Like many, I’ve spent much of this past week being bewildered by the twists and turns of the ongoing Syria debacle. Putin the Peacemaker? Obama the Lord of War? Assad the Suddenly Amenable and Risk-Averse Dictator? It don’t make no sense. None of it. (Well, the Lord of War title holds some water, but you get the point).
Thus, over the past few days, I’ve been wondering: what are the simplest explanations for what has gone down? If we look at some of the most important events, and we ask: “what is the simplest explanation for this to have occurred in the manner that it did”, what are the results? Or, in other words, if we give a liberal dose of Occam’s Razor to the news reports, what is left?
The results of this thought exercise are as follows. I gladly admit that this is the work of one person, whose brain was also occupied by work, making dinner, doing laundry, and etc. It is obviously 100% guesswork – that much is admitted upfront.
Anyway, what follows is one person’s attempt to take Occam’s Razor to some of the more baffling occurrences of the past week. First, the Razor created the delicately carved orange onion shavings you see below - then it slices up the Syria events.
1) Was Kerry’s now-famous statement a gaffe, or a strategic maneuver?
The Razor says: Strategic maneuver.
Rationale: I mean, come on – there’s no razor necessary here; you could use a butter knife to cut this one. For starters, listen to the detail in Kerry’s statement – the precise timeline, the lack of pauses. He’s not making it up on the spot. More importantly, though, consider for a moment the virtually impossible odds against one individual, no matter how knowledgeable they may be, dreaming up a win-win-win scenario to prevent a major military conflict in the span of a few seconds, with no pauses or missteps, all in front of the media. To use Bill Bryson’s term, the chances are ‘vanishingly small’. And finally, consider the utter impossibility that Russia and Syria would have so rapidly and so publically seized on this plan without vetting the plan every which way – which takes lots of time. In short, the likelihood that a win-win-win diplomatic solution was seamlessly dreamed up by one man in front of cameras and microphones, and then seized on by two other adversarial nations within the span of several hours, is much more remote than the likelihood that John Kerry’s statement was a planned act of diplomacy. The Plan had been on the table for quite some time, and all sides were knowledgeable about it.
2) Then why the hell did Kerry phrase it as he did?
The Razor says: Because The Plan had to come from Russia.
Rationale: Assad can acquiesce to allies; he cannot acquiesce to the U.S. Kerry wanted The Plan to work, but he could not be the one to present it to the world. Consider for yourself: what would have happened if The Plan had first been presented as a full-throated demand from the big-stick-carrying U.S.? I'd argue that there’s a high likelihood that Assad would have summarily rejected it, because he can’t be seen as being weak in the face of American aggression. If The Plan came from Russia, though, Assad could refer to it as “the Russian plan”. And that’s exactly what they are doing – they’ve made a point to emphasize that the plan came from Russia, and not the U.S.
3) So if The Plan had to come from Russia, why did Kerry even bring it up?
The Razor says: Because Russia (and Syria) were dragging their feet, and every minute that passed was weakening the U.S.’s leverage.
Rationale: The American public’s opinion was trending heavily against intervention. More importantly, the Congressional vote to authorize the use of military intervention was approximately 48 hours away when Kerry made his statement – and as the vote was almost certainly going to be a strong rejection of military intervention, it was shaping up to be a severe blow to U.S. leverage. By bringing up The Plan in a roundabout but public manner, Kerry put Russia and Syria on the spot – either they get moving, or the possibility would be lost.
4) So if Russia and Syria both knew that President Obama was in a tough spot, why did they latch onto The Plan? Why didn’t they let Kerry’s remark pass, watch the President’s leverage erode along with public support and the Congressional vote, and dare him to act in such a weakened state?
The Razor says: Because President Obama’s team had privately assured Russia and Syria that they would launch a military intervention regardless of the Congressional vote.
Rationale: President Obama was truly boxed in on this one. His ‘red line’ statement is the kind of thing that a President cannot take back. Internationally, it would be a tremendous loss of face for his administration and for the nation. Domestically, it would have been a godsend to Republicans before the 2014 election. And for him, personally, it may have become a defining moment of his presidency. In a political sense, launching a few cruise missiles was the best possible route for him to take – he’d live up to the ‘red line’ statement, keep American boots out of Syria, and rest assured knowing that the American public would forget about it in a few months. The attack was going to happen, regardless of public or Congressional support.
5) So why would Russia care? Why would they hop so quickly after Kerry’s statement?
The Razor says: Because, in the end, Russia wasn’t going to do anything about the U.S.’s military intervention, and this was going to diminish their standing as a useful ally.
Russia was going to sit on the sidelines and watch the U.S. attacks unfold, and this was going to send a terrible message to Russia’s other allies. The message would have been: when push comes to shove, Russia is powerless to stop the U.S. from doing whatever it wants, even to close allies.
In the end, none of the three primary nations involved wanted U.S. military intervention, but all were somewhat boxed in: Assad couldn’t be seen as giving in to U.S. demands, President Obama couldn’t be seen as going back on his ‘red line’ statement, and Russia was essentially powerless to stop the U.S. from doing whatever it wanted - but it couldn't be seen as such.
The three nations had to come up with a solution, and that’s what happened. There’s no 11th-dimensional chess being played by any of the actors here – they all wanted to avoid a U.S. strike, and they had to figure out a politically viable way to prevent it. The President is undoubtedly taking the hit by having The Plan portrayed as originating from Russia, but that was the approach that had to happen for Assad to be able to accept it.