Shadow Government

How to Make the Best Out of Russia's Flawed Plan for Syria

That Russia has intervened at the last moment in an effort to halt a U.S. military operation in the Middle East should come as little surprise. Moscow engaged in similar last-ditch efforts prior to the first and second Gulf wars, likely in pursuit of twin objectives: preserving an ally, and thus Russian influence, in the region; and derailing the use of force by the United States and thus defending the principle of noninterference, which Moscow rigorously applies to other powers but disregards in its own conduct, especially in its own neighborhood.

While Russia's motivations today may be the same as those in these previous cases, however, the situation facing President Barack Obama is quite different from those facing his predecessors. With a U.S. military operation lacking much international support and Obama's request for authorization facing an embarrassing defeat in the House of Representatives and perhaps the Senate, the Russian initiative may be viewed as a veritable godsend by the White House. Obama will claim Moscow's offer is the result not only of tough diplomacy toward Russia, having canceled a planned summit with President Vladimir Putin just last week, but also of "credible military threats" toward Syria.

In reality, however, the credibility of American military threats was fading fast as congressional defeat loomed for Obama's request for authorization to strike Syria. What the Russian gambit truly provides the White House, therefore, is an opportunity to gain some room for maneuver and to attempt to shift the momentum on Syria back in its favor. Turning Moscow's offer to the U.S. advantage, however, will take realism and diplomatic savvy.

On its face, the Russian proposal is wildly impractical. Even if Bashar al-Assad's regime cooperated with chemical weapons (CW) inspectors, locating and gaining access to Syria's CW amid a civil war, in which control of territory is contested by a variety of armed groups and Damascus's authority is limited, would be near impossible, and destroying those CW would take a long time. But Assad's track record suggests that he will not cooperate. He has blocked the efforts of U.N. weapons inspectors to date and has also failed to provide the International Atomic Energy Agency access to suspected Syrian nuclear weapons sites. Just like Saddam Hussein in the 1990s, Assad could be expected to make every effort to preserve his CW capabilities and evade inspectors.

More fundamentally, Syria's conflict is not about chemical weapons, their use, or their disposal. Obama chose to identify CW use as a red line for U.S. intervention and has perplexingly made the elimination of Assad's CW capabilities a goal that is apparently independent from broader U.S. goals in Syria, such as the "political solution" that the administration frequently asserts is necessary. 

But Assad's CW use is just one way in which the Syrian conflict has spun out of control and threatened U.S. national security interests. The conflict has yielded a shocking toll of fatalities and refugees, has threatened to destabilize Syria's neighbors, has amplified the terrorist threat in the region, and has placed an enormous economic and security strain on countries like Jordan and Turkey. It has also exacerbated tensions between regional powers and strains between the United States and its regional allies. 

Even if the Russian plan succeeded beyond all expectations in eliminating Syria's CW stockpiles, in its current (admittedly inchoate) form it holds little prospect for addressing the broader strategic and humanitarian threats posed by the Syrian conflict. Indeed, the fact that it has drawn quick support from Assad's key allies -- Russia and Iran -- suggests that it is judged by them as a means to rescue Assad rather than hold him accountable.

Despite these flaws, the Obama administration can attempt to turn the Russian proposal to its advantage. The American response should not focus on Moscow's position, but the interest in avoiding U.S. military intervention implicit in that position. To that end, the United States should insist that the elimination of CW not take place amid the conflict, but be part and parcel of a satisfactory resolution of that conflict. Such a resolution must include accountability for President Assad and key members of his inner circle for the use of CW and their brutalization of Syria's civilian population. It is of little purpose, after all, to deter or punish CW use if by implication we excuse the slaughter of tens of thousands of Syrian civilians. It must also include an international mechanism to protect those civilians going forward.

Meanwhile, Obama should ask Congress to authorize him to use military force if this diplomacy fails to produce a satisfactory result, while not overly restricting that authorization in a way that puts the president in a weak position vis-à-vis Moscow and Damascus. This would not only put some real credibility behind U.S. military threats, but it would offer an approach more likely to attract support. The Obama administration's previous proposal was so narrowly focused in an effort to gain domestic and allied support that, ironically, it was also easy to reject, being connected not to vital strategic interests but rather to abstract "international norms" that the international community was nevertheless unready to enforce.

The Russian proposal may indeed be a product of an off-the-cuff remark by Secretary of State John Kerry, just as Obama's original "red line" proclamation may not have been preplanned or well thought through. It is also a disappointment to the Syrian opposition and some U.S. allies in the region, who hoped a U.S. strike would turn the tide against Assad. 

But the reality was that prospects for such a strike were diminishing, and U.S. policy on Syria was careering toward a nadir. Obama should thus seek to use Moscow's gambit as an opportunity to turn the international and domestic momentum back in his favor on Syria, even while recognizing it for the cynical feint that it assuredly is. Doing so will require diplomatic forethought and skill that the administration has not so far demonstrated and must now produce.

