in U.S.-Iranian relations, and the decades-long investment in anti-American policy of the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei. But Rouhani’s opening should be tested rather than prejudiced through threats or the further sanctions Netanyahu is urging. Congress must hit ‘pause’ on its restless urge to punish Iran.

During the Syrian crisis, Rouhani has been fierce in his condemnation of chemical weapons: Iran was attacked with them in the 1980-88 war by Saddam Hussein, who had the tacit backing of the United States. The Iranian president has been equally firm in his opposition to U.S. military intervention in Syria. His approach, and that of his foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, who apparently joined the president in wishing Jews a happy New Year, has been striking for its balance.

At the same time, Iran through its Revolutionary Guards has been a core supporter of Bashar al-Assad. Qassim Suleimani, a commander, has pledged support ‘to the end’ for the Syrian regime.

With Iran there are always conflicting signals. Reading Alice in Wonderland is good preparation for dealing with it. But residents of Tehran report a palpable easing of tension under Rouhani. He bears dispassionate scrutiny."

Iran, Assad, and Obama’s Quagmire‘ (Peter Beinart, The Daily Beast)

"Today, President Obama’s real strategic and moral imperative is not killing a few Syrian grunts to punish Assad for using chemical weapons. It is ending the Middle Eastern cold war that fuels Syria’s savage civil war, just as the global Cold war once fueled savage civil wars in Angola, El Salvador, and Vietnam. It’s possible that strengthening Syria’s rebels and sanctioning Iran could further that goal, just as Reagan’s military buildup showed Moscow the cost of its Cold War with the United States, but only if such efforts are coupled with a diplomatic push that offers Iran’s leaders a completely different relationship with the United States, one that offers them security and status absent a nuclear weapon and no longer requires them to cling to Bashar Assad. By striking Syria, Barack Obama is making that harder. By doing so in alliance with groups that oppose any thawing of the U.S.-Iranian cold war absent total Iranian capitulation, he’s making it harder still.

If the president wants to convince Americans that Syria is not a prelude to a bigger war, he needs to explain his strategy for avoiding one with Iran. His problem is that his key allies in supporting a Syria strike don’t want to avoid war with Iran — at least not if doing so requires real concessions from the United States. In 1917, Randolph Bourne pointed out how hard it is for America to fight limited wars for liberal aims. Almost 100 years later, I fear, events are again proving him right."

–Mary Casey & Joshua Haber