Moscow saves Assad’s bacon, for now


The Russian-sponsored agreement to put Syria’s chemical weapons under international supervision may well have headed off an impending American strike against President Bashar Assad’s regime. But the question many people are now asking is whether it will lead to a broader agreement over Syria between Washington and Moscow.

U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin reportedly discussed the chemical weapons plan last week at the G-20 summit in St. Petersburg. This suggests it was more than just a Russian maneuver to buy Assad time. It has offered Obama a way out of a military confrontation in which he never seemed eager to engage.

The mood in Washington has swung back and forth like a pendulum in the past two weeks. Initially, Obama sought a limited attack against Syria, before deciding to gain the approval of Congress. Last week, he seemed to widen the objectives when he stated that “we have a broader strategy that will allow us to upgrade the capabilities of the opposition [and]allow Syria ultimately to free itself” from its civil war. The New York Times reported that the Pentagon had been asked to expand the target list in Syria, suggesting a larger operation.

But as the Obama administration began to measure the depth of congressional and public opposition to a military move, officials in Washington backtracked, suggesting again that an attack would be limited. This culminated in a remark by Secretary of State John Kerry on Monday that it would be “unbelievably small,” suggesting that the universal misgivings had gotten to the administration.

Then Russia sprang its proposal, to which Syria readily agreed. Assad’s endorsement of the Russian plan was an implicit admission that his army had such weapons and may even have used them. After all, the Syrian regime did not demand that the rebels place the chemical weapons the regime has alleged is in their possession under any similar arrangement.

The reality is that American and Russian aims are not very far apart in Syria: Both want to see a political solution to the conflict; both share an aversion to the Salafist-jihadist groups taking advantage of the fighting; and both realize that the longer the conflict drags on, the more unstable the entire region will become.

Moreover, in the subtle dance between Russia and Iran, the advantage may have turned decisively in Moscow’s favor. It is more difficult now than it was for Assad to play on Russian-Iranian differences to remain in office if Russia one day decides he must step down. Putin will not alienate Iran, but Russia is in a far better position to set the tempo of a transition, by virtue of the fact that it has become the guarantor of the Syrian regime’s behavior.

On Tuesday, France presented a draft Security Council resolution to narrow Syria’s wiggling room on the chemical weapons. The resolution, formulated under Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter, authorizes military force if the Syrians fail to hand over their chemical weapons. Russia has opposed the French draft, but there remains some room for negotiations. The U.S. Congress must add to that and approve the use of U.S. military power in the case of Syrian noncompliance. If there is no agreement at the U.N. over a resolution, congressional approval would then allow Obama to bomb.

Whatever happens, Russia has a stake in guaranteeing that the arrangement it proposed is respected. Its credibility as a mediator in a resolution of the Syrian conflict depends on it. But do things stop there, or are the Russians and Americans thinking beyond that?

An article in Israel’s daily Haaretz suggests yes. The paper reported Tuesday that Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem would propose to Putin a step-by-step transitional plan that would involve moving up the date of the Syrian presidential election scheduled for next year, with the understanding that Assad would not be a candidate. Nothing suggests the report is credible, especially as the plan purportedly comes from the Syrian side, but any political outcome in Syria must necessarily be linked to the election deadline.

The Russians’ decision to avert an American attack may have revealed their doubts about Assad’s real strength. Any systematic bombardment of Syrian regime targets, the Russians perhaps feared, might have led to unwanted consequences. According to pro-Syrian sources in Beirut, there are an estimated 40,000-50,000 rebels around the Syrian capital, a surprisingly large number if true.

If the Russians feel that Assad’s staying power is doubtful, it is conceivable that they may consider some sort of transition plan. That’s not to say that they are doing so, but both Russia and America gain nothing by remaining bitterly divided over Syria, especially as their differences are not unbridgeable, and as Assad’s prospects of again becoming an acceptable, legitimate leader appear negligible.

The 2014 presidential deadline is not one Moscow can readily ignore. It’s difficult to know what the Russians truly feel about Assad. Probably not much; but if he has to go, they want this to happen through an orderly process that allows them to manage the transition, bring in an acceptable successor, and ensure that their allies and interests in Syria are not undermined. Russia also seeks to guarantee that jihadist groups do not emerge triumphant.

Astute observers have remarked that the agreement to place chemical weapons under international supervision can eventually be applied to Iran’s nuclear material. By proposing it, Russia, and with it America, has opened several potentially exploitable doors in the Middle East. In the months ahead we’ll see whether Assad becomes a political casualty of improved relations between the U.S. and Russia.

Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR. He tweets @BeirutCalling.

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