Syria: Russia 1-0 USA

Putin and Lavrov have run rings around Obama and Kerry over Syria

What now for American-Russian relations?  The Russian plan to see Bashar al-Assad remain in power in Syria and hand over his chemical weapons has won the day.  Is this a massive shift in the world’s most important power play, or is it simply the result of 30 years of steady Russian policy?  What cannot be denied is that a Obama was groping for a  face saving out from a crisis he didn’t want, and Russia was only to glad to oblige. It now looks as though the threat of American intervention in Syria is over.

Following the adoption of the Russian plan, Obama has to re-evaluate his position.  Not only has he failed to live up to his promise to intervene if Syria crossed the ‘Red Line’ but he has also left hanging the question of whether or not he would have lost a Senate vote.  America’s credibility was on the line and it appears that this has been lost, though a loss somewhat mitigated.  Russia’s previously questionable credibility has been restored, if not enhanced, to the levels it was at before the Syrian uprising. Few now talk about Georgia now that Syria has been spared the US onslaught.

Russia has maintained a steady position on Syria. It has disabled the UN Security Council, it has arguably thwarted previous diplomatic efforts, and managed to garner international opposition to military intervention of any kind. By positioning itself as the dove, its has helped further the suspicion that the US is a naturally belligerent power, always eager for war. And astutely, it waited till voices on Capitol Hill were becoming shrill before announcing its latest plan to internationalise Syria’s chemical weapons. It seems as though the Russians new what was coming, but waited, strategically, to announce an alternative.  This won the day, and again portrayed Putin and Lavrov as the mature, level headed statesmen, against the impetuous and rash Obama and Kerry novices.

In Middle Eastern capitals meanwhile, opinion is mixed.  There are reports in the Iranian press that the Ayatollah Khameini in Iran threatened to stop supplying oil and gas to any Arab country that supported the rebels. Saudi Arabia, a key ally of the rebels who, according to an article in last week’s New York Times, have stepped up support of the rebels, are suspiciously quiet.  Quoted in the Jerusalem Post, Mordechai Kedar, a research associate at Ben-Gurion University’s Begin-Sadat Centre for Strategic Studies,  hints that the lack of statements from the Saudis is a sign of disappointment.  He told Monday’s Post that “manliness” is an important characteristic and that being emotional and whining are “feminine qualities while a male is expected to keep a cool head and emotional balance.”   Any statement against the deal could be interpreted as an emotional outburst and therefore “feminine” in the Arab world. In the Lebanese daily al-Akhbar, a generally pro-Iran/Syria paper, Ibrahim al-Amin claims that the Russians exaggerated threats by both sides to broker the deal.  He claims that the US were told that Assad and his allies were preparing for a “major confrontation” while Assad was told that the air strikes would not be limited in scope and would rather act as a rebel air force to bring down Assad.  They also hinted that if America intervened, Russia would to, on the opposing side.

It seems that the balance of power has truly moved in favour of the Russians in this important relationship, at least in this sphere.  As the UN Security Council is now in a position to issue a statement, expected this week, the threat of military action is rumoured to not be mentioned.  John Kerry however has warned that all options are available, and that Iran should not interpret the plan as diplomatic weakness, rather that diplomacy is always the primary

Meanwhile, speaking exclusively to the Jerusalem Post, Colonel Richard Kemp, former commander of British forces in Afghanistan, and a former member of Britain’s National Security Council and COBRA, has warned that due to the conflict, the plan is impossible.  He says that “What we might see is a token show of disarmament.  I don’t think [the Russian plan] feasible…Israel remains the only reliable power that the world can count on to intervene if the situation gets to dangerous.”   Israeli intervention, is however very unlikely, and will only happen if Israel is attacked by Assad’s forces.  Israel has remained silent on Syria, save to endorse the deal, with Avigdor Liberman, the Foreign Minister, telling journalists “The agreement is good for Israel in principle, if it means Syria will have no chemical weapons” but as Colonel Kemp has suggested he adds the caveat “The test will be in its implementation.”


Russia has won this round.  Whatever happens now, if the plan isn’t implemented or fails to yields the expected results for whatever reason, at least they can say “We tried” while, the US will be blamed for any failure, by any party.  What the Security Council says, and whether the threat of force is there to back up the plan, is another test of Russian resolve on this issue. If they agree to a military threat, there will be a strong caveat that the time has run out (the handover and destruction is supposed to take nine months), that the majority of weapons will still be in Assad’s hands, and that any intervention will not support one side or the other but simply to get at the weapons stores. Moreover, nine months is plenty of time for Assad to continue his string of successes and roll the rebels back into the countryside. It is currently one-nil to Russia in this battle, and it is hard to see America coming back.

 Alex Patnick and Lee Jenkins


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