Realpolitik notwithstanding, it is difficult to regard Vladimir Putin as a ‘peacenik’, and Barack Obama, the first African-American to occupy the Oval Office and a Nobel Peace laureate to boot, as a ‘war-mongering’ leader. Yet, the Syrian crisis has effected a curious role-reversal between the Russian and American presidents in less than a fortnight. Putin’s sage advice for a negotiated settlement on Syria is gaining ground with each passing day across the world, including a majority of Americans who are stoutly campaigning against another military misadventure. At the same time, the US president is being seen as a confused leader desperate to get out of a tight situation after his proposed ‘surgical military strikes’ on Syria have left him isolated even in his own country.
“The Russian diplomatic opening at a minimum buys time for everyone; and at a maximum actually provides a solution,” says Richard Fontaine, president of Washington’s Centre for a New American Security.
But what prompted the Russians to get into action with a plan to try and get Syria to hand over its chemical arsenal? The signals from Moscow till some days back suggested that Russia—an old ally of Damascus—would rather let the Americans walk into the political minefield of Syria. Is Russia playing the dove only to enhance its international prestige vis-a-vis the US?
According to Fontaine, there are a couple of incentives for Russia to play peacemaker. “First, it puts Russia squarely in the middle of the decision-making again on this, where it had previously been taken out of their hands. It had been a US decision whether or not to strike Syria. Now, Russia is at the centre of things again. Second, it could potentially avert a military strike on Syria, Russia’s ally, and that is something that Russia sees as in its interests.” Fontaine adds that if an agreement over identifying, confiscating and destroying Syria’s huge chemical weapons stockpile actually comes through and is successfully implemented, “Russia will no doubt take credit for having averted a military conflict in Syria and reap some prestige, but I think that is still a long way off”.
That may be so, but right now the world and many Americans have lent their ears to Putin. “No one wants the United Nations to suffer the fate of the League of Nations, which collapsed because it lacked real leverage. This is possible if influential countries bypass the United Nations and take military action without Security Council’s authorisation,” Putin wrote in a signed article in the New York Times on September 11. In his attempt to reach out directly to the American people, the Russian president argued, “We are not protecting the Syrian government but international law”, adding that “Syria is not witnessing a battle for democracy, but an armed conflict between the government and opposition in a multi-religious country.”
The opportunity for a peaceful settlement to the Syrian crisis cropped up suddenly last week when US Secretary of State John Kerry suggested—perhaps half-rhetorically—that if the Bashar al-Assad regime agreed to put all its chemical weapons under international scrutiny and allowed them to be destroyed, war could be averted. The Russians lost no time in grabbing the US proposal and offered to play the role of a peacemaker. As the Assad government, too, agreed to put up its entire chemical arsenal for UN scrutiny and ultimate destruction (reportedly a sticky point with the Syrians), the war clouds louring over Syria appeared the least menacing in weeks. As matters stand, the Russians and Americans, headed by Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov and involving teams of technical experts, are meeting at Geneva to thrash out the details of a possible handover of Syria’s chemical weapons.
But what led the US to tone down its belligerence in the first place?
One view insists that Obama, a reluctant war president, was all along looking for a way out that would give him a stab at a negotiated settlement. Others argue that Obama started a rethink when he realised how ridiculous he’d look if he failed to get support from the US Congress for a strike. Whether Kerry’s remarks were by design or not is still being debated, but it did allow Obama a way out of a tight spot.
“It is still quite messy but if both the Russians and Americans back the move it might work,” says former Indian diplomat Sheel Kant Sharma. The gap between intent and its realisation is still considerable. One major problem stems from the wording of the UN Security Council’s proposed resolution on Syria. The US, France and Britain are in favour of a text that makes it clear that if the Assad regime fails to comply with the proposal—that is, to put its entire chemical weapons arsenal under international inspection and ultimate destruction—the SC should have the option of either putting Damascus under severe sanctions or, if need be, go for military strikes. But Russia would probably oppose this with the argument that if the world wanted Syria to cooperate with it, then the threat of a military strike would have to be taken off the table.
However, the US and its allies say that if the SC proposal, with its tough talk of sanctions and strikes, is diluted, it would disappoint many across the world, particularly those in Syria, who want an end to the Assad regime.
The other big problem is related to the ground situation in Syria and whether civil war conditions would allow UN weapons inspectors to do a thorough job of checking on the regime’s chemical arsenal—much of which may be stored in rebel-held areas. This, Assad’s detractors fear, could give the regime the legitimate excuse of hiding much of its stockpile from the UN inspectors for later use.
The claims and counter-claims by the Assad regime, its steadfast allies and its circling enemies will continue to play out for weeks before the current surge in diplomacy could show a way that may satisfy all. A missile-strapped US, and its fleet-footed diplomatic partner Russia, would direct much of the proceedings.
By Pranay Sharma with Ashish Kumar Sen in Washington