The conversation about American strikes in Syria shifted this week, after Bashar Al-Assad suggested he would surrender his chemical weapons, and President Obama called on Congress to delay a decision on missile strikes. Bob takes a look at this week's Syria developments in the media, including the supposed gaffe by Secretary of State John Kerry that may have allowed the US to avoid going to war.
Andrew Bird - Ophelia Looks Back
BOB GARFIELD: Could it have been only a week ago we were noting how the Syria debate had been so thoroughly, thoughtfully and skeptically presented by the news media, shedding light and questioning the assumptions on all the arguments for and against intervention? This week looked a little different, as the various parties showed up on major media venues to make their case more or less directly to the public. From Russian President Vladimir Putin's op-ed in the New York Times to President Obama's Tuesday address to the nation, to the brutal dictator himself, Bashar al-Assad,visiting Charlie Rose.
CHARLIE ROSE: Will there be attacks against American bases in the Middle East if there is an airstrike?
BASHAR AL-ASSAD: You should expect everything. You should expect everything, not – not necessarily through the government. It’s not only – the governments are not only – not the only player in this region. You have different parties, you have different factions, you have different ideology; you have everything in this region now.
BOB GARFIELD: Assad said a vote for intervention was a vote for regional mayhem. By week’s end, his media advisor had him on Russian TV, actually issuing conditions for Syrian concessions. Meanwhile, Obama in his televised address, reiterated that an example must be made of tyrants who gas children, not a big example with ground troops and ongoing bombing campaigns and regime change but not an itsy-bitsy little example either.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: As some members of Congress have said, there’s no point in simply doing a “pinprick” strike in Syria. Let me make something clear. The United States military doesn’t do pinpricks. Even a limited strike will send a message to Assad that no other nation can deliver.
BOB GARFIELD: Putin, meanwhile, used a rare head of state op-ed in the New York Times to come to the defense of his Syrian ally. First, he argued, a strike without UN consent is against international law - and who more than Putin values rule of law.
But secondly he insisted, Assad isn't the one who gassed civilians. Putin wrote, quote, “There is every reason to believe it was not used by the Syrian army, but by opposition forces to provoke intervention by their powerful foreign patrons.”
Now, if the US intelligence findings are believable, and after crying wolf in Iraq, the CIA does have a tough sell, the “Assad was framed” scenario is easily disproven. But in another emerging media development, Putin and the Assad regime have had some help carrying their water. Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly has floated the double cross on his show, as has the King of right wing talk radio.
RUSH LIMBAUGH: It's an open question whether the rebels got their hands on some chemical weapons and then, while in the process of getting’ the heck kicked out of ‘em, which Bashar was doing, they launched chemical weapons on their own people, framing Bashar. Huh!
BOB GARFIELD: So Rush Limbaugh is on a first-name basis with Assad. How nice. His source though is a shadowy writer called Yossef Bodansky whom, as Foreign Affairs* Associate Editor David Kenner wrote this week, “has long-standing ties to the Assad regime and a penchant for conspiracy theories.” For instance, he speculated that the White House itself helped plan the sarin gas attack.
In his zeal to embarrass Barack Hussein Obama, Limbaugh, intentionally or not, laundered pro-Assad propaganda. But the press was an equal opportunity laundry. On the other side of the intervention question, a think tank Ph.D. named Elizabeth O’Bagy made the rounds of broadcast outlets after the Wall Street Journal printed her op-ed arguing for an attack on Assad. Here she was on NPR’s Morning Edition.
ELIZABETH O’BAGY: First of all, I think that a strike is important, if nothing else, because of the psychological impact that no reaction would have on the Syrian population, as a whole. That includes regime supporters and opposition supporters.
BOB GARFIELD: What O’Bagy failed to mention is that she was on the payroll at the Syrian Emergency Task Force, a pro-rebel advocacy group. Oh, and she lied about her Ph.D.
Maybe the most remarkable development of the week, a last-ditch plan for Syria to avert a strike by surrendering its chemical weapons, itself began as a media moment. The idea was first floated, not by Russia's President, but by Secretary of State John Kerry as an off-the-cuff remark at a press briefing.
REPORTER: Is there anything at this point that his government could do or offer that would stop an attack?
SECRETARY OF STATE KERRY: Sure. He could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week, turn it over, all of it, without delay, and allow a full and total accounting for that. But he isn’t about to do it and it can’t be done, obviously.
BOB GARFIELD: In the moment, it was a throwaway, a straw man’s suggestion knocked down in the very next clause, and it was widely reported as a gaffe. But at week’s end, with Putin's endorsement and Obama's tentative nod, Kerry’s notion was the subject of negotiations. There was even talk of a peace conference. Maybe that's just a stalling tactic or maybe, after a week of spin, the straw man's straw had been spun into gold.
*In our segment "The Every Changing Story on Syria," we misidentified writer David Kenner as writing for "Foreign Affairs". His article was written for Foreign Policy.