Nonproliferation in Our Time

Putin holds the trump card in Syrian crisis, but there are serious risks to playing along.

Russian President Vladimir Putin arrives at Belfast International Airport, in Northern Ireland, on Monday, June 17, 2013.
National Journal
Major Garrett
Sept. 10, 2013, 5:30 p.m.

Vladi­mir Putin wants to keep Syr­i­an dic­tat­or Bashar al-As­sad in power. The best way to do that is to pre­serve As­sad’s max­im­um mil­it­ary ad­vant­age over rebel forces. It would also suit Putin to en­hance As­sad’s le­git­im­acy on the world stage.

The deal offered by the Rus­si­an pres­id­ent and rap­idly en­dorsed by As­sad achieves all three of these goals. As­sad reigns su­preme in Dam­as­cus, re­tains all of his con­ven­tion­al-mil­it­ary might, and is en­larged on the world stage as an en­lightened soul will­ing to hand over chem­ic­al weapons — even after us­ing them to mur­der­ous ef­fect on Aug. 21. The deal, as cur­rently struc­tured, has the ad­ded be­ne­fit of ap­pear­ing the world over as a case where Syr­ia, with its au­thor­it­ari­an pup­pet mas­ter Rus­sia pulling the strings, has stared down the Amer­ic­an mil­it­ary co­los­sus.

This is all pos­sible be­cause Putin knows that one of Pres­id­ent Obama’s cent­ral for­eign policy goals is to re­duce nuc­le­ar and chem­ic­al weapons. Pur­su­ing non­pro­lif­er­a­tion is how Obama sought to “re­set“ re­la­tions with Rus­sia, and he still con­siders New START to be one of his great for­eign policy ac­com­plish­ments. Putin knows this, be­cause he was the co-ne­go­ti­at­or of the treaty in his ca­pa­city as prime min­is­ter while Dmitri Med­ve­dev served as Rus­sia’s pres­id­ent.

Putin watched as Obama offered no ser­i­ous mil­it­ary sup­port to anti-As­sad rebels while civil war raged for more than two years. After the White House de­clared in April that As­sad had twice used chem­ic­al weapons, it prom­ised new mil­it­ary aid for the rebels. That amoun­ted to MREs and med­ic­al kits. The White House and some in Con­gress fear put­ting leth­al arms in­to the hands of ji­hadist ex­trem­ists with­in the op­pos­i­tion forces. But ex­perts who have traveled to Syr­ia ar­gue that the White House could find mod­er­ate rebel forces and arm them if that, in fact, was a pri­or­ity. Mean­while, Putin knows how to meas­ure in­tent, muscle, guile, and lever­age. Dither­ing mixed with MREs and med­ic­al kits has told him plenty.

Obama’s re­luct­ance to wage war in Syr­ia is un­der­stand­able. Un­like the war on ter­ror­ism that he in­her­ited, this would be a war of his own choos­ing, and he would own the res­ults and re­per­cus­sions. Ex­pand­ing the use of Bush-era drones was a largely hid­den es­cal­a­tion of the war on ter­ror­ism. Broad­en­ing the reach of Bush-era elec­tron­ic sur­veil­lance of phone calls and In­ter­net traffic has proved em­bar­rass­ing and polit­ic­ally prob­lem­at­ic for Obama. But go­ing to war and own­ing the likely blow­back in the re­gion or on Amer­ica’s shores gave the White House con­sid­er­able pause.

This was one of the many reas­ons Obama sought shel­ter in Con­gress. But Con­gress heard from Amer­ic­ans of all polit­ic­al stripes, and they told sen­at­ors and House mem­bers that they want no part of a “lim­ited, tar­geted, and pro­por­tion­ate” war. Av­er­age Amer­ic­ans knew in their mar­row that launch­ing mis­siles is an act of war. Obama has spoken lately of war wear­i­ness. Amer­ic­ans are not weary. They are ex­hausted, ter­ri­fied, and be­sieged. After a week of con­stant ad­min­is­tra­tion lob­by­ing, pub­lic op­pos­i­tion to war in Syr­ia hardened. Phone calls and e-mails to House and Sen­ate of­fices are not just run­ning 10-to-1 against mis­sile strikes. They are not run­ning 20-to-1 against. In some cases, they are run­ning 1,500-to-1 or 4,000-to-1 against mil­it­ary ac­tion.

That’s why, after brief­ing 93 sen­at­ors on the mil­it­ary plans and on in­tel­li­gence about the Aug. 21 chem­ic­al-weapons at­tack in Syr­ia, the White House has less sup­port in the Demo­crat­ic­ally con­trolled Sen­ate than be­fore the brief­ings star­ted. The brief­ings are not mean­ing­less. But they are no match for real con­stitu­ents from across the ideo­lo­gic­al spec­trum who are scream­ing at Con­gress to with­hold au­thor­iz­a­tion.

Putin knows Con­gress is waver­ing and Obama is hes­it­ant. And he knows how Obama pri­or­it­izes non­pro­lif­er­a­tion. Putin’s gam­bit is to lure Obama in­to a com­prom­ise over As­sad’s chem­ic­al-weapons stock­piles that achieves vir­tu­ally all of Rus­sia’s goals and ex­tric­ates Obama from a tight polit­ic­al spot.

Many risks ex­ist.

First, Rus­sia’s open­ing bid is for the U.N. Se­cur­ity Coun­cil to ap­prove a non­bind­ing res­ol­u­tion ask­ing Syr­ia to hand over all of its chem­ic­al weapons to in­ter­na­tion­al in­spect­ors for even­tu­al de­struc­tion. Putin knows that’s un­ac­cept­able to Obama. He will want something back in the in­ev­it­able dip­lo­mat­ic horse trad­ing. There is every in­dic­a­tion Rus­sia wants to use a chem­ic­al-weapons deal to com­plete all pending arms sales to Syr­ia (see S-300 an­ti­air­craft weapons) and pos­sibly ne­go­ti­ate more arms sales. Con­ven­tion­al arms, clearly, are not an over­rid­ing con­cern to Obama. They have been used to kill more than 110,000 ci­vil­ians and keep As­sad in power.

Second, any deal that el­ev­ates As­sad to chem­ic­al-weapons quarter­mas­ter is fraught with per­il. As­sad did not ac­quire chem­ic­al weapons as a lark, and no mat­ter how much U.S., Is­raeli, Brit­ish, and French in­tel­li­gence be­lieves it knows about As­sad’s stock­piles, only the dic­tat­or and his ex­perts know for sure. They would have every in­cent­ive to with­hold just enough leth­al weapons for ex­ten­u­at­ing cir­cum­stances in ex­change for re­tain­ing power and keep­ing the con­ven­tion­al-weapons pipeline to Rus­sia open. Plus, in terms of cost, man­power, and un­yield­ing at­ten­tion to de­tail, it would be in­cred­ibly dif­fi­cult to make this pro­pos­al work.

Third, any Rus­sia-Syr­ia deal that de­fuses the crisis and wins U.N. back­ing el­ev­ates Syr­ia as a re­gion­al play­er and vin­dic­ates Rus­sia’s strategy of us­ing its Se­cur­ity Coun­cil veto power to thwart U.S. mil­it­ary in­ten­tions, to achieve its polit­ic­al aims, and to re­dir­ect in­ter­na­tion­al ac­tion away from sanc­tion­ing the use of chem­ic­al weapons to mak­ing the stock­piles a post-mas­sacre bar­gain­ing chip.

These risks ap­pear to lop­sidedly fa­vor Rus­sia and Syr­ia. It is not clear the two na­tions will suc­ceed. It is clear Obama is tak­ing them ser­i­ously. It is equally clear the Sen­ate and House will not back a mil­it­ary strike at this time. We may be in for weeks of dip­lo­mat­ic hag­gling about Syr­ia’s chem­ic­al weapons and how, if at all, the U.S. and the world can be sure it’s not tak­ing a bad deal be­cause it has no real­ist­ic polit­ic­al or mil­it­ary al­tern­at­ive.

Putin, for now, holds the trump card.

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