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Reading Tea Leaves in Confirmation Hearings for U.S. Cyber Commander

by Duncan Hollis

Last week, the U.S. Senate held confirmation hearings for Vice-Admiral Michael S. Rogers to replace General Keith Alexander as head of U.S. Cyber Command.  It’s interesting to see how both men received almost identical written questions in their respective 2014 and 2010 hearings.  More interesting perhaps are the similarities and variations in their responses with respect to how international law operates in cyberspace.

For example, in both 2010 and 2014, the Senate asked the nominee the same question: “Does the Defense Department have a definition for what constitutes use of force in cyberspace, and will that definition be the same for [U.S.] activities in cyberspace and those of other nations?

Here was Alexander’s written response:

Article 2(4) of the U.N. Charter provides that states shall refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any State. DOD operations are conducted consistent with international law principles in regard to what is a threat or use of force in terms of hostile intent and hostile act, as reflected in the Standing Rules of Engagement/Standing Rules for the Use of Force (SROE/SRUF). There is no international consensus on a precise definition of a use of force, in or out of cyberspace. Consequently, individual nations may assert different definitions, and may apply different thresholds for what constitutes a use of force. Thus, whether in the cyber or any other domain, there is always potential disagreement among nations concerning what may amount to a threat or use of force.

Remainder of answer provided in the classified supplement.

And this is what Vice Admiral Rogers provided to the Committee last week:

DoD has a set of criteria that it uses to assess cyberspace events. As individual events may vary greatly from each other, each event will be assessed on a case-by-case basis. While the criteria we use to assess events are classified for operational security purposes, generally speaking, DoD analyzes whether the proximate consequences of a cyberspace event are similar to those produced by kinetic weapons.

As a matter of law, DoD believes that what constitutes a use of force in cyberspace is the same for all nations, and that our activities in cyberspace would be governed by Article 2(4) of the U.N. Charter the same way that other nations would be. With that said, there is no international consensus on the precise definition of a use of force, in or out of cyberspace. Thus, it is likely that other nations will assert and apply different definitions and thresholds for what constitutes a use a force in cyberspace, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

Similarly, both hearings had the Senate asking “Could U.S. Cyber Command lawfully employ offensive cyber weapons against computers located abroad that have been determined to be sources of an attack on the United States or U.S. deployed forces if we do not know who is responsible for the attack (i.e., a foreign  government or non-state actors)?

General Alexander’s response:

The establishment of U.S. Cyber Command, in and of itself, does not change the lawful employment of military force for self-defense. In this case, if the “attack” met the criteria approved by the President in our Standing Rules of Engagement, the military would exercise its obligation of self-defense. Operationally, it is difficult to develop an effective response when we do not know who is responsible for an “attack”; however, the circumstances may be such that at least some level of mitigating action can be taken even when we are not certain who is responsible. Regardless whether we know who is responsible, international law requires that our use of force in self-defense be proportional and discriminate. Neither proportionality nor discrimination requires that we know who is responsible before we take defensive action.

Vice-Admiral Rogers got the same question plus an additional add-on sentence, asking ”Without confident “attribution,” under international law, would the Defense Department have the authority to “fire back” without first asking the host government to deal with the attack?”  His written response?

International law does not require that a nation know who is responsible for conducting an armed attack before using capabilities to defend themselves from that attack. With that said, from both an operational and policy perspective, it is difficult to develop an effective response without a degree of confidence in attribution. Likely, we would take mitigating actions, which we felt were necessary and proportionate, to defend the nation from such an attack. I’d note that in such an event, U.S. Cyber Command would be employing cyber capabilities defensively, in the context of self-defense.

For me, I was struck by (a) the new emphasis on the ‘effects test’ that’s been bantered about for years in terms of identifying what constitutes a use of force subject to Article 2(4); (b) the lessened attention to ‘classified responses’, which peppered Alexander’s original written responses and that are now (thanks to Edward Snowden I assume) largely absent from Rogers’ answers; and (c) the softening of the language regarding the U.S. willingness to respond in self-defense where attribution is a problem.

