Last night, President Obama confirmed that he is in favor of giving diplomacy a chance to succeed in defusing a potential conflict with Syria. It was a relief for most people to think that there might be an alternative to a U.S. military strike, which could have brought with it a cascade of unintended consequences. However, it was somewhat disheartening that the president did not say more in recognition of the Russians’ initiative. Their proposal is not just a tactical opening, its a strategic one.
Earlier this week the Russians gave President Obama a gift — a way out of a potentially embarrassing failure to garner support in Congress for striking Syria. The president tried to spin the diplomatic development last night by saying it was a direct result of the administration’s “tough” position on strikes. This does not ring entirely true. The president’s campaign to gain authority to strike Syria was not a credible threat. Russia had only to read the public opinion polls, as well as the Washington Post to see the daily head count on Congressional votes. The support simply wasn’t (and isn’t) there. Given the budget, sequester and debt ceiling talks that are in the offing, it is unimaginable that Obama could have ordered air strikes over the objections of Congress.
Now that this proposal is on the table there are two important questions that arise: Are the Russians sincere in trying to find a solution to this crisis? And is their proposal to identify and dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons feasible, given the magnitude of the undertaking, especially in a war zone?
As someone who has spent more than twenty-five years of my career travelling to the former Soviet Union, I can offer one overarching principle regarding the Russians—an observation shared by nearly every person who knows them well. The Russians are not easy to work with when they are being forced to comply with orders from elsewhere and when they feel they are being treated in a patronizing or disrespectful way. But, they can be counted on in big ways when they feel that a plan or a proposal is truly in their best interests. (For further reading on this see my book, Partners in Space: U.S.-Russian Cooperation after the Cold War—only one book among many that makes this point.)
Is the effort to identify and destroy Syrian stockpiles of chemical weapons, then, seen by the Russians as decidedly in their interest? I think so.
First, the Russians would probably like to know for sure where all those weapons sites are. Right now we may overestimate how much they know about the exact whereabouts of this material. They have an overarching interest in the country as well. There are Russians living there and they have an important naval port at Tartus, on the Mediterranean coast.
Second, the Russians would want to make sure that those stockpiles don’t end up in the hands of Sunni Islamic radicals, fearing that in a worst-case scenario these extremists – with probable ties to Islamic radicals in Chechnya and the former Soviet Union – would pose a threat to Central Asia and Russia.
Finally, the Russians would like to reestablish themselves as players on the international scene. This episode has put President Vladimir Putin and his Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, back into the public eye as diplomats – in contrast to the shoot-first-and-ask-for-the-UN-report-later Americans.
Contrary to the credit the president took for himself last night, the Russian initiative is not the result of a warm or particularly constructive relationship between the two presidents. It was an agile attempt by the Russians to take up Secretary Kerry on his off- hand comment that dismantlement might be the one thing that would avert the strikes. Whatever the reason for it, it is a welcomed effort. And it is that effort that holds the key to the second question: is such a proposal feasible?
Disarmament experts have warned about the complexity of identifying and destroying Assad’s chemical weapons—and they are correct in that. It is a very big tactical consideration, which would entail a great deal of time, resources, and personnel. But the Russian initiative has uncovered two factors of strategic importance. First, the Syrian government has finally admitted the existence of its stockpile, and second, the Russians, if given an incentive to do so, are apparently willing to leverage their relationship with the Assad regime to find a resolution to the current crisis. These are not necessarily the intransigent Russians National Security Advisor Susan Rice and UN Ambassador Samantha Power say they are.
In the last fifteen to twenty years Russia has been largely ignored on the international stage. There is no real downside to making them feel important again. The last two decades of U.S./Western interaction with the Russians have been rife with perverse incentives. Let’s now work with the Russians to see if, through them, we can bring to closure the arrangements with Assad on chemical weapons and move toward a broader approach to ending the civil war– not to mention helping to make the UN Security Council functional again. If they have some “skin in the game” they are more likely to use the United Nations in a constructive way.
Let’s try and restore the spirit of cooperation with Russia that made it possible for us to successfully meet earlier U.S. goals: to build an international space station; to secure weapons of mass destruction with Russia through the Cooperative Threat Reduction programs under the Nunn-Lugar initiatives; and to negotiate and ratify the New START Treaty. With the right diplomatic approach to the Russians, we can use their Syrian initiative as a way to meet our larger more enduring objectives. It will be challenging, but as the old adage goes: you can get anything done if you don’t care who gets the credit for it.