Putin is Saving Face in Syria Also
September 16, 2013
Much of the commentary in the past week since the Russians seized on Secretary Kerry’s remarks in London to propose exploring a process by which Syria would agree to give up its chemical weapons program has suggested that Putin has the “upper hand” over President Obama, or even that this is a trick designed to buy time for Assad and prevent a U.S. military strike on Syria. But this analysis fails to acknowledge that this solution is mutually face-saving for both Obama and Putin, and that is the reason why it just might work against all odds.
There is no question that this seemingly twelfth hour proposal allowed President Obama to avoid the embarrassment of a likely defeat in Congress and then face the brutal decision of whether to undertake a strike not supported by the majority of Americans and the broader international community as well. But we know that Vladimir Putin has little regard for his American counterpart and is hardly in the business of doing favors in Russian foreign policy, especially for the United States. While the proposal does serve his goals to avert an American military strike and implicitly acknowledge and recognize some degree of legitimacy of the Assad government (am I the only one tired of referring to governments we do not like as “regimes”?), that does not strike me as adequate incentive to do what Putin did.
Think about the nature of the telephone call Putin had to make to Assad, probably Monday September 9th, that probably went something along the lines of this: “Look Bashar, the jig is up with your chemical weapons program. You have to give it up, otherwise we will no longer be able to support you.” And Assad readily agreed to give up weapons he and his father had accumulated over thirty years for a multitude of strategic contingencies in the Middle East. After more than two years of civil war in Syria, this is a truly remarkable about-face for both Putin and Assad. Why did Putin suddenly feel compelled to do this?
The only sufficient explanation is that he knew that with the publication of the UN report coming up this week, and/or other information emerging about the August 21 attack, the Russian position asserting that it was the rebels who perpetrated the attack and that any other explanation was “utter nonsense”—in Putin’s words—would be exposed as completely untenable. This would totally undermine the broader Russian position in Syria; making them an international pariah defending an indisputable war criminal. Although the UN report’s mandate is not to identify who perpetrated the act, already enough information about the contents of the report leaked out last week suggesting the evidence is pretty damning for Assad and his military forces.
Say what you want about Vladimir Putin, but there is no way this is how he wants himself and the Russian government to be viewed. So being the brilliant tactician Putin is, he cleverly pivoted, or literally pulled the “rabbit out of the hat”, and now we are moving rapidly down a very challenging diplomatic and logistical path to destroy the Syrian chemical weapons arsenal. Yes, Putin again cast blame for the August 21 attack to the rebels in his New York Times op-ed last week, but we should not expect him to move from that position during the course of negotiations and/or until he absolutely has to in the face of the facts of the matter—which he may likely never do. But that is not as important as his knowledge of what the facts are and the implications of those facts which, in my view, pushed him to dramatically change his position to save his face.
Now, many are criticizing President Obama for undertaking a process that forces us to effectively work with Assad since Assad forces control Syria’s chemical weapons and will have to be the ones to give them up, kicking and screaming likely all along the way. Well, that is just a painful aspect of recognizing the reality of Syria that takes us back to the original miscalculation of the Obama Administration going back two years--to underestimate the staying power of Assad. Turkish leader Erdoğan made the same mistake and may very well have influenced President Obama’s ultimately mistaken thinking.
For more than two years our basic difference with the Russians was over the inclusion of Assad in peace negotiations and discussions about Syria’s future. President Obama and leading figures in his administration fulminated repeatedly that “Assad must go,” when in fact we had no power and/or interest in taking measures that would force him to go. One has to wonder whether much of the bloodshed and humanitarian catastrophe that is Syria today could have been avoided if the Obama Administration had listened more seriously to the Russians rather than to castigate their position in terms of moral depravity.
So while it is true that a week ago President Obama’s position was very weak, it was also true that Putin understood his position was a lot weaker than commonly understood. And that is the beauty of this surreal set of developments. Assad did step over a “red line,” but the irony is that it was likely Vladimir Putin’s as much as it was Obama’s. And now the two leaders have the proverbial chance to make a “silk purse” out of a “sow’s ear”. As the wisest of wise baseball managers, Casey Stengel, once said, “Who woulda thunk it?”.
Andrew C. Kuchins is a senior fellow and director of the CSIS Russia and Eurasia Program. He is an internationally known expert on Russian foreign and domestic policies who publishes widely and is frequently called on by business, government, media, and academic leaders for comment and consulting on Russian and Eurasian affairs. His more recent scholarship has been devoted to issues including U.S.-Russia relations and the “reset,” Russia’s Asia strategy, and the role of energy in the Russian Far East.
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