Analysis: Syria chemical weapons proposal is Putin’s masterstroke

The Russian president has maneuvered a win-win situation.

Bashar Assad and Vladimir Putin 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Bashar Assad and Vladimir Putin 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
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.”
Therefore, he continued, it was not his “credibility” that was on the line. Rather, it was “the international community’s credibility” that was to be tested.
These 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 accord.
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 Kremlin.
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 action.
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 say.
They are bringing the vital spare parts for Assad’s planes and tanks.
The dictator, in turn, has renewed his war effort.
Newly 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.
And 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.
Contrary to Obama’s statement, the entire world knows that the American president laid down a redline for Assad regarding use of chemical weapons.
The entire 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.