What do readers think?  Is this all one, harmonious, consistent U.S. policy?  Or, are there shifts in these responses that bear watching?  Anyone interested in comparing the remainder of the two testimonies can do so by seeing what Alexander wrote here versus Rogers’ more recent written responses here.

Guest Post: Hafetz–Measuring the Value of a Criminal Trial

by Jonathan Hafetz

[Jonathan Hafetz is an Associate Professor of Law at Seton Hall University School of Law. This post is written as a comment to Stuart Ford's guest post, published yesterday.]

Stuart Ford’s article, Complexity and Efficiency at International Criminal Courts, seeks to address the common misperception that international criminal trials are not only expensive, but also inefficient.  Professor Ford’s article focuses principally on the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), which, in terms of the total number of accused, is the largest international criminal tribunal in history.  Professor Ford seeks to measure whether the ICTY has, in effect, provided good bang for the buck.  He concludes, rightly I believe, that it has.    Although his primary aim is to develop a way for measuring a tribunal’s efficiency, Professor Ford’s article also has important implications for broader debates about the merits of international criminal justice.

Professor Ford defines efficiency as the complexity of a trial divided by its cost.  While trials at the ICTY often have been long and expensive, they have also been relatively efficient given their complexity.   Further, the ICTY preforms relatively well compared to other trials of similar complexity, such as terrorism trials conducted in the United States and Europe, as well as trials that are somewhat less complex, such as the average U.S. death penalty case.   Garden-variety domestic murder trials, which at first blush might appear more efficient than the ICTY,  do not provide a useful point of comparison because they are much more straightforward.

Once complexity is factored in, the ICTY appears comparatively efficient.  Its record is more impressive considering that an often recognized goal of international criminal justice—creating a historical record of mass atrocities—can make the trials slower and less efficient in terms of reaching outcomes for specific defendants.

Professor Ford also finds that the ICTY performed more efficiently than the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL), thus challenging a perceived advantage of such hybrid tribunals over ad hoc tribunals like the ICTY.  His conclusion suggests the need for future research on comparisons among tribunals within the international criminal justice field, which might have implications from an institutional design perspective. (more…)

Guest Post: Ford–Complexity and Efficiency at International Criminal Courts

by Stuart Ford

[Stuart Ford is an Assistant Professor at The John Marshall Law School.]

It is common to see people criticize international tribunals as too slow, too expensive, and inefficient.  Professor Whiting even argues this is now the consensus position among “policymakers, practitioners, and commentators (both academic and popular).”  But are these criticisms accurate?  At least with respect to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), I believe the answer is no.

Most of those who have criticized the ICTY are implicitly comparing the ICTY to trials in domestic courts.  And indeed, ICTY trials take much longer than the average domestic criminal proceeding.  For example, in 2011 nearly 70% of criminal trials in federal courts in the United States took one day or less to try and there were only 37 trials that lasted more than 20 days.  See here at Table T-2.  In comparison, the average ICTY trial has lasted 176 days.  So, it is true that trials in the U.S. are much quicker than trials at the ICTY, but it is also true that ICTY trials are vastly more complex than the average domestic trial, and we generally expect more complex trials to be more expensive.  As a result, it is misleading to compare the cost and length of the ICTY’s trials to those in other courts without first accounting for the complexity of those trials.

Consequently, I propose a method for measuring trial complexity based on the number of trial days, trial exhibits and trial witnesses needed to complete a trial.  The figure below shows the relative complexity of trials at the ICTY and in the U.S.  As you can see, the average domestic trial barely registers on the chart, and even the Lucchese trial, one of the most complex trials ever conducted in the U.S., is only about half as complex as the ICTY’s most complex trial.  But measuring complexity is just the first step to understanding whether the ICTY is too slow and expensive.

