White House spokesman Jay Carney on Wednesday asserted that Russian prestige was
now “on the line” regarding Syria.
Carney’s statement recalled an earlier
remark by US President Barack Obama himself. Speaking to reporters, Obama said,
“I didn’t set a redline. The world set a redline.”
continued, it was not his “credibility” that was on the line. Rather, it was
“the international community’s credibility” that was to be tested.
curious statements reflect perhaps better than anything else the sense of
confusion emanating from Washington surrounding the events of the past week. The
president’s remarks came just prior to the US’s surprise agreement to a Russian
proposal that would ostensibly see Syria voluntarily give up its chemical
weapons capability. Carney’s words were said in the days following the
But both statements contain an unmistakable effort to deflect
attention, and transfer responsibility.
This effort has characterized the
US response to the Syrian crisis in general, and the regime’s use of chemical
weapons in particular.
Is “Russian prestige” indeed on the line if Syria
does not cooperate in parting from its chemical weapons capability? The
innocence of this remark must have raised wry smiles in the
Russian prestige in the Middle East derives from the sense that
Moscow is a staunch patron that sticks by its clients. Bashar Assad’s Syria is
the ally of the Russians.
For a moment last week, Assad was genuinely
concerned about his future. Few in Damascus believed that an American strike, if
it came, would remain limited.
The Syrian dictator feared that American
attacks would inevitably widen, weakening his armed forces and paving the way
for a rebel victory.
All that is over now. Putin spotted the enormous
American reluctance to undertake an attack of any kind (as evinced in Obama’s
remarks above, in US Secretary of State Kerry’s astonishing pledge that any
attack would be “unbelievably small,” and so on).
He therefore came
forward with a proposal that would be just credible enough not to make the
acceptance of it utterly ridiculous. Washington happily accepted the olive
branch and hurried away from any further possibility of military
Russian credibility is not in question – it is already assured.
Moscow has ensured the safety of its ally and his war effort.
So now it’s
back to the war. The Russian weapons lifeline to the autocrat is buzzing with
increased activity. The arms ships making their way from the Ukrainian port of
Oktabyrsk have increased in number in recent weeks, shipping analysts
They are bringing the vital spare parts for Assad’s planes and
The dictator, in turn, has renewed his war effort.
invigorated, Assad’s planes attacked a field hospital near Aleppo on Wednesday.
At least 11 people, including a doctor, were killed.
And what of the
proposal for Syria to cede its chemical weapons capability? It is worth
remembering the years of maneuvering and obfuscation during the search for such
weapons in Iraq, as Saddam Hussein’s regime led hapless inspectors by the nose
from place to place, with nothing of consequence ever resulting.
unlike Hussein’s Iraq back then, Syria is currently the perfect environment for
a despot who might wish to restrict and prevent the movement of inspectors:
namely, a situation of civil war. “You’re in the middle of a brutal civil war
where the Syrian regime is massacring its own people,” as one US official quoted
by Reuters put it. “Does anyone think they’re going to suddenly stop the killing
to allow inspectors to secure and destroy all the chemical weapons?” Russia is
now in a win-win situation.
If, for whatever reason, the Syrians do
choose to part with an appreciable fraction of their chemical weapons
capability, President Vladmir Putin will be able to bask in an aura of
statesmanship. It was he, after all, who proposed this path.
And if the
Syrians prove recalcitrant and obstructive, no one will blame the Russian
president – on the contrary. He has always denied that the regime used chemical
weapons in the first place. Why would anyone think he would care whether they
hand the weapons over or not? It will instead be seen as a further achievement
for him, as the Americans squirm and try to justify why they are not returning
to the path of military action, even though the will of the “international
community” is being flouted.
Putin will be able to claim credit in the
event of Syrian compliance, and in the event of Syrian defiance.
to Obama’s statement, the entire world knows that the American president laid
down a redline for Assad regarding use of chemical weapons.
world knows that Assad flouted that redline. And the entire world now knows that
very little is going to be done about it.
It’s not just that Russian
prestige is not on the line over any of this. It is that American prestige is
now in the hands of the Russians. Putin can make the chemical weapons proposal
work, or not work. Assad is in no position to refuse him.
And Putin, but
not Obama, gains either way.
Presumably, the White House is hoping that
the Russian president will choose to be kind.