WASHINGTON — The Russian proposal for Syria to surrender its chemical weapons has gained great momentum because it provides clear advantages to several world leaders and leaves as the losers a smaller group that lacks much power to influence the outcome.
Even if the Russian proposal bogs down at the United Nations, as many observers expect, it offers a way to put the issue back in meeting rooms rather than on the battlefield, easing anxiety in many world capitals.
A U.S. bombardment of Syria with cruise missiles, which President Obama had planned, would certainly inflict damage, including a high likelihood of civilian casualties. Despite assurances that the attacks would be “narrow and limited,” an American military strike would raise risks of escalation and retaliation.
The Syrians demonstrated their worry about the Pentagon’s ability to severely damage their military as they scrambled in the last two weeks to hide troops and equipment. The Russians, with ships in the neighborhood and probably technical advisors in Syria, didn’t want the risk of an unintended conflict with the United States.
America’s European allies, concerned about chemical attacks in Syria but facing open rebellion from antiwar constituents, were desperate for a diplomatic out.
And the Obama administration was facing the prospect of a defeat in Congress on a question of war and peace, a setback that no American president has suffered in the modern era.
“This was going to be a pretty serious attack, so the Russian proposal has come as a face-saver for a whole lot of people,” said Geoffrey Kemp, a top national security aide in the Reagan White House. “That’s why we’ve seen this extraordinary circus as everybody’s rushed over to this idea.”
For each of the major powers, the Russian plan offers some attractive elements. It almost certainly would not lead to elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons; few expect that Russia would support stripping its longtime ally of a stockpile that has been assiduously built up over decades. But a U.S. military bombardment would not have eliminated the weapons either. The Obama administration has been planning to avoid targeting chemical stockpiles, for fear of dispersing deadly clouds of gases over civilian populations.
The plan could, however, provide a potential means for deterring Syrian President Bashar Assad from using chemical weapons in the future. Deterrence was a major goal of Obama’s plan to hit Syria with cruise missiles.
Even if the Syrians don’t turn over much of their chemical arsenal, a United Nations blessing of a program to remove the weapons would focus attention on the Syrian stockpile and probably make Assad more careful about provocative new attacks. With Russia’s prestige now attached to the plan, Moscow might push Assad hard not to act in ways that could invite Western retaliation in the future, analysts said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin appears especially delighted by the tentative acceptance of the plan. It allows him to show that Moscow remains a major player in the Middle East and a world power broker.
“He’s been eager to show that he can fill the partial diplomatic vacuum the U.S. has left in the Middle East, and this lets him make that point,” said Andrew Weiss, a White House advisor on Russia during the Clinton administration and now vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Perhaps the clearest loser from the latest developments are the pro-Western factions of the Syrian rebels, who have worked to bring the United States into a direct military role in the war. They have now received clear evidence of how resistant the American public is to involvement in their conflict, even if the White House appears to be promising to provide some Syrian rebel groups with more powerful weaponry and training.
Also likely to be disappointed are the Saudis, their Persian Gulf allies and the Turks, all of whom oppose Assad and have sought to draw the U.S. and its allies into a larger military role in Syria.
These most vocal supporters of the rebels “are likely to be skeptical about the Russian proposal and discontent at the direction this has taken,” said Brian Katulis, a Middle East and South Asia specialist at Center for American Progress.
Israel also may worry, particularly about what the Syria saga says about potential U.S. military pressure on Iran, a key ally of Assad. The Israeli government is depending on the United States to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. It has been lobbying members of Congress to back Obama’s plan to bombard Syria in the belief that military action would send a strong message to Tehran about U.S. resolve.
Avoiding a military strike would help Obama domestically but carries “an enormous downside” in the message sent to Iran and other adversaries as well as to allies that count on U.S. military support, said David F. Gordon, a former top U.S. intelligence official.
Japan, South Korea and the Philippines, all of which count on U.S. protection, “can’t get a good feeling from this,” said Gordon, who is with the Eurasia Group consulting firm. He predicted that the shift would make coming negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program “a lot more challenging.”
Still, Israel and others who lobbied in favor of a U.S. military strike may have dodged a public relations setback by avoiding an outright defeat in Congress. A loss could have made them look like isolated advocates for American war-making and would have called into question the extent of their influence in Washington.
“They were in a difficult position, and now they’re sort of off the hook,” said Kemp, the former Reagan aide, who is with the Center for the National Interest think tank in Washington.
And although the change in direction may make America look irresolute, the judgment would have been far harsher if Congress had bludgeoned the White House by turning down a request for military authorization.
The Russians “were pretty shrewd to make this offer,” Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank) said in an interview. If the offer proves to have substance, “it may be shrewd for us to accept it.”