Figure 1

(more…)

Exploring International Law with Opinio Juris in 2013: Highways, Back Roads, and Uncharted Territories…

by Chris Borgen

There’s never a boring year in international law and 2013 turned out to be particularly eventful: Syria, major cases in front of national and international courts, a possible nuclear deal with Iran, and turmoil in Eastern Europe, Egypt, and South Sudan, to name but a few reasons.

This post is not an attempt to log all that we have written about on Opinio Juris this year. There’s just too much.  If any of these topics (or others) are of particular interest to you, you can use our search function to find the posts related to them.  Rather, this post is an idiosyncratic tour of some of the highways, back roads, and other territory that we traversed in 2013… (Continue Reading)

Why Is the New Agreement Between P5+1 and Iran Not Void?

by Kevin Jon Heller

A few days ago, in response to reports of an imminent deal between P5+1 and Iran concerning Iran’s uranium enrichment, Tyler Cullis and Ryan Goodman debated whether Iran has a “right” to develop nuclear power for civilian purposes. Tyler argued that Iran does, citing (inter alia) Art. IV of the Treaty on Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT):

Nothing in this Treaty shall be interpreted as affecting the inalienable right of all the Parties to the Treaty to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination and in conformity with articles I and II of this Treaty.

Ryan disagreed, arguing that any such “right” in the NPT has been superceded by a series of Security Council resolutions — beginning with Res. 1696 in 2006 — demanding that Iran cease its enrichment activities. In defense of his position, Ryan cited a number of eminent non-proliferation scholars, such as Larry D. Johnson, a former Assistant-Secretary-General for Legal Affairs at the United Nations:

While Iran claims that it has a right to enrich uranium as part of its peaceful nuclear energy program, the IAEA Board of Governors found that there had been a history of concealment and failure to declare certain activities to the agency, and therefore reported the matter to the Security Council. The Council has decided that over and above its obligations under NPT and the safeguards agreement with the IAEA, Iran was required, under Chapter VII of the Charter, to suspend all proliferation-sensitive nuclear activities, including all enrichment-related and all reprocessing activities, as confidence-building measures.

I think Ryan are Johnson are right that the “inalienable right” guaranteed by Iran’s ratification of the NPT is nullified — at least for now — by the various Security Council resolutions. So here is my question: why is the just-announced agreement between P5+1 and Iran not void ab initio for the same reason? SC Res. 1737 categorically prohibits Iranian uranium enrichment (emphasis mine)…

Why It’s Not Surprising Syria Is Destroying Its Chemical Weapons

by Kevin Jon Heller

A couple of weeks ago, Mother Jones blogger Kevin Drum said he was surprised that Syria has, by all accounts, voluntarily given up its chemical-weapons capability:

I don’t really have any comment about this, except to express a bit of puzzlement. As near as I can tell, Bashar al-Assad is really and truly sincere about destroying his chemical weapons stocks.1 But why? I very much doubt it’s because he fears retaliation from the United States. And given his past behavior, it’s hardly likely that it’s driven by feelings of moral revulsion.

So what’s his motivation? For reasons of his own, he must have decided that he was better off without chemical weapons than with them. Perhaps it has to do with the internal political situation in Syria. Or maybe Russia got fed up for some reason. But it’s a bit of a mystery, and not one that I’ve seen any plausible explanations for.

I don’t think it’s a mystery at all. Here is the explanation:

Forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad have firmly seized the momentum in the country’s civil war in recent weeks, capturing one rebel stronghold after another and triumphantly planting the two-starred Syrian government flag amid shattered buildings and rubble-strewn streets.

Despite global outrage over the use of chemical weapons, Assad’s government is successfully exploiting divisions among the opposition, dwindling foreign help for the rebel cause and significant local support, all linked to the same thing: discomfort with the Islamic extremists who have become a major part of the rebellion.

The battlefield gains would strengthen the government’s hand in peace talks sought by the world community.

