Shadow Government

A 'Credible' Threat Likely Did Not Catalyze the Russian-Syrian Gambit

To hear U.S. President Barack Obama and his team describe it, the eleventh-hour proposal from Russia and Syria regarding chemical weapons can be directly attributable to Obama's resolve and toughness in issuing a credible threat. That just-so story ain't necessarily so.

Obama did have a very credible threat from about Aug. 22 until midday on Aug. 31, when he surprised the world and announced a delay, pending authorization from Congress. For about 10 days prior to that abrupt reversal, everyone thought the United States was about to attack. Heck, even Obama's senior staff thought the United States was about to attack. During that time, as the New York Times tick-tock makes clear, there was ample back-and-forth diplomatically about possible deals of the sort that arose suddenly in the last 48 hours. But there was no progress.

There was, however, a steady erosion in credibility of the strike. As political opposition at home mounted, it went from a near certainty of happening to a near certainty of not happening. By late Sunday and early Monday of this week, the credibility of the threat was at the lowest point it had been since the crisis began. The House was almost certainly going to vote against Obama. The Senate was a likely no, too. And Obama's advisors had said it was "unthinkable" that the president would strike Syria in defiance of that expected congressional rebuke. With Obama's address to the nation still to come, the game was not over, but the betting money had swung decisively in the other direction.

At that precise moment, a stray comment by Secretary of State John Kerry -- a comment no more significant or meaningful than the more fulsome discussions Obama reportedly had with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G-20 summit -- catalyzed an abrupt Russian reversal. It apparently catalyzed more than that, since Syria appears to have conceded that it possesses chemical weapons, something they were denying when a strike looked imminent.

How could a threat, which when credibly imminent was producing defiance suddenly produce a breakthrough when it seemed least credible? Why would Putin and Syria's Bashar al-Assad "buy" a non-strike when they were about to get it for free?

One possible answer, offered to me by Joshua Rovner of Southern Methodist University in a private debate among academic security specialists, points to the twin role of reassurance and compellence (threat) in coercive diplomacy. As I have explained before, for coercion to work, you have to simultaneously threaten bad outcomes if the target defies you and promise good outcomes if the target acquiesces. Coercion can fail if the target doubts either side of that calculus. Perhaps, my friend speculates, Kerry's stray comment provided the needed reassurance that was hitherto lacking.

That may be part of it, but the facts better fit another explanation: Putin and Assad pounced on the stray comment because they knew that on Monday Obama was what in business is known as a motivated buyer. Obama needed a way out from the political defeat that he was facing, so he was willing to pay as high a price as he ever was to avoid the embarrassment.

What is the price? As Middle East expert Michael Doran of the Brookings Institution explains, the most tangible result of the last 48 hours is that Obama is now a partner with Putin and Assad. Putin and Assad have bought not merely an indefinite delay in airstrikes (something they were getting anyway), but also explicit partnership with Obama and tacit rejection of the "Assad must go" plank of Obama's Syria policy. Note that despite all of the moving rhetoric in Obama's address about the horror of what the Assad regime did, Obama pointedly did not repeat his long-standing assertion that "Assad must go."

So long as the international community is haggling over the terms and conditions of inspections, Assad cannot go. Obama needs him to deliver the deal.

In fact, not only are strikes off the table, but arguably, other diplomatic forms of punishment that might have been considered as an alternative to strikes after a congressional rebuke -- say, referring Assad to the International Criminal Court for war crimes -- are also off the table.

Putin and Assad acted not because they feared the imminent strike. They acted at the moment when they least had to fear the strike in order to get the most from Obama.

Reasonable people can still debate whether this was the best available deal for Obama given the corner he found himself in. But it is a big stretch to trumpet it as a reward for resolve and coercive swagger.

Yet, as Michael Singh makes clear, the president's spinners are right about one thing regarding the threat of force: The only way the Russian-Syrian gambit is likely to yield any positive fruit is if, going forward, the credibility of the military threat is restored. A credible military threat did not do much to generate this deal, but it will be essential to rescue American interests from the trajectory we are currently on.

Photo: U.S. Navy via Getty Images

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