Over the past week, the Obama administration has drastically changed its approach to Syria; an aggressive push for military action without U.N. cooperation has shifted to “holding Assad accountable” to Russia and the United Nations Security Council with no intention to enforce the timelines laid out in the Syria-Russia agreement.
When President Obama first approached the American people with the concept of military action in Syria, he pitched it on the premise that the U.N. “has been completely paralyzed and unwilling to hold Assad accountable.”
The U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, went on to say the next week that the United States has “exhausted the alternatives” to military actions. Power was also extremely harsh on the U.N. Security Council, saying, “It is naive to think that Russia is on the verge of changing its position and allowing the UN Security Council to assume its rightful role as the enforcer of international peace and security. In short, the Security Council the world needs to deal with this urgent crisis is not the Security Council we have.”
Former Ambassador to the U.N. and current National Security Advisor Susan Rice called the U.N. Security Council “shameful” in its lack of action on Syria. She stated:
[President Obama would] much prefer the backing of the United Nations Security Council to uphold the international ban against the use of chemical weapons, whether in the form of sanctions, accountability, or authorizing the use of force. But let’s be realistic–it’s just not going to happen now. Believe me, I know. I was there for all of those UN debates and negotiations on Syria. I lived it. And it was shameful.
The administration has also reversed its view of the Security Council report on use of chemical weapons in Syria. Secretary Kerry praised the report on Thursday, saying that the findings “were as categorical as they were convincing.” However, these comments come over three weeks after the State Department previously ruled that it was “too late” for any report by the U.N. to be “credible.”
On August 28th, State Department Spokeswoman Marie Harf said:
We believe that the UN inspection has passed the point where it can be credible. And again, I’m going to be repeat: Let’s be clear, they cannot determine, by mandate, culpability. They can only determine whether a chemical weapons attack happened, and there is absolutely 100 percent no doubt in anyone’s mind here that a chemical weapons attack happened.
So because the security situation isn’t safe, also because we believe the regime is trying to use the UN investigation to hide behind and to stall, that it’s past the point of credibility and we will make our own decisions on our own timeline going forward.
Harf was pressed on this point by Associated Press reporter Matt Lee. Lee implored her to explain how the administration could change opinions after more time had passed since the attack. Lee said, “I just don’t understand how you can say on August 28th, ‘We believe it’s too late for the U.N. inspection to be credible,’ and now to say, on September 19th, that it is credible, because nothing changed.”
Harf retorted that “everything” had changed since that statement. After pressing further, a frustrated Harf told Lee that he was “cherry-picking” statements, and she was “not going to parse words from two weeks ago.”
In addition to its newfound faith in the U.N., the White House has also changed its tune on holding Assad accountable to deadlines in the Russia-Syria agreement.
On September 16th, the State Department told reporters the U.S. would use Assad’s compliance with the deadlines in the Syria-Russia agreement to ascertain how “serious” the Russians and Assad’s regime are about the destruction of the chemical weapons. Harf said that Assad’s compliance with the deadline to give a full catalog of their chemical weapons to the U.N. by this Saturday “is going to be the first example of the intentions of the Syria regime, how serious they are.”
The press asked the next logical question this week in response: “What happens if Syria shows they’re not serious?” Harf’s adamance on the deadline softened on Wednesday, the next day. “This is a framework for how we want to move forward,” she announced, “so, hopefully, we will see a declaration from the Syrian regime in the coming days. I don’t want to put a hard and fast deadline on it.”
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters Thursday that the “framework” was developed to keep Assad from using chemical weapons again. “Action needs to be taken as swiftly as possible,” Carney began. He claimed that the Syria-Russia timeline on the declaration of chemical weapons has an initial “goal” of Saturday, but the official filing with the U.N. cataloging of the stockpiles is on a 30-day timeline.
When pressed on the meaningfulness of the deadlines outlined in the Syria-Russia “framework,” Carney said that they would “evaluate” Assad’s compliance with the agreement “when we see what they provide.” Apparently, this would be at Assad’s convenience.
The State Department diminished the urgency of the deadlines in the Syria-Russia agreement even further on Thursday.
The framework for the Syria-Russia agreement, released on September 13th, reads: “The United States and the Russian Federation expect Syria to submit, within a week, a comprehensive listing, including names, types and quantities of its chemical weapons agents.”
When asked about the specificity of that language in relation to Assad’s compliance, Spokeswoman Harf said, “I don’t see the word ‘deadline’ in there.”
According to the spokesmen for the White House and the State Department, the administration is unwilling to consider a contingency plan if Assad fails to comply with the timeline laid out in the Syria-Russia agreement. When asked if the administration would still consider Assad in compliance if he fulfilled the initial requirements of the framework a week late, Harf’s response was nonchalant. “We’ll just keep having the discussion as the things happen, quite frankly, about what it means and what it means going forward,” she said.
The State Department Spokeswoman was pressed on what would happen if Syria was found in non-compliance. Echoing Carney’s sentiment from Wednesday, Harf admitted, “I don’t know how that process would work if Syria is determined to be in noncompliance.”
Harf said she would try to get details and bring them to the press briefing on Friday.