Both the Syrian government and the opposition have said they are ready to attend a proposed peace conference in Geneva that the U.S. and Russia are trying to convene, although it remains unclear whether the meeting will indeed take place. The Western-backed opposition in exile, which has little support among rebel fighters inside Syria and even less control over them, has set several conditions for its participation, chief among them that Assad must not be part of a transitional government — a notion Damascus has roundly rejected.

“President Bashar Assad will be heading any transitional stage in Syria, like it or not,” Omar Ossi, a member of Syria’s parliament, told The Associated Press.

The government’s recent gains on the outskirts of the capital, Damascus, and in the north outside the country’s largest city, Aleppo, have reinforced Assad’s position. And the more the government advances, the easier it is to dismiss the weak and fractious opposition’s demands.

As I have pointed out before, the US’s obsession with chemical weapons was manna from heaven for Assad. There is still no hard evidence that Assad personally ordered the Syrian military to use chemical weapons, and it would have been suicide for anyone associated with the Syrian government to risk US military intervention by using them again. Assad thus essentially traded his strategically useless chemical-weapons capability for the right to wage a ruthless counter-insurgency with impunity. That trade has obviously worked — there is almost no chance at this point that the rebels will overthrow Assad’s government, and it is equally unlikely that Assad will ever step down as part of some kind of negotiated peace agreement. Why would he? He is winning the war, and the West has essentially lost interest in the mass atrocities he has committed, and continues to commit, against innocent Syrian civilians. Indeed, the Syrian military is now routinely using incendiary weapons to kill civilians, yet the West remains silent.

But at least Assad no longer has chemical weapons. Success, right?

Autonomous Weapons and a Campaign for a Treaty Ban

by Kenneth Anderson

The debate over autonomous weapons is not so visible in the United States, but the ban campaign launched by Human Rights Watch a year ago – an international NGO coalition called the “Campaign to Stop Killer Robots” – has been quite active in Europe and at the UN, where a number of countries raised the issue in their statements to the General Assembly’s First Committee (disarmament issues).  Matthew Waxman and I have been writing about this issue for several years; we have a short policy paper on the topic available at SSRN, “Law and Ethics for Autonomous Weapon Systems,” and we’re pleased to note our op-ed in the Wall Street Journal on Monday (November 4), “Killer Robots and Laws of War.”  We argue against a ban, on a number of grounds (it can be found open access at RealClearPolitics, here).  Here are a couple of grafs from midway through the piece (later on I’ll add links to the ban campaign and some other resources; must go teach class!):

[A] ban is unlikely to work, especially in constraining states or actors most inclined to abuse these weapons. Those actors will not respect such an agreement, and the technological elements of highly automated weapons will proliferate.  Moreover, because the automation of weapons will happen gradually, it would be nearly impossible to design or enforce such a ban. Because the same system might be operable with or without effective human control or oversight, the line between legal weapons and illegal autonomous ones will not be clear-cut.

If the goal is to reduce suffering and protect human lives, a ban could prove counterproductive. In addition to the self-protective advantages to military forces that use them, autonomous machines may reduce risks to civilians by improving the precision of targeting decisions and better controlling decisions to fire. We know that humans are limited in their capacity to make sound decisions on the battlefield: Anger, panic, fatigue all contribute to mistakes or violations of rules. Autonomous weapons systems have the potential to address these human shortcomings. No one can say with certainty how much automated capabilities might gradually reduce the harm of warfare, but it would be wrong not to pursue such gains, and it would be especially pernicious to ban research into such technologies.

That said, autonomous weapons warrant careful regulation. Each step toward automation needs to be reviewed carefully to ensure that the weapon complies with the laws of war in its design and permissible uses. Drawing on long-standing international legal rules requiring that weapons be capable of being used in a discriminating manner that limits collateral damage, the U.S. should set very high standards for assessing legally and ethically any research and development programs in this area. Standards should also be set for how these systems are to be used and in what combat environments.

