WASHINGTON, September 15, 2013 — Vladimir Putin, a former Soviet KGB officer, has kept America’s Nobel Peace Prize laureate President Obama from going to war.
The United States and Russia reached an agreement on Saturday, September 14, to remove Syria’s chemical weapons for eventual destruction, setting a Friday deadline for Syria to provide an inventory of its weapons.
Sudden movement towards a deal occurred last week, when the Russian president jumped on a comment Secretary of State John Kerry made, offering to help put Syria’s chemical weapons under international control. The Obama Administration has claimed that the success of this diplomatic initiative is due to the credible threat of force against Syria.
That threat was losing credibility by the hour, and Russia was not in a bind because of American threats. Russia had already rejected a Saudi offer to buy Russian weapons and provide other incentives worth $15 billion if it would permit a resolution against Syria’s government to get through the U.N. Security Council, and Putin faces no political damage at home for supporting Syria’s President Assad. The danger to Russia and its client, Assad, diminished with every day that Obama delayed his threatened limited strike against Assad’s chemical weapons.
At the same time, the political dangers to Obama were growing. Putin needed no lifeline, but Obama did. He got his lifeline, and he’ll undoubtedly pay for it.
Obama’s speech on Syria on Tuesday was a strange, internally