Obama's bizarre TV address: the President dithers over Syria

Obama could not be clearer: something needs to be done about Assad. But he is ducking every opportunity to act.

If you didn't see Obama's address to the nation on Syria yesterday evening, you missed a pretty inglorious moment in the 44th President's career.

He opened strongly; invoking, in no uncertain terms, the ungodly horror of Assad's chemical attack:

The situation profoundly changed ... on August 21st, when Assad’s government gassed to death over a thousand people, including hundreds of children. The images from this massacre are sickening: Men, women, children lying in rows, killed by poison gas. Others foaming at the mouth, gasping for breath. A father clutching his dead children, imploring them to get up and walk. On that terrible night, the world saw in gruesome detail the terrible nature of chemical weapons, and why the overwhelming majority of humanity has declared them off-limits - a crime against humanity, and a violation of the laws of war.

Strong words. And they got stronger.

This was not always the case. In World War I, American GIs were among the many thousands killed by deadly gas in the trenches of Europe. In World War II, the Nazis used gas to inflict the horror of the Holocaust.

So far, so very bullish. Like a lawyer summing up his arguments in front of a jury, with surgical precision Obama proceeded to outline the reasons for taking immediate action. Chemical weapons are a violation of international law, he said. More than that; they are a violation of our codes of conduct; and, moreover, an indirect but very real threat to American security.

“If we fail to act,” he said, “the Assad regime will see no reason to stop using chemical weapons. As the ban against these weapons erodes, other tyrants will have no reason to think twice about acquiring poison gas, and using them. Over time, our troops would again face the prospect of chemical warfare on the battlefield. And it could be easier for terrorist organizations to obtain these weapons, and to use them to attack civilians.”

He continued that allowing Assad to get away with this massacre could threaten America's regional allies, including Israel. And that it could ultimately embolden Iran in choosing to develop its nuclear weapon capability, rather than pursuing a path of peace.

This was the speech you could have predicted five days ago, setting out his stall before the nation in advance of the vote in Congress. But the situation has changed: and next, after this short, intense and heartfelt call to arms, the President performed a dizzying series of volte-face to try to meet it.

“...But I am the President of the world's only constitutional democracy,” he began, reciting almost verbatim for a while from his speech of last week, emphasising his reasons for taking the vote to Congress instead of acting unilaterally as Commander-in-Chief.

Next, he attempted to assuage commonly-voiced fears and misgivings about his surgical strike plan. “Many of you have asked: won't this put us on a slippery slope to war? …My answer is simple: I will not put American boots on the ground in Syria.”

And, more interestingly: “Why should we get involved at all in a place that's so complicated, and where … 'those who come after Assad may be enemies of human rights?'”

That is a pretty good question; and the President answers it with aplomb: “It’s true that some of Assad’s opponents are extremists. But Al-Qaeda will only draw strength in a more chaotic Syria if people there see the world doing nothing to prevent innocent civilians from being gassed to death. The majority of the Syrian people - and the Syrian opposition we work with - just want to live in peace, with dignity and freedom. And the day after any military action, we would redouble our efforts to achieve a political solution that strengthens those who reject the forces of tyranny and extremism.”

Well, quite. But then Obama makes another lightning-fast pivot; this time to grasp the offer by Vladimir Putin, offering to take Assad's chemical weapons into Russia's own dubious care. “It's too early to tell whether this offer will succeed”, says the President; but then – suddenly – announces that he has postponed the vote in Congress until the veracity of this offer can be established.

Wait, what? Who would have suspected, listening to that hearty call to arms in the first half of the speech, that we would end up with an equivocation, a wait-and-see, a hold on even the delaying tactic that was already in process?

All told, this bewildering speech was an attempt for Obama to please everyone, and it will end up pleasing no-one. To those implacably opposed to action, he still looks like a warmonger. To those who feel action is needed, it was nothing less than a further shirking of his Presidential duty. What was most odd was that, for parts of the speech at least, Obama sounded like he counted himself firmly among the latter. But his lack of action is more telling than any number of fine words.

This speech was a contradiction: an appeal to conscience without any appeal to action, a study in vacillation. Another aspect is perhaps at play: if recent Congressional polling models are anything to go by, the President was on track for a humiliating defeat in any case. Does he now regret last week's surprising democratic gesture?

Putin's supervision of the removal of Assad's chemical weapons into protective custody may well be cleverly calculated only to dial up Assad's status as a proxy of Moscow, no matter how it is couched. Russia's core aim is to protect its only ally in the Middle East, and its only Mediterranean naval base. Rebel forces might also see this as an admission of American defeat, and they will turn in ever-greater numbers to Al-Quaeda affiliates. For Putin, this is a move of some political genius; if it succeeds, he has cemented his influence in the Levant, and if it fails he still looks like a peacemaker.

Meanwhile, even if chemical weapons are genuinely out of the the equation, the body count in Syria will continue to pile up, and a political solution will become ever-more difficult to seek. Because, really, what right will Obama have to ask for it?

President Barack Obama walks to the podium before addressing the nation in a live televised speech from the East Room of the White House. Photo: Getty

Nicky Woolf is a writer for the Guardian based in the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

Michael Nagle / Stringer / Getty
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Let's use words not weapons to defeat Islamic State, says Syrian journalist

A group of citizen journalists who report on life inside Raqqa won recognition at the British Journalism Awards.

On Tuesday night, Abdalaziz Alhamza, from the Syrian campaign organisation Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS), received the prestigious Marie Colvin Award at the British Journalism Awards on behalf of the group.

RBSS has been reporting from the northern Syrian city, Islamic State's de facto capital, since 2014 on the violence carried out both by the extremist group and the regime of the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The independent organisation comprises 18 journalists based in Raqqa who are supported by 10 more journalists, who publish and translate their findings between Arabic and English, and help their reports reach a wider global audience. The RBSS Twitter feed has almost 70,000 followers, and their Facebook page has over 560,000 likes, marking them as a major news source for the area.

The creation of the group came as a reaction to the heavy stifling of media from within Syria, and aims to “shed light on the overlooking of these atrocities by all parties”, according to their website. Often, posts track the presence of Assad and IS forces in and around the city. Their news reports show the raids and deaths happening within the city, the impact of the ever-diminishing medical supplies and information about recent IS killings. Alongside these are posts which have a civilian-focus, giving voice to the people who are living inside Raqqa, such as local shopkeepers.

Speaking at the British Journalism Awards on Tuesday, Alhamza said: “In 2014, we realised two important things: the first is that the outside world was not going to help us, and the second is that we had to do something. Anything. So we created RBSS.”

Alhamza further explained the campaign group's aims: 

“Our goal was not only to expose IS criminality, but also to resist them. We did that by capturing and distributing images and videos of life in Raqqa under IS.”

“My colleagues and I never thought or even could imagine the level of suffering our people has been subjected to in the last five years. We learned the hard way that freedom doesn’t come cheap.”

“The scenes of extreme violence and humiliation the group visited on our city’s people. We wanted to make sure the world – even if it wasn’t going to help us – knew what was going on.

Though constantly living under threat, Alhamza’s speech last night showed the pride and importance that RBSS place on publishing the horrors of daily life within Syria.

“Our work shows that we can fight arms with words, and that ultimately is the only way to defeat them, and IS knows it.