The Nationalists Strike Back: The “No-Spy” Agreement Solution to the NSA Spying Scandal

by Julian Ku

I agree with Peter that there is a move to universalize (through accretion) a norm against spying via Article 17 of the ICCPR.  But unlike Peter, I think it will get nowhere.  Instead, I was struck by how the German complaint against the NSA program has not really been phrased in terms of how it violates international norms or laws.  Rather, it seems that the Germans (and French) are really hurt because they don’t have a “no-spy” agreement with the U.S. like Canada, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand do (The so-called “Five Eyes” or AUSCANNZUKUS)

In other words, the problem is not that spying itself is illegal or morally wrong, but that it is illegal and morally wrong to spy on your allies and friends.  Spying on other countries might very well be morally and legally justified (e.g.: North Korea, Iran, China, Russia).  A universal anti-spying norm could very well be the opposite. Indeed, it seems unlikely that Germany and France would seriously support a universal anti-spying norm that would constrain their own very robust spying efforts.

With this in mind, it is worth considering whether and how the U.S. should adopt new “no-spy” agreements, something President Obama seems willing to consider.   I actually think a “no-spy” agreement is a better approach than unilaterally disarming in the spy wars.  Do we really think the French will stop trying to spy on the U.S. once the U.S. pledges to stop spying on France?  Better to at least commit the French to a deal.

From a foreign relations law perspective, “no spy” agreements are curious.  They are sole executive agreements and they may or may not have a binding character under international law. Certainly, they are not formal treaties.  The U.S. Congress probably has incomplete knowledge of exactly what is in these agreements and how they are operating.

Stewart Baker is already up with congressional testimony (dated today) on criteria for any new “no-spy” agreements.  Interestingly, the main thrust of his testimony is that Congress should start exercising a little oversight, at least if the U.S. starts buying off allies with new “no spy” agreements.  He has some pretty stringent requirements (a cooling off period for any new agreements that must all be submitted to Congress for review, a report on compliance,etc).  He doesn’t go so far as to require Congressional approval for any new no-spy agreements, but he might as well.  I doubt Congress would go that far, and I think there will be some questions over whether Congress has the legal authority to constrain these kinds of executive agreements.

In any event, my prediction is that the fallout from the latest NSA scandal will be a flurry of “no-spy-on-you” promises and then a series of new “no spy agreements” for certain favored “allies”.  I think Germany will talk about a universal anti-spying norm, but this initiative will eventually die largely because no large nation really wants it.

Kiobel and the Resurgence of the Traditional Bases of Jurisdiction in the Alien Tort Statute

by Kenneth Anderson

Reading Roger’s post last week about how lower courts are interpreting the Supreme Court’s ATS ruling in Kiobel made me recall that I’ve fallen down in posting papers to SSRN – including a new one in the Cato Supreme Court Review 2012-2013, “The Alien Tort Statute’s Jurisidictional Universalism in Retreat.”  The article (chatty and speculative, be warned, an essay aimed at a broader audience than ATS specialists or international law scholars) tries to set Kiobel and, for that matter, the ATS itself, in a wider frame of what jurisdiction is supposed to mean beyond its technicalities.  It contrasts the sweeping universalist language of 1980s-era ATS suits, and the belief of people like Judge Irving Kaufman (who wrote the celebrated Filartiga opinion) that they were pronouncing on “international law ” through the exercise of universal jurisdiction, even though it happened to be in a US district court and applying distinctly US concepts through and through, with Kiobel’s return to traditional jurisdictional categories.

Whether the Chief Justice’s application of the presumption against extraterritoriality or Justice Breyer’s more capacious, yet still traditionally grounded, tests for jurisdiction, Kiobel signaled that the traditional grounds found, for example, in the Restatement of Foreign Relations are the ones that matter.  One could say, of course, that this has been true for a while.  After all, arguing that the ATS might require some conduct by someone that constitutes a violation of the law of nations, but doesn’t take into account whether the law of nations recognizes that someone as having the legal capacity to violate the law of nations, and so merely a domestic statute providing a domestic civil remedy for something that need not be international law as such, but merely conduct that would, if done by some actor with legal capacity, violate international law – well, that isn’t making any sweeping assertions about being international law or universal jurisdiction for the application of international law.  It’s just a peculiar American statute that gate-keeps liability with a weirdly counterfactual reference to international law as it might be.

