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Syrian conundrum

Interview: Ben KnightSeptember 11, 2013

President Barack Obama's speech to the nation on Tuesday was no more than an update on the diplomatic mess he has gotten himself into over Syria, former National Security official Barry Pavel told Deutsche Welle.

President Barack Obama (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Image: Getty Images

DW: What was your initial reaction to Obama's speech to the nation?

Barry Pavel: I didn't see anything new in terms of major policy decisions compared to what I expected at noon today. I think there are three main outcomes that are quite likely: one is that the Russians and the Syrians have outsmarted the United States. Even a week ago [Syrian President Bashar al-] Assad feared for his own survival. Now he gets a new lease on life and in all likelihood he'll remain in power.

Second, he was being threatened with his military capacity being degraded, and that would lead to a change in the balance of power in the conflict - but now his military is not going to be touched. Moreover, we probably raised the expectations of the rebel groups in the run-up to today, and now their morale is going to be shattered. They were going to use the military strikes as a way to launch an offensive - there were some Syrian regime soldiers recently quoted as saying, "We don't care about the cruise missiles, it's the rebels that come after that we're really worried about."

And lastly, I have no doubt that as we speak, the Syrian military is planning how it's going to hide its chemical weapons. It's pretty logical - they're planning to move some portion of their chemical weapons stocks to somewhere they don't have to show them to UN authorities.

It's amazing to me how the president has boxed the US into a corner and been outsmarted by the Russians, who we knew would do some sort of diplomatic maneuver.

U.S. President Barack Obama addresses the nation about the situation in Syria from the East Room at the White House in Washington, September 10, 2013. REUTERS/Evan Vucci/POOL (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS CONFLICT) / Eingestellt von wa
Barack Obama addressed the nation live on Tuesday eveningImage: Reuters

So what was Obama hoping to achieve with this speech?

He's still hoping to achieve a Congressional vote to authorize strikes eventually, but you heard him tonight saying he wasn't going to do that anymore. Well, I think the reason he's not going to do that is because he knew he wasn't going to get the votes. My understanding of the political bean-counters is that the ["yes"] votes actually went down over the last several days of lobbying.

In some ways, Russia couldn't have helped Obama any more out of the political pickle he's gotten himself in - he wasn't going to get the votes, and then he would have had to decide whether he was going to go against the will of the elected representatives of the American people. I guess that was the only new news - that he was going to delay getting congressional approval.

How long is this new diplomatic maneuvering going to take?

That's a great question - my guess is: weeks. If I were the Russians and the Syrians, I'd drag this thing out as much as possible, wouldn't you? And they're pretty good at that. There'll be a lot of diplomatic discussions about the nature of the UN resolutions and there'll be negotiations to see whether the Russians can water it down enough so it doesn't authorize "all necessary measures" - which is UN-speak for military enforcement.

What would you have advised Obama to do if you were still working for him?

Two weeks ago I would've said, "Launch the operation, don't go to Congress, and they would've been finished with it before they even woke up." It was strategically foolish to seek the authorization of the US Congress for a limited military air strike. This has never been done in the history of the United States by any modern president. I just don't understand it. The operation would've been over in less time than it took for him to finish out the weekend, and it fits perfectly within a president's prerogative. I've been calling this "Operation Slow Motion Pinprick."

What did you make of Obama's statement that the US military "does not do pin-pricks?"

It sounded like a reaction to all the criticism that they were being so visible about the limited nature of the operation. Secretary of State John Kerry said it would be "unbelievably small." Well, if you're trying to deter someone from doing something, it requires two things - a swift and effective retaliation once the line is crossed, and secondly an uncertainty as to the exact nature of that retaliation. You want the leader who's making these decisions to be really cautious and to pause before thinking of doing it again, and if you send him a signal that this is going to be really limited, what effect are you exactly leaving him with? You're leaving him thinking, "It'll be okay. It'll be like a bad thunderstorm."

But doesn't Obama feel like he has to promise a limited strike because the mood in America is so anti-war and he feels like he has to keep people on his side?

Well, that's where I refer back to problem A: he shouldn't have gone to Congress for a limited military strike. Clinton didn't do it when he launched missiles against Sudan and Afghanistan in 1998, Reagan didn't do it when he launched an air strike against Libya in retaliation for a terrorist attack. The precedent Obama is setting in terms of hamstringing future presidents is really amazing. What messages do you think the Supreme Leader in Iran is taking from this? That the United States lives up to its stated commitments, and has the resolve and the political will do something about them? Hopefully future presidents will learn lessons from how badly this was botched.

Barry Pavel is vice president and director of the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security of The Atlantic Council, and was formerly director of defense policy and strategy on the National Security Council under President Obama.