MOSCOW -- In the unlikely role of good cop to President Obama’s bad one, Russian President Vladimir Putin has seemingly talked his Syrian allies into surrendering their banned chemical weapons as a way to escape threatened U.S. airstrikes.
Russian analysts have hailed the Kremlin’s intervention as a brilliant stroke of diplomacy that has put Obama in Moscow’s debt for giving him a face-saving retreat from getting involved in Syria’s civil war. They also say it has unified, at least temporarily, the world’s leading powers on how to prevent further use of President Bashar Assad’s arsenal of chemical weapons.
Despite the bellicose warnings emanating from Washington and some European capitals in recent weeks, there appears to be little real appetite for militarily punishing Assad for his alleged Aug. 21 use of poison gas against his own people.
Obama more than a year ago proclaimed that any use of weapons of mass destruction in Syria’s raging conflict would cross “a red line” and compel the United States and its allies to step up their efforts to aid the rebels and degrade Assad’s ability to reach for his chemical weapons stockpile.
Faced with fierce public and congressional opposition to the United States getting involved in another foreign war, Obama’s relief was almost audible when Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov suggested Monday that Assad hand over his chemical arms for international monitoring and eventual destruction.
Although the strategic chess moves by Moscow rescue Obama from a damned-if-he-does, damned-if-he-doesn’t dilemma, they also spare Russian leaders the embarrassment of failing to protect Syrian allies and losing already waning influence in the Middle East.
Doubts persist as to whether Assad will hand over control of his chemical stores, reportedly the largest in the world now that all but a handful of countries have signed the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention requiring renunciation of the use of poison gases and nerve agents and elimination of any of the weapons on hand.
Damascus also has yet to lay out how it could provide safe access to international monitors in the chaos of Syria’s 2 1/2-year-old civil war. And it remained unclear how much time the Assad government would have to make good on its professed willingness to comply with the Russian proposal, which has been dismissed by some in Washington as little more than a delaying tactic against airstrikes that just a few days ago seemed imminent.
Not surprisingly, the view from the Kremlin is one of a diplomatic and foreign policy coup, an opportunity arising out of U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry’s offhand remark in London on Monday that Assad could escape attack by handing over his illegal arsenal.
Lavrov seized on Kerry’s comment at a London news conference, pledging to get the Syrian government to comply with the proposal to hand over its chemical arms. On Tuesday, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem said Assad’s government had accepted the Russian proposal, provided it “cut the ground from under the feet of the U.S. aggression against our country.”
Although Putin and Obama have been going through a frosty phase in their relations in recent months, they appear to be collaborating now on containing Syria and eliminating the need for punitive airstrikes, Fyodor Lukyanov, a prominent Russian political expert, said Tuesday.
“Without Obama’s very convincing pressure on Assad in threatening to use brute force to make him behave, Assad would have never given up his chemical warfare arsenals,” said Lukyanov, editor in chief of the journal Russia in Global Affairs. “First the bad cop Obama said to Assad that if he doesn’t do it he will immediately blow his brains out, then the good cop Putin comes into the scene and says that his partner means it but here is a plan worth looking into.”
Georgy Mirsky, a leading Russian expert on the Middle East and a professor at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations, sees the chemical weapons proposal as a Putin initiative that helps both Assad and Obama.
Western airstrikes would probably force Moscow to step up arms supplies and other aid to the Assad government, which would further alienate the 90% of the Arab world opposed to Assad’s Shiite Muslim-aligned minority leadership, Mirsky said.
Igor Korotchenko, editor of the National Defense journal, called the Russian proposal “a breakthrough solution to the crisis,” but acknowledged that Syria may not be able to conform to what will assuredly be a short time frame for handing over its chemical arms.
“For Assad, who wants to use his military superiority to destroy the rebels, and for Washington, all but set on delivering a strike,” Korotchenko noted, “the unexpected Russian initiative opens up a race against time.”
Loiko reported from Moscow and Williams from Los Angeles.