International law in the subjunctive mood, maybe we could say.  But in that case, treating the statute as merely a domestic one with a weirdly constructed trigger, invoking a “law of nations” that we don’t mean the way other people mean it, argues strongly for a traditional approach to jurisdiction – it’s not universal jurisdiction anymore, because we’re not pretending that our reference point is actually universal, but instead merely a claim of extraterritoriality.  So it doesn’t seem quite so strange that the Chief Justice would invoke the presumption against extraterritoriality, because the thing, the statute, that plaintiffs propose to apply extraterritorially isn’t truly a claim of universality, either. (more…)

Eric Posner on the Coming Death of the ICC

by Kevin Jon Heller

Eric Posner has a new Cassandra column at Slate, this latest one foretelling the doom of the ICC. There isn’t much point in disagreeing with his basic thesis; no one knows at this point — not him, not I — whether the ICC will succeed. It is possible, however, to take issue with a number of assertions that Posner makes in his article. Some are unfair; others are simply wrong.

If anyone ought to be prosecuted for war crimes, it’s this reviled leader, who almost certainly directed poison gas attacks against civilians. But as Joshua Keating explained in Slate, it’s not going to happen. This, just the latest blow to the ICC, illustrates once again why the prospect of international justice through global courts is ever receding—and why the court’s own days may be numbered.

This assertion falls into the unfair category. As Alana Tiemessen pointed out on twitter, the ICC can hardly be blamed for the failure of the Security Council (for now) to refer Assad to the Court. And, of course, the assertion simply ignores the fact that the Security Council has referred controversial situations to the Court in the past. Posner could have acknowledged Darfur and Libya. He could have acknowledged how the Darfur referral has made it considerably more difficult for Bashir to function as Sudan’s head of state. (See, e.g., the ongoing controversy over his desire to travel to the US to attend the UN General Assembly, which will never happen.) If Posner wanted to say something critical, he could have pointed out that the real problem is the Security Council’s failure to back up its referrals, either financially or in terms of enforcement. But that would have simply highlighted the fact that the problem is the Security Council, not the ICC.

Instead, the worst of the bad guys were tried at Nuremberg and in Tokyo. But the postwar proceedings faced a problem. Hitler’s and Tojo’s invasions of innocent countries—and even Hitler’s massacre of civilians at home—did not violate any rule of international law that came with personal criminal liability. Leaders were tried and punished nonetheless, but doubts about legitimacy lingered, since the trials lacked a basis in international law even while they condemned defendants for violating it.

Both unfair and wrong. Posner simply elides the difference between aggression, crimes against humanity, and war crimes with regard to retroactivity…

Does the Washington Post Editorial Page Have ANY Standards Left?

by Kevin Jon Heller

Apparently not, because yesterday’s war propaganda editorial by Sebastian Junger beating the drum for attacking Syria is just spectacularly awful. I’ve been out of the fisking game for a while, but the editorial simply can’t pass unmentioned.

Every war I have ever covered — Kosovo, Bosnia, Sierra Leone and Liberia — withstood all diplomatic efforts to end it until Western military action finally forced a resolution. Even Afghanistan, where NATO troops stepped into a civil war that had been raging for a decade, is experiencing its lowest level of civilian casualties in more than a generation.

When you’re citing Afghanistan — now in its 12th year of conflict, with tens of thousands of civilian casualties, millions of refugees, 3300+ dead US soldiers, and a price tag nearing $500 billion — as an example of successful Western military action, you should probably just stop, delete your file, and go play with your kids.

