Putin plays his hand well – but with what result?

President Vladimir Putin has skillfully taken advantage of the opening given, almost by accident, by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, for Russia to frame the debate on what to do about the civil war raging in Syria.

Russia’s strategic goals are clear: (1) to prevent an Islamist regime coming to power in Syria, which would encourage Islamist movements in the north Caucasus; (2) to preserve Russia’s role as a crucial player in the Middle East; and (3) to limit the power and influence of the United States in shaping events near Russia’s borders or involving Russia’s allies.

All three of those goals were put in jeopardy by President Obama’s sudden decision, after two years of refusing to get drawn into Syria’s civil war, to undertake a military strike against Syria’s government in retaliation for Syrian President Assad’s use of chemical weapons against rebels in his country. Such a strike, although designed only to degrade Assad’s ability to deploy chemical weapons, would in fact seriously undermine Assad’s ability to wage war, by destroying airfields, command and control facilities and artillery (all of which can be used to deliver chemical weapons). In addition, the entry of America into the conflict could prompt defections among Assad’s domestic supporters, leading to major advances and perhaps even victory by the rebels. Since many of the strongest rebel groups are now allied to Islamist groups, such an outcome would create an Islamist regime in Damascus, cost Russia an important ally, and demonstrate the relative power of the U.S., and the weakness of Russia, to shape events in the Middle East.

Thus when Secretary Kerry suggested that a U.S. strike against Assad could be averted if Assad would simply turn over his stockpile of chemical weapons, it was logical for Russia to seize that opportunity to shift the path of events. Putin has now done this with consummate skill. In his recent letter to the U.S. public, published as an opinion essay in the New York Times, he puts President Obama in a tight corner. Putin argues correctly that a strike by the U.S. could expand the war, bring a victory by terrorist Islamic forces, and would undermine the role of the U.S. Security Council in deciding the legitimacy of military actions against sovereign states. He makes a compelling case that as long as there is an alternative to such a strike, it should be pursued, and he is offering to facilitate it. This letter, and Russia’s actions in response to Kerry’s comment, have stolen the initiative from the United States, and seemingly put Russia in charge of a process that will prevent the U.S. from carrying out its threat to launch missiles against Russia’s ally. It is, so far, a triumph of diplomatic maneuvering.

Thus handcuffed, how will the U.S. respond? America’s strategic goals should have been to seek the removal of a Syrian leader who supported Hezbollah and Iran in threatening Israel, but has now lost legitimacy with his own people; and to support pro-democratic rebels in shaping a new inclusive regime. Yet a war-weary President Obama has not acted in pursuit of those goals. Instead he has waited for events to unfold in the hope they would go favorably for American interests. He gave America what he thought would be a sure plan for staying out of Syria’s war while still holding the moral high ground, promising that he would not intervene in the conflict unless Syria used chemical weapons.

President Assad apparently called President Obama’s bluff; America claims to have firm evidence that Assad used chemical weapons, and on a scale that killed over one thousand Syrians. Confronted with this evidence, and his past promise, Obama felt compelled to act at last to strike at Assad.

Yet this decision was not well thought out. Engagement in a another Middle East conflict, even if only via missile attacks, and only to punish the use of heinous weapons, was not popular among the American people nor generally supported by Congress. Since Russia would veto a proposal for such a strike if brought to the United Nations Security Council, it was not obvious how such a strike would acquire international legitimacy. Nor was it obvious how the task of punishing Assad for the use of chemical weapons would be effectively carried out without changing the balance of forces and affecting the outcome of the civil war. Bringing an Islamist regime to power in Syria also is against the strategic goals of the United States, and the risks of this outcome would be increased by a powerful strike against Assad.

So Putin’s offer gave the Obama administration a welcome way to back out of their hasty and ill-considered plan to strike. Much as the White House dislikes seeing initiative pass to Russia in this situation, the Obama administration has publicly embraced Putin’s offer and promised to work with Russia to remove chemical weapons from Syria. Certain elements in Putin’s message in the New York times certainly rankled: American anger has particularly focused on his admonition to Americans not to think of their nation as exceptional. This comes across strangely from a leader who has just celebrated the 1025th anniversary of the baptism of Rus, in a country that has always seen itself as having a special mission in regard to its Orthodox faith. Perhaps every country can be exceptional in its own way, in cherishing its own values? For the moment however, the official U.S. response is a willingness to accept Putin’s offer to seek a peaceful way to end the threat of Assad’s further use of chemical weapons.

Still, one has to ask – for how long? The weakest element in President Putin’s letter was his statement that “there is every reason to believe [gas] was used not by the Syrian Army, but by opposition forces, to provoke intervention by their powerful foreign patrons, who would be siding with the fundamentalists.” If the United States can, over the next few weeks, persuade most countries in the world that chemical weapons were unmistakably used by the Syrian Army, not the rebels, it would undermine Putin’s credibility.

At the moment, it is in the interest of the U.S. to cooperate with Russia and seek a peaceful path. But in a matter of weeks, it seems likely that the impossibility of walking down this path will be clear. After all, America and Russia are not the main actors in this struggle – it is the rebels and Assad who control events on the ground. Already, the U.N. inspectors who sought to verify the use of chemical weapons faced sniper fire and shelling; who will guarantee the safety of the inspectors and crews expected to locate and remove Assad’s vast stockpile? The rebels have already stated they will not agree to this plan and claimed that Assad is moving some of his chemical weapons to Iraq for safekeeping, so that Russian and American and U.N. teams won’t be able to find and remove them all. And will Assad and the rebels agree to a ceasefire for long enough for a chemical weapons team to do its job? In the weeks while these obstacles are being addressed, the U.S. will continue to seek to prove that Assad was responsible for the use of chemical weapons, and to build support for a strike if Assad does not fully cooperate. Russia would prefer that the issue of who was at fault be put aside, and that any plans for a strike be halted unless the U.N Security Council should vote to approve them. Thus the steps that America and Russia plan to follow while efforts to remove the weapons are beginning will be different from the outset.

Russia has played its opportunity brilliantly, and for now, it has stymied American plans for an attack on Syria. But a few months from now, we may see the U.S. and Russia return to where they were just a few weeks ago: the U.S. trying to encourage the removal of Assad from power, and Russia resisting it.

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About jackgoldstone

Hazel Professor of Public Policy at George Mason University
This entry was posted in The Middle East Revolts, U.S. Politics and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Putin plays his hand well – but with what result?

  1. Fixed some grammar issues:
    Watching the brutal massacre of innocent civilians from an ivory tower thousands of miles away merely seems like a chess game with Russia and U.S. moving the pieces. Meanwhile the American public, fatigued by two long wars, wants no part in any military action regardless of size and scope. But to an immigrant like me, like many others before me who formed the fabric of American morality, “American Exceptionalism” means doing the right thing for the dignity of human life and liberty even if it seems costly and complicated. That to me is what is good about the United States. I hope Putin’s op-ed backfires and turns more Americans to support military action against Assad. Because beyond Foggy Bottom and Pennsylvania Ave, the American main street still hates being lectured by an ex-KGB operative from the former USSR.

    • Excellent comment, Solaiman — I fully agree and it is a tragedy that the US has been turned away from doing more in Syria.

      • Professor Goldstone: I’m really enjoying your blog posts. On Syria you are right it’s a tragedy that the U.S. hasn’t done more. We’re a liberal democracy thus our government’s foreign policy is largely indicative of American attitude and appetite for intervention, especially in today’s hyper-connected citizens. Yet a persuasive and relatively popular president could have done more. His unwillingness to expend any political capital on this matter is disappointing, but not surprising. As you mentioned when he was first elected, that he’s a Jeffersonian. Perhaps, I was being to naive to think that world events and dire situations may change him…

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