It should be no surprise that U.S. and Russian diplomats struck a deal to get rid of Syria’s chemical weapons so quickly. Both nations had strong converging interests to do just that. Diplomacy becomes almost easy under those circumstances.
Russian leaders have always been keen to block the spread of weapons of mass destruction. During Soviet days, the Kremlin was far fiercer—and more effective—at keeping nukes out of the hands of the Warsaw Pact nations than the White House was at keeping them away from its NATO allies.
It’s not that Soviet premiers had a deeper dread of nuclear war than American presidents. It’s that they had a greater need to impose control over their client states. In this sense, it’s likely that Russian President Vladimir Putin was horrified when Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (or his henchmen) started firing rockets loaded with nerve gas. The horror stemmed not so much from the casualties as from the chaos it would set in motion. Assad’s move made him a client out of control; it suddenly aroused the ire of Westerners who had been kept at bay through two years of bloody mayhem and who were now seriously thinking of—or being pressured into—intervening militarily.
When Secretary of State John Kerry fatefully (who knows how casually?) remarked that the United States would halt its preparations for airstrikes if Assad destroyed his chemical arsenal, Putin said, “It’s a deal,” then muscled Assad to agree.
Several U.S. neocons scoffed that Putin’s gambit was merely a ploy to buy time, elevate his stature in the Middle East, and make President Barack Obama look weak. There was something to this, but the critics left out another motive, and I think the prime one: Putin really wanted to get rid of Assad’s chemical weapons and the instability they were bound to set off.
It is certainly true that Putin went about this very cleverly. Obama had said that airstrikes would be “limited,” designed strictly to “deter” Assad from firing more chemical weapons and to “degrade” his ability to do so. In his public statements, Obama had also said that his long-term goal was to reach a political settlement to the Syrian civil war, a settlement that would involve Assad’s departure. But the airstrikes, he said, were a separate matter; an outsider’s military power could not help one side or another win a civil war.
Putin must have seen this distinction as confusing at best, duplicitous at worst. War, after all, is by nature political; military strikes always have political objectives. This is why he had so firmly opposed any talk of punishing Assad for using chemical weapons: He figured that U.S. airstrikes in Syria would be a pretense or prelude to deeper intervention and “regime change.”
However, when Kerry said that dismantling the weapons might halt the juggernaut of U.S. military action, Putin saw an opening. He took the narrowest slice of Obama’s rhetoric literally: that the coming airstrikes were strictly about Assad’s chemical weapons. OK, then, Putin replied: I’ll help to remove those chemical weapons, and you call off the airstrikes. End of story.
And so, assuming all goes according to plan, Assad loses his stash of deadly chemicals—but he stays in power, at least for the time being, and the Russian Federation re-emerges as a serious player in Middle Eastern politics. A win-win-win for Putin.
At the same time, Obama can cite his threat to use force as the reason Putin suddenly swung into action (this might even be true, to some extent). He can thus take at least joint credit for ridding Syria of chemical weapons and upholding international law. And he is saved from having to make good on letting Congress vote on whether to authorize the use of force—a vote that he seemed all but certain to lose. A win-win-win for Obama.
The only losers in this diplomatic venture are the Syrians. They’re stuck with Assad, and the civil war rages on. But this is how things were before the sarin strike of Aug. 21, which pushed Obama across a red line he didn’t want to cross all by himself—and then pushed him into a compounding crisis of his own making when it became clear that no other institution (not the United Nations, NATO, the Arab League, or the U.S. Congress) wanted to cross with him.
This, by the way, is another reason why it should have been obvious from the beginning that Putin wanted his proposed deal to work. If his goal was simply to humiliate Obama, he could have waited for the House of Representatives to vote down the authorization to use force. The fact is, no Russian leader, particularly an authoritarian ex-KGB man like Putin, could have believed for a moment that a foreign leader—especially a U.S. president—would back away from the threat of military action simply because the legislature opposed it. In this sense, Obama’s wavering rhetoric might have thrown Putin into a deeper panic, for Russian leaders have found unpredictable opponents to be at least as fearsome as strong ones.
And yet, Assad cannot help but come out of this deal weaker than before. First, he has had to admit that he has chemical weapons—and in fact to lead foreign inspectors to their sites—after earlier refusing to confirm or deny that he had any.* (The sign of weakness here isn’t the admission of a lie but the necessity to come clean.) Second, he has had to submit to a deal struck by two outside powers; he can no longer present himself—to his people, his enemies, or perhaps most fatefully, to his military officers—as a strong, independent ruler. He appears to be, instead, Putin’s lackey and perhaps even Obama’s manservant.
It is also worth noting that the “Framework for Elimination of Syrian Chemical Weapons,” which Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov signed in Geneva, is a tough document, as far as these things go. The Syrians must submit a record of their stockpile within a week. The weapons and assorted equipment (launchers, precursors, etc.) are to be removed and destroyed, under international inspection and control, in the first half of 2014. And if Syria doesn’t comply with any part of it, the matter gets referred to the U.N. Security Council in a Chapter VII resolution—that is, a resolution that includes enforcement through the use of force.
True, the Russians may veto this resolution, but it is a rare thing for them to permit even the hypothetical drafting of such a thing—and if Russia does veto it, the hypocrisy would be clear, and Obama might have a stronger hand in Congress for carrying out the airstrikes after all.
It’s also true, as Obama’s critics say, that verification will be difficult. It’s much easier to hide chemical agents than, say, nuclear missiles. But, again, Russia has a very strong interest in getting rid of these weapons, and Russia is also the only entity separating Assad from a firing squad. Assad knows that Russia needs an ally in Damascus and that he has been a faithful ally; however, he probably also knows that others could step to the throne in his place. He needs Russia more than Russia needs him personally; the Russians have a lot of leverage in this deal, and he has very little.
And who knows? If Obama and Putin can find common ground to solve this crisis, maybe the “reset button” can be pushed again. Might they be able to mediate a ceasefire in Syria, a step back from the brink in Iran (where a new president and foreign minister have sent intriguing signals that they’re ready for such moves), and a renewal of compromise measures elsewhere? It’s too risky to hope for such things, but the past week has taken the world on such a steep and dizzy roller coaster ride, no prediction can be dismissed as too wild or woolly.
Correction, Sept. 19, 2013: This piece originally said that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had denied possessing chemical weapons. In fact, he had refused to confirm or deny Syria had such weapons. (Return.)