(But I do like the slogan for the US: “Year 12 in Afghanistan: Lowest Civilian Casualties Ever!”)

That track record should force even peace advocates to consider that military action is required to bring some wars to an end. And yet there’s been little evidence of that sentiment in American opposition to missile strikes against military targets in Syria.

Obama has specifically disclaimed any intention to end the Syrian civil war through military action. But whatever…

Obama’s “Credible Threat” of Military Action Against Syria

by Kevin Jon Heller

In his speech yesterday, Obama predictably took credit for the latest developments regarding Syria’s use of chemical weapons:

In part because of the credible threat of U.S. military action, as well as constructive talks that I had with President Putin, the Russian government has indicated a willingness to join with the international community in pushing Assad to give up his chemical weapons. The Assad regime has now admitted that it has these weapons, and even said they’d join the Chemical Weapons Convention, which prohibits their use.

Such shameless credit-mongering is more than a little difficult to swallow. Had Syria’s new willingness to give up its chemical weapons materialized two weeks ago, when Obama was still rattling his sabre and promising to attack Syria without congressional authorization, it would have been reasonable to conclude that the “credible threat of US military action” was the decisive factor in Assad’s capitulation. But now? Just days after Obama acknowledged that it would be very difficult for him to attack Syria against the will of both Congress and a large majority of the American people? Sure, he hedged a bit, insisting that he has the authority to attack Syria anyway. But I doubt many people (especially Assad) take Obama’s hedge seriously — defying the will of Congress would at a minimum lead to the extremist House holding him in contempt, and it could well lead to a foolish and ultimately doomed attempt to impeach him. The last thing Obama needs is to spend the final few years of his presidency dealing with either possibility — especially given that attacking Syria would accomplish next to nothing from a military standpoint and runs the risk of dragging the US far more deeply into the Syrian civil war than Obama wants.

The idea that the latest diplomatic developments are attributable to the US’s “credible threat” of military action in Syria, then, is anything but credible. Indeed, I’d like to suggest an alternative explanation, one that leads me to be relatively optimistic about the fate of the Russian proposal: this is a diplomatic dream come true for Assad. (And Russia, for that matter.) Although I think there is little doubt left that Syria’s military used chemical weapons against civilians, there is still no evidence that Assad ordered their use. The new Human Rights Watch report specifically concludes that the Syrian government is responsible for the Damascus attack, but it does not claim that Assad himself was responsible for them. And a German newspaper has claimed that “high level national security sources” in the German government believe that Assad “did not personally order last month’s chemical weapons attack near Damascus… and blocked numerous requests from his military commanders to use chemical weapons against regime opponents in recent months.”

I have no idea whether the German report is true, and I’m skeptical of the claim that Assad actively blocked the use of chemical weapons. But I find it very difficult to imagine that Assad was behind the Damascus attack. Had the attack occurred last year, when it looked (at least for a time) like the rebels might actually be able to overthrow the government, I would have had no problem believing that Assad was behind it. He’s clearly a monster, and I’m sure he would use any weapon in his arsenal as a last resort. But why now? Why would Assad use a weapon that has very little tactical military use when it seems clear that the rebels are slowly losing the war? Assad may be a monster, but he’s not an irrational one. He had to have known that using chemical weapons so openly would be of little military benefit and would run the risk of international condemnation and even military intervention. So I find it unimaginable that he would have used them anyway.

If Assad was not responsible for the attack, and if he thinks he is going to win the civil war, the Russian proposal for avoiding US military intervention is a fantastic solution to his international problems. Assad gives up weapons he has no intention of using anyway, and in exchange he reaps the diplomatic benefits of giving them up and avoids being attacked by the US. And, of course, he remains free to keep on killing innocent civilians with conventional weapons, which the US has made clear it has no intention of using force to stop. As I said, a dream come true for Assad.

Obama can claim all he wants that he’s responsible for the possibility of Syria giving up its chemical weapons. In reality, it’s just as plausible that Assad has played him like a fiddle.