A Lifeline for Peace in Syria--and for Obama

September 16, 2013

CREDIT: Life Preserver via Shutterstock

In the dizzying series of recent developments in the Syrian civil war, perhaps none was more dramatic than a piece of writing: namely, Russian President Vladimir Putin's diplomatic salvo via the columns of The New York Times on September 12.

In his op-ed, "A Plea for Caution from Russia," Mr. Putin proposes the following:

  • That there has been, of late, "insufficient conversation" between American and Russian leadership—on Syria, to be sure, but more broadly so.

  • That a threat is posed to the effectiveness, indeed the very existence, of the United Nations, if individual member states choose to bypass it in taking military action without Security Council authorization.

  • With regard to Syria, a military attack such as that proposed by the United States will do little or nothing to abbreviate the violence; rather, it will threaten to escalate and see the flames of conflict, that have already licked beyond the borders of Syria into Lebanon, Iraq, and Turkey, spread even further into an extended region already scorched with sectarian strife.

  • The opposition forces in Syria clamoring for U.S. military intervention are at best a motley and undisciplined set of factions: Remember Libya, which is now a mosaic of conflicting tribal rivalry? At worst, we would be emboldening actors—the Al Nusra Front and Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant—designated by the State Department as terrorist organizations.

  • While little or no doubt remains that chemical agents were used on civilians, doubt still remains as to the source of the attacks [in this regard, it was a member of the UN inspection team, Carla Del Ponte, a former UN special prosecutor, who said of the earlier reported sarin attacks in April that it was at least "plausible" that rebel forces had been responsible, presumably seeking to provoke intervention by the West].

  • We must, in Putin's own words, "stop using the language of force and return to the path of civilized diplomatic and political settlement."

It is surely difficult to disagree with the Russian leader on any of these points. What he did not say, and could have said, is that the recent Russian-initiated proposal to have Assad agree to international control and ultimate destruction of Syria's chemical weapons arsenal, was not some deus ex machina inspired, as some have said, by an off-the-cuff remark by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. On the contrary, Russia had a proposal on the table some 18 months ago that had two basic ingredients: cessation of arms sales from all quarters to all sides in the war; and peace talks—without preconditions—for ending the conflict and for negotiation of a peaceful, postwar Syria.

This was, in general terms, agreed upon when Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met in Moscow in April, and led to the agreement in principle for the Geneva peace process to begin at some unspecified date. This was, of course, subsequently shunted aside by the attention to the chemical attacks. But, in lamenting the more than 100,000 victims of the conflict, one has to ask how many of those might have been saved had the Russian diplomacy-grounded approach been acted upon sooner?

What Putin also left unsaid was the lifeline he has extended to his U.S. counterpart. Many of us were supportive of Mr. Obama's early, cautious response to the Syrian morass—an approach wholly justified by the imponderables of the situation and by the need for a "first, do no harm" approach in formulating policy and action. But U.S. policy then took two unfortunate turns: first, the "red line" already drawn by the president with respect to chemical weapons came into play. The problem with red lines is that you have to respond once they have been seen to be crossed—it's a bit like dealing with a truculent child: "If you do that one more time….just one more time." And the second regrettable development, of course, was the ill-fated call for Tomahawk missile strikes, with the British and the French as supporting actors (Has it occurred to anyone that of all nations on Earth, the very last who should be blundering into Syria in any fashion are the British and the French, given the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement which divided up the Ottoman Empire between them?). This led to the humiliation of British Prime Minister David Cameron in the vote in the House of Commons, and, most likely, would have been followed by a similar rebuff to President Obama when he took yet another tactical turn by asking for a vote in Congress.

It is in this fashion that the Russian proposal is something of a lifeline to Obama—all the more generous, one might point out, given his rather ungracious depiction of his host before the recent St. Petersburg G20 summit as a "sulky middle-school kid." Kerry's recent statements since the initial eager grasp at the Russian proposal were at first less than appropriately collegial. Which leads to the thought: Why are we so reluctant simply to say the following three things? The overriding priority here is to end the killing; the matter of defanging the Syrian chemical weapons complex will be difficult and long-term—although the agreement reached by the United States and Russia offers a bold, if challenging, timetable; and Russia this time around has come up with a better idea than we could, and we are prepared to follow and support its lead. A truly exceptional nation to whom the world looks for leadership would surely not find this a leap too far, and it might just lead, finally, to a new, more hopeful post-post-Cold War paradigm in which the United States and Russia recognize and act on mutual interests.

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