Russia may have helped Obama to dodge the Syrian bullet

Tuesday, September 10, 2013 |  Noah Beck

Any diplomatic initiative on Syria coming from Russia, whose UN votes have perpetuated Assad's killing machine for over two years, should be viewed with extreme suspicion. Nevertheless, the latest Russian proposal merits serious consideration.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov's proposal, which exploited an offhand remark by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, calls for the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons arsenal in exchange for a cancellation of the U.S. military action against Syria being debated by Congress. Russian national interests underlie this proposal: helping Russia's last Mideast client state to survive, reinforcing the image of Russia as a Mideast power broker, and diminishing the perception that Russia supports chemical weapons use. But these interests intersect with US interests insofar as a diplomatic solution decreases the odds of an Islamist takeover of Syria (should U.S. strikes actually alter the balance of power between the Syrian regime and the opposition) while possibly removing the need for potentially risky and costly U.S. military action -- without further undermining U.S. credibility.

The humanitarian justification for intervention -- with over two million Syrian refugees and 110,000 dead -- grows stronger by the day. The geo-strategic reasons for U.S. action are also manifest: Syria's chemical weapons could be used unpredictably by the Assad regime, its terrorist ally Hezbollah, or Islamist rebels; rogue regimes like North Korea and Iran will view U.S. inaction as a green light to oppose U.S. interests where they see fit (particularly with respect to their nuclear plans); and the toppling of Assad's regime -- Iran's closest ally -- would weaken the Iranian regime while signaling that it is next unless diplomacy quickly resolves the Iranian nuclear standoff.

But opinion polls have consistently revealed that the U.S. public opposes involvement in the Syrian conflict. Had Obama shown more active and forceful leadership on the Syrian conflict back when the opposition was comprised mostly of secular rebels, it's unlikely that the tragedy -- and related U.S. policy options -- would have deteriorated into what they are today. Had Obama not drawn a "red line" to show that the U.S. still cares about international norms (particularly when their enforcement makes the U.S. safer), the potential damage to U.S. credibility caused by inaction might not have been so great. Finally, had Obama strongly backed the Syrian rebels from the outset, Russia might not have opposed U.S. interests as aggressively, U.S. allies might have been more forthcoming with their support for any eventual military action, and Americans might not have reflected the ambivalence and confusion of their president when it comes to Syria.

Given these policy blunders and the unfortunate circumstances they produced, Obama's best move now is to explore the Russian proposal for the remote chance that it can improve the Syrian situation at little cost. Success would mean that Russia effectively enabled Obama to dodge the Syrian bullet. Failure would force Obama to return to the three bad options available before the Russian proposal:

  1. stay out of the conflict (despite the damage to U.S. credibility and the risk of an even bigger crisis requiring intervention later),

  2. enter with the necessary strategy and commitment for victory, or, worst of all,

  3. launch "symbolic strikes" that only boost Assad's standing (for successfully withstanding the "mighty" U.S. before continuing with his murderous military campaign) and possibly draw the U.S. into a much greater conflict on terms dictated by Assad, Hezbollah, and/or Iran.

Exploring the Russian diplomatic initiative offers two key advantages:

  1. it will provide even greater legitimacy to any eventual U.S. military strike, if the Syrian regime violates the terms of an agreement to destroy its chemical weapons, and

  2. if properly executed, Syria's voluntary disarmament could actually be far more effective than military strikes, given the challenge of completely destroying all relevant targets comprising Syria's chemical arsenal and the attendant risks of military escalation and collateral damage.

Moreover, if implementation of the Russian proposal actually eliminates Syria's chemical weapons, U.S. deterrence will be somewhat restored, because the U.S. will have demonstrated that it can rattle its saber and rally the international community to produce meaningful changes on the ground.

But to ensure that Russia's proposal isn't just a stalling tactic to benefit Assad, there should be very specific requirements and deadlines, any willful violation of which authorizes military action. The Assad regime must disclose a complete and accurate list of chemical weapons sites and materials, and this list must be verified and modified as needed using the best military intelligence available to the U.S. and its allies. A timetable for the confirmed removal and destruction of all chemical weapons must involve just enough time for the disarmament to be done safely and should include detailed milestones that can be easily monitored.

The biggest challenge will be establishing an efficient and safe disarmament process that can be reasonably executed and verified in the middle of a civil war, while minimizing the opportunity for Syrian rebels to exploit the situation by trying to seize the chemical weapons and/or causing the Assad regime to violate its commitments under the disarmament schedule. Force might still be required to enforce any agreement with the ruthless and mendacious Assad regime, but the justification -- and the domestic and international support -- for military action will then be far greater.

The Russian proposal demonstrates what Obama himself acknowledged when discussing it: a credible military threat generates diplomatic openings that otherwise would not exist. Will Obama remember this truth when dealing with the far more serious threat of a nuclear Iran, looming just around the corner?

Noah Beck is the author of The Last Israelis, an apocalyptic novel about Iranian nukes and other geopolitical issues in the Middle East.

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