Photo: PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

A Gaffe to Rescue a Gaffe About Syria?

A political crisis that began with a gaffe might end with a gaffe. The Syrian WMD crisis began with U.S. President Barack Obama surprising his staff by drawing a not-fully-thought-out "red line" on Syrian chemical weapons use. And now the White House is boasting that Secretary of State John Kerry's gaffe about Syria handing over chemical weapons potentially provides the "significant breakthrough" they were seeking all along.

(Gaffes that get spun as wisdom are a theme with the administration's Middle East policy. Recall how Obama's Iran policy was paralyzed for his first year in office because of his campaign gaffe regarding direct face-to-face negotiations with then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a gaffe that his campaign team elevated into a short-lived doctrine.)

The White House responded quickly to Kerry's unintended diplomatic overture. Not quickly enough to stop the State Department from trying to walk it back, but quickly enough to raise doubts concerning what this crisis was all about from the start.

For let us be clear: This diplomatic gambit addresses only one of the four principal drivers of the crisis. It makes the other three worse, and that fact will become clearer in the coming weeks.

First, the crisis was partly about the need to defend Obama's prestige and to help him with his political fights with a recalcitrant Congress. The decision to confront Syria came out of the need to back up Obama's red line. If Obama's words were seen as only a bluff, he would lose credibility as a world leader. The decision to throw the issue to Congress came out of a desire to call out Obama's critics in Congress and make them take responsibility for the issue rather than simply criticize the president for his halting efforts. Both of these decisions backfired, and Obama was headed to a political defeat as embarrassing as any a president has suffered in recent decades. Faced with an array of bad options, seizing the Russian gambit was the least-worst way to minimize the political damage to Obama's prestige, allowing him to delay indefinitely the congressional rebuke. Every other likely way out of the crisis was going to hurt Obama more, at least in the short run.

Second, the crisis was partly about the desire to deter Bashar al-Assad from using chemical weapons again. This gambit does little to address this concern -- far less than the enthusiastic White House reaction would suggest. I hope the president and his advisors are rereading the history of Saddam Hussein's 12-year cat-and-mouse game with inspectors after Desert Storm. By embracing the Russian proposal, the most likely result is that Obama has gotten himself ensnared in another such hunting expedition. Anyone care to bet how much overlap there is between the stockpile reports of the U.S. intelligence community, the Russian/international inspectors, and the Assad regime? But it is worse than that. The Russian/international inspectors will not be able to quickly secure all the stockpiles (even if supremely effective and efficient, it would take years to accomplish that), but they will immediately provide human shields that prevent future strikes against Syria. So if the need arises for Assad to use chemical weapons again, he will have ample supply at his disposal and a powerful deterrent against reprisals to boot. A shot across the bow warning of other shots to come this is not, which is partly why the Syrian regime has welcomed the Russian initiative.

Third, the crisis was partly about the desire to help the moderate rebels in their struggle with Assad. The Obama administration was painfully contradictory about this -- the proposed strikes would affect the balance, the proposed strikes would not affect the balance -- but lost in all of that muddle was the fact that Obama's response to Assad's previous uses of chemical weapons was Obama's public commitment earlier in the summer to arm the rebels, i.e. to help them in their struggle with Assad. (Yes, I know that the administration apparently did not actually follow through with this commitment, but the commitment was made nonetheless.) The Russian gambit may well be the way out of the crisis that does the maximum amount of damage to the moderate rebels. It exposes their patron as a paper tiger, it brings in Russian boots on the ground to bolster their enemy, and it leaves al Qaeda the only viable game in town. This, too, helps explain why the Syrian regime has welcomed the Russian initiative and why "our" side in the civil war has not.

Fourth, the crisis was partly about the desire to bolster our coercive diplomacy with Iran. The Iranian regime would see that U.S. threats to use force mean something, and thus the threat to use force to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability would be stronger. The Obama administration has made it clear that it believes the only way a diplomatic resolution to the Iranian nuclear issue could be reached is if Iran fears a worse outcome if it crosses the nuclear threshold. Substituting the old 1990s cat-and-mouse game for military strikes nicely confirms Iran's preferred approach: divide the international coalition with indefinite and indecisive diplomatic negotiations while slowly developing a breakout capacity. Is there anyone who thinks that the way the Syrian crisis has unfolded thus far has actually reinforced Obama's threats to Iran?

The obvious counterargument to this analysis is that the last three desiderata were already lost when Obama was unable to build the political support he wanted to back up his Syrian red line. So perhaps the Russian gambit just kicked those three dead horses. In view of that, minimizing the political damage to Obama was the best the administration could do at this point. That appears to be what has carried the day inside the White House.

Or perhaps I have missed it altogether, and Obama will lay out an altogether different explanation tonight that will fit all the past three weeks into a coherent strategy for confronting the challenges in the Middle East. But from the present vantage point, it sure looks like Obama has given up on all but one of the objectives at stake. And I sure do not want to accept the inference that this was what it was about all along.

Photo: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images