Puzzling Our Way Through Syria

By David T. Jones on September 25, 2013

Washington, DC - When someone throws a drowning man a life line, he grabs it--and doesn’t worry whether it is firmly attached at the other end.  Putin tossed such a rope to President Obama with his proposal to arrange international control of the Syrian government’s chemical weapons (CW) stockpile; the lifeline was accompanied by a sanctimonious op-ed in the New York Times.  

It is not that Putin’s op-ed platitudes were entirely wrong, e.g., noting the United Nations as sanctioning agent for any military action other than self defense, but that he blithely ignored the many Moscow maneuvers to prevent UN collective action on Syria.  Nor is it likely, as Putin disingenuously asserts, that the rebels orchestrated the August CW attack killing 1,000 plus civilians (they simply lack the capability to deliver so extensive an attack whether or not they also have used CW).  

But what has infuriated various U.S. politicians and pundits is Putin’s sniffy suggestion that the United States isn’t “exceptional”--or at least no more exceptional than other nations (unmentioned, of course, being Russia).  It is doubly painful since, in contrast to other U.S. presidents, Obama has often appeared reluctant to embrace the concept of American exceptionalism, including it more as a throw away comment during his 10 September speech than a guiding principle of his personal belief.

So President Obama takes the approach of a cat in a tree being rescued by a fireman.  The Obama-cat tries to scratch the fireman and yowls that he didn’t bring a saucer of cream.  Putin clearly regards Obama with amused contempt; a nice man but out of his depth in foreign affairs.  And, unfortunately, it also appears as if the most senior U.S. foreign policy advisors lack the intellectual heft and experience that past presidential advisors (Kissinger, Brezinski, Condi Rice, Scowcroft, Powell) brought to issues.

But that still leaves us with a bottom line:  a framework agreement to address Syrian government CW, with devil-in-the-details prospects that may prevent military action against the Assad-Syrian government.  Whose idea was it originally?  A verbal blunder by SecState Kerry instantly refuted by USG authorities but adroitly seized by Putin-Assad?  An idea explored between Moscow and Washington for months?  An element of the Putin-Obama sidebar conversation at the G-20?  

The origin is irrelevant.  A success has the proverbial “thousand fathers” with failure an orphan.  And from extended diplomatic experience, I can assure that what is discussed/developed confidentially and/or hypothetically in foreign ministries and between diplomats is 10 times greater than what is released publicly.  So any or all of the explanations could be accurate.

For Assad the putative arrangement provides real benefits.  It will be hard to bring Congress back to a crescendo endorsing military strikes while Assad-Putin play out timelines, haggle over CW stockpile quantities, requirements for elimination, etc.  Ultimately, CW is a tertiary weapon, tactical rather than strategic; eliminating CW is not the equivalent of grounding the Syrian air force with a “no fly” zone.  Moreover, the Syrian government has been on a military roll for several months; the rebels are philosophically divided and engaging in internecine killing.  Neutering the likelihood of U.S. and “willing” others strikes with missiles and bombs is an obvious military plus and a Syrian military morale booster as well.  Assad will crow, and the rebels are at least somewhat disheartened.  Weapons and training from the U.S. and others do not seem to be tide turners, while Hezbollah fighters, Russian weapons, and Iranian support bolster Assad.

Regardless of how the announced framework agreement plays out in the months to come, it has reintroduced Moscow as a player in the Middle East.  Nor is that development necessarily bad.  We really cannot argue that our exclusive primacy in Middle East peace negotiations since the USSR collapse has been crowned with success.  One may forget that Moscow is a member and cosponsor of the Middle East Peace Talks.  This role, originating in the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference, has long been in abeyance, but Moscow has points of leverage that, regardless of whether they are used to advance Russian national interests, may still be helpful concurrently to advance regional peace.  

Frankly, a victorious Assad would be better for Western interests than an Islamic-dominated, al-Qaeda-associated rebel victory in Syria.  Perhaps a “least worse” outcome can be orchestrated with Putin connivance.   

Consequently, we should be able to tolerate some Putin preening where our interests coincide.   He is an amoral former-KGB operative, but smart enough limit his specific objectives to available Russian resources.


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