U.S.-Russian deal on Syria a win for Obama and Putin but a loss for Assad
Fred Kaplan NAILS IT:
It should be no surprise that U.S. and Russian diplomats struck a deal to get rid of Syria’s chemical weapons so quickly. Both nations had strong converging interests to do just that. Diplomacy becomes almost easy under those circumstances.
Russian leaders have always been keen to block the spread of weapons of mass destruction. During Soviet days, the Kremlin was far fiercer—and more effective—at keeping nukes out of the hands of the Warsaw Pact nations than the White House was at keeping them away from its NATO allies.
It’s not that Soviet premiers had a deeper dread of nuclear war than American presidents. It’s that they had a greater need to impose control over their client states. In this sense, it’s likely that Russian President Vladimir Putin was horrified when Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (or his henchmen) started firing rockets loaded with nerve gas. The horror stemmed not so much from the casualties as from the chaos it would set in motion. Assad’s move made him a client out of control; it suddenly aroused the ire of Westerners who had been kept at bay through two years of bloody mayhem and who were now seriously thinking of—or being pressured into—intervening militarily.
When Secretary of State John Kerry fatefully (who knows how casually?) remarked that the United States would halt its preparations for airstrikes if Assad destroyed his chemical arsenal, Putin said, “It’s a deal,” then muscled Assad to agree…
It is certainly true that Putin went about this very cleverly. Obama had said that airstrikes would be “limited,” designed strictly to “deter” Assad from firing more chemical weapons and to “degrade” his ability to do so. In his public statements, Obama had also said that his long-term goal was to reach a political settlement to the Syrian civil war, a settlement that would involve Assad’s departure. But the airstrikes, he said, were a separate matter; an outsider’s military power could not help one side or another win a civil war.
Putin must have seen this distinction as confusing at best, duplicitous at worst. War, after all, is by nature political; military strikes always have political objectives. This is why he had so firmly opposed any talk of punishing Assad for using chemical weapons: He figured that U.S. airstrikes in Syria would be a pretense or prelude to deeper intervention and “regime change.”
However, when Kerry said that dismantling the weapons might halt the juggernaut of U.S. military action, Putin saw an opening. He took the narrowest slice of Obama’s rhetoric literally: that the coming airstrikes were strictly about Assad’s chemical weapons. OK, then, Putin replied: I’ll help to remove those chemical weapons, and you call off the airstrikes. End of story.
And so, assuming all goes according to plan, Assad loses his stash of deadly chemicals—but he stays in power, at least for the time being, and the Russian Federation re-emerges as a serious player in Middle Eastern politics. A win-win-win for Putin.
At the same time, Obama can cite his threat to use force as the reason Putin suddenly swung into action (this might even be true, to some extent). He can thus take at least joint credit for ridding Syria of chemical weapons and upholding international law. And he is saved from having to make good on letting Congress vote on whether to authorize the use of force—a vote that he seemed all but certain to lose. A win-win-win for Obama.
[I]t should have been obvious from the beginning that Putin wanted his proposed deal to work. If his goal was simply to humiliate Obama, he could have waited for the House of Representatives to vote down the authorization to use force. The fact is, no Russian leader, particularly an authoritarian ex-KGB man like Putin, could have believed for a moment that a foreign leader—especially a U.S. president—would back away from the threat of military action simply because the legislature opposed it. In this sense, Obama’s wavering rhetoric might have thrown Putin into a deeper panic, for Russian leaders have found unpredictable opponents to be at least as fearsome as strong ones.
And yet, Assad cannot help but come out of this deal weaker than before. First, he has had to admit that he has chemical weapons—and in fact to lead foreign inspectors to their sites—after earlier denying that he had any. (The sign of weakness here isn’t the admission of a lie but the necessity to come clean.) Second, he has had to submit to a deal struck by two outside powers; he can no longer present himself—to his people, his enemies, or perhaps most fatefully, to his military officers—as a strong, independent ruler. He appears to be, instead, Putin’s lackey and perhaps even Obama’s manservant.