Just a few short weeks ago, Washington was consumed with the question of whether the United States would launch military strikes against the Syrian regime. The story had everything -- political intrigue, strange bedfellows, a looming high-stakes vote of Capitol Hill, etc. But once the partisan drama petered out, Syria coverage has all but evaporated. The administration cannot be disappointed by the relative dearth of reporting because the remains of their Syria policy are still smoldering. The "international community" cheered over the weekend as Assad met his first deadline within the peace process structure, handing over a list of his chemical weapons cache Toward the end of last week, it looked as though the regime was poised to miss the benchmark. But...remember this Wall Street Journal story from two weeks ago reporting that Assad's elite forces had been busy scattering his stockpiles across dozens of sites within Syria? That subterfuge was occurring as the West was still weighing military force. Now that a contingent peace agreement has been hammered out -- which relies heavily on Assad's cooperation -- guess what the regime has been up to (via CNN)?
The Syrian regime is again moving around its stockpile of chemical weapons, leaving the United States trying to figure out what Bashar al-Assad will do next with his deadly arsenal. CNN has learned that the U.S. intelligence community is closely watching the latest development as diplomatic efforts continue around forging a plan for al-Assad to relinquish those stockpiles to international control. Obama administration officials at two agencies said the movement took place in recent days – since United States and Russia agreed on September 14 to a timetable for Syria to declare its chemical weapons inventory and then give them up. “There is activity at known chemical weapons storage sites,” one official said. “What is unclear is whether they are moving them to consolidate the stockpile and then declare it, or are they moving it around to conceal it” in advance of reporting it to international inspectors.
Well, I guess we'll just have to wait and see, right? Why not give Assad the benefit of the doubt? It's not like he's used WMD's against his own people, prompting top American officials to compare him to Hitler, or anything. Our dear friends in Russia, meanwhile, are waffling on whether "100 percent" compliance by the Syrian government is an achievable or verifiable goal -- even though it's the centerpiece of the deal upon which they insisted:
Speaking at a forum of journalists and political scientists, Russian president Vladimir Putin said that he could not be 100 percent sure that the government of Syria will comply with a plan to destroy chemical weapons. “Will we manage to carry it through? I can’t say 100 percent, but all that we have seen recently, in the last few days, inspires confidence that it is possible and that it will be done,” Putin said.
Remember, the regime wouldn't even admit that they possessed any chemical weapons until the Russians jumped on Sec. Kerry's misstatement and turned it into a diplomatic "breakthrough." To this day, Damascus and Moscow remain adamant that Assad was not responsible for the chemical attacks in recent months, despite the preponderance of evidence. (This dispute has continued to hamper the so-called peace process). An additional tempest threatened the Putin/Kerry plan when Assad attempted to make his end of the bargain contingent upon the US renouncing plans to arm and aid the rebels. The Obama administration correctly rejected this stipulation; Assad has no business dictating any conditions of any deal that keeps him in power. But regardless of a tyrant's irrelevant preferences, though, should we be arming the Syrian opposition, as we are reportedly doing? This is a question I've focused on for weeks. Sec. Kerry claimed during Congressional testimony that the rebel groups had taken a moderate and secular turn -- an assertion that seemed to contradict much of the available evidence. Kerry cited an op/ed written by a young analyst whose reputation has since been totally discredited. Plus, reports of trouble brewing within the "good" rebel ranks have surfaced in recent weeks, as some fighters vowed to eventually join forces with radical Islamists. Reuters documents how the pro-radical peel-off is already underway:
Hundreds of rebels have pledged allegiance to al Qaeda-affiliated forces in northern and eastern Syria, activists and Islamist sources said on Friday, strengthening the group's control in the region. Not only individual fighters, but entire units have joined the small but powerful al Qaeda-linked groups - the Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) - in recent days, according to the sources inside Syria. "This is a sign the radical groups are still growing in power. This region could fall to the jihadists," said an activist in the eastern town of Raqqa, who asked not to be identified. "We may see this become a trend." Clashes have been intensifying between Nusra or ISIL and the less effective but more moderate forces that make up the majority of opposition fighters, especially in opposition-held territory along Syria's northern and eastern borders. At least two entire rebel brigades are said to have joined the Nusra Front in the opposition-held province of Raqqa, which borders Turkey.
This news comes as a bloody bout of rebel-vs-rebel violence has embroiled the opposition in Syria. The US position is: (a) "Assad must go," but (b) he's also an indispensable partner in the Russian deal, and (c) we're arming the moderate Syrian rebels, even as we're (d) concerned about the rising tide of extremism and mass defections to al Qaeda. Oh, and the administration is hinting that the US may engage Iran's leadership in direct talks at the UN this week. Good thing our global credibility and prestige are so sturdy at the moment.
Prediction: Gridlock for the Next Two Years, but that’s Better than the Alternative | Daniel J. Mitchell