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Syria: How about a little love for the Russians?

Syria: How about a little love for the Russians?
Published 17 Sep 2013   Follow @SamRoggeveen

Commentary from Washington on the US-Russia deal to secure and destroy Syria's chemical weapons is of two main varieties.

The first argues that Obama got played by Putin. According to this version, the Russians exploited a mistake from Secretary of State John Kerry (who made an off-the-cuff remark in a press conference that military strikes could theoretically be avoided if Syria handed over all its chemical weapons) to move Moscow to centre-stage in the Syria crisis and reduce Washington's influence. The second argues that it is the Russians who are being played. Obama has made a judgment that the Middle East doesn't matter as much as it used to for US interests, so he grabbed with both hands the Russian offer to take responsibility for this crisis.

It seems possible to reconcile these two interpretations. Yes, American diplomacy has been messy and uncoordinated, and it looks like America has stumbled, Mr Magoo-like, into a good result.

But at least Obama grabbed the opportunity when the Russians presented it, and given that his aim all along has been to reinforce the norm against chemical weapons use, it seems the aim has been met and exceeded. Not only is the norm intact, but we could now see the total disarmament of one of the world's biggest producers of chemical weapons. That's much more than could have been achieved through US military strikes.

But let's be clear: none of this would have been possible without the Russians. What both schools of commentary should acknowledge is that America owes a debt to Moscow in this matter. [fold]

Compare this situation to the lead-up to the 2003 Iraq war. Back then, four major world powers — Russia, France, Germany and China — opposed US action against Saddam Hussein. Yet not one of those countries offered a viable alternative to the invasion America was threatening. Each merely pleaded for UN inspectors to be given more time, a plainly unacceptable course for the Bush Administration.

It was within the wit and power of France and Germany to propose a much more intrusive, military-backed inspection regime, perhaps with a no-fly zone covering the entirety of Iraq. The Russians, who had influence in Baghdad back then, might have added their diplomatic weight. But instead, each chose to remain aloof and engage only in empty protest.

This time around the Russians have actually proposed something, and saved America from another terrible (if much smaller) mistake. Military strikes would have been so unbelievably small that the deterrent effect would have been of equal stature. But the strikes would have emboldened a deeply divided and unsavoury opposition, and would have created conditions for the escalation of American involvement. Now all of that has been avoided.

So Obama-backers who are crowing that the wily US president has put one over the Russians might want to rein it in a little bit. There's even a hint of hubris in Obama's own words when he says that he welcomes President Putin's moves to 'take responsibility for pushing...the Assad regime, to deal with these chemical weapons.'

Sure, the Russians have their own hard-nosed reasons for this deal; they're not acting out of altruism. But in the process, Putin has saved Obama from the consequences of his 'red line' remark, avoided an escalation of the Syrian civil war, and potentially gifted the world a significant victory over the proliferation of chemical weapons. So let's hear it for Vladimir Putin.

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