The Wall Street Journal’s story about Syria’s 21 August chemical weapons attack details the regime’s ruthlessness and American fecklessness. It also makes it plain that The Russians lied repeatedly on Assad’s behalf in the aftermath. For the Russians (and the Iranians) were aware of it almost immediately, and called Assad on it*:
Calls came in to the presidential palace from Syrian allies Russia and Iran, as well as from Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group whose fighters were inadvertently caught up in the gassing, according to previously undisclosed intelligence gathered by U.S., European and Middle Eastern spy agencies. The callers told the Syrians that the attack was a blunder that could have profound international repercussions, U.S. officials say.
But recall the weeks after this. Lavrov and other officials repeatedly denied that the regime was behind the attacks. They supported Assad’s claim that the attack was launched by the rebels. They cynically and shamelessly denied what they knew to be true and asserted what they knew to be false in order to protect their client.
Further recall that the Russians played this situation flawlessly, and achieved their aim: no American attack on Assad, Assad is in place and the tide is turning in his favor, and if anything the US is now a de facto supporter of the regime as its continued existence is necessary to carry out the elimination of its CW. All of this done with the assistance of Obama and Kerry, the only question being whether this assistance was witting, unwitting, or just dimwitted.
And the Russians know it. Indeed, they are pinching themselves over how easy it all was:
President Bashar al-Assad has tightened his hold on power. His regime has denied using chemical weapons, blaming the attacks on the rebels. In exchange for giving up his chemical arsenal, he avoided an American military intervention and likely will get even more support from Russia and Iran. Mr. Assad has pressed ahead with his offensive using conventional arms. U.S. intercepts show a Russian official later boasting to a Syrian counterpart about how easy it had been to get the U.S. to back off strike plans, officials briefed on the intelligence say.
The story is based on accounts of US intelligence intercepts provided by government officials. And that is interesting in itself.
Unlike many intelligence leaks (e.g., the Osama raid, Stuxnet, the junk bomber) these are not calculated to make Obama and the administration look good, to portray them as aggressively and cleverly attacking America’s enemies. To the contrary, they are uniformly damning. Not just the revelation that the Russians think that Obama was (and is) an easily played chump. But the revelations that the US had observed previous CW attacks. That they observed the build up to this one, but didn’t react because they thought it was just going to be another “minor” attack like the earlier ones: apparently none of these met the Obama “whole bunch” test. The revelations that the US was slow in responding in part because the intercepts had not been translated.
Which raises the question: who is leaking this damning information, and why? Is this the Intelligence Community’s payback for Obama throwing them under the bus over Snowden (which I noted and predicted in the aftermath of the Merkel cellphone kerfuffle)? Or the consequence of the internecine battles over foreign policy in this administration?
Regardless, it is a uniformly depressing story. But it can teach some lessons. The most obvious of these is that the Russians will say anything to advance their interests, even if that something is 180 degrees from the facts. Keep that in mind in events involving Syria in the future. And also keep it in mind when you read anything the Russians say about Iran.
And keep in mind this administrations fecklessness and cluelessness when evaluating any deal it reaches with Iran. Combine this with the fact that the Russians will run interference for Iran, just as they did with Syria, and the overwhelming odds are that no deal is far better than any deal Obama is likely to strike.
*Which means, OMG, we’re spying on foreign leaders! Heaven forfend. What will the NSA do next?