Hamlet on the Potomac

8 September 2013

Hamlet on the Potomac

By Gwynne Dyer

The psychodrama in Washington grows ever more bizarre. John Kerry, the Secretary of State, hyperventilates about the disasters that will ensue if the United States does not bomb Syria – but President Barack Obama, having said last year that the use of chemical weapons was a “red line” that Syria must not cross, persistently sabotages Kerry’s case by giving voice to his own sober second thoughts.

According to Kerry, the decision that now faces the US Congress is about “Hezbollah, and North Korea, and every other terrorist group that might ever again contemplate the use of weapons of mass destruction….They want to see whether the United States and our friends mean what we say. It matters deeply to the credibility and the future of the United States and our allies.” But Kerry’s boss is not sure.

Having gone right to the brink of action, Obama suddenly handed the decision to attack over to Congress. As the Hamlet of the Potomac confessed: “I could not honestly claim that the threat posed by (Syria’s President Bashar) al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons on innocent civilians posed an imminent direct threat to the United States.”

Well, of course not. The use of poison gas in a Middle Eastern civil war does not mean that North Korea or anybody else is going to use it on Americans. And how do you deter terrorist groups from using poison gas (if they have any) by bombing Syria? They don’t even have any territory that could be bombed.

Obama has devoted a lot of effort to curbing the threat of nuclear weapons, and rightly so. He is wrong to see poison gas as a comparable threat: it is horrible and illegal, but it really isn’t a “weapon of mass destruction” in the same sense at all. On no occasion have chemical weapons killed as many people as an average night’s bombing of a German or Japanese city in 1944-45.

Obama should never have staked his presidency on the success of a punitive attack on the Syrian regime. He cannot now repudiate that threat, but he seems intermittently aware that it was a grave mistake. So from time to time he tries to derail the process that he himself has set into motion.

The cost of getting this wrong is not just some local excitements in the Middle East, like Syria’s ally Hezbollah launching missiles at Israel in retaliation for US strikes on Syrian territory. It is the risk of a US-Russian military confrontation, and there is nothing at stake here that justifies that.

Russian objections to Obama’s plan for unilateral military intervention in Syria are routinely dismissed in Washington. Moscow is just trying to protect its only major ally in the Arab world, goes the US argument. It is cynically denying the clear evidence that it was Assad’s regime, not rebel forces trying to trigger an American attack on Assad, that used chemical weapons in the Damascus suburbs last month.

But in fact there is no clear proof of that, and simply asserting that it is true doesn’t make it so. Moreover, the Russians are genuinely alarmed that the US is planning once again to ignore international law in order to pursue its own goals, and they will respond if it goes ahead.

As the weaker power, Russia takes the United Nations ban on aggressive war more seriously than the United States. “The use of force against a sovereign state is only (permissible) if it is done for self-defence…or under a decision made by the UN Security Council,” said President Vladimir Putin last week, and “those who act otherwise put themselves outside the law.”

So when Putin says that “we have our plans” for what to do if the US attacks Syria, it would be wise to take him seriously. Those plans almost certainly involve supplying the Syrian regime with S-300 anti-aircraft systems that can shoot down the Tomahawk cruise missiles with which Washington plans to strike Syrian targets.

Russia announced on 4 September that it has suspended the delivery of S-300 missiles that Syria had ordered several years ago, and that no complete systems were yet in the country. But Syrian crews have already been trained on the system in Russia, and the weapons could be up and running quite fast if Moscow changes its mind.

“If we see that steps are taken that violate the existing international norms,” said Putin, “we shall think how we should act in the future, in particular regarding supplies of such sensitive weapons to certain regions of the world.” So if the Tomahawk missiles fly, the United States may find S-300 missiles taking them down.

Then, in order to suppress Syria’s air defences, the US will have to commit manned aircraft to Syrian airspace, and some of them will get shot down by recently supplied Russian missiles – and we will be setting precedents far more dangerous and long-lasting than some local use of poison gas in a country torn by civil war.

This game is not worth the candle.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 5. (“According…sure”; and “Obama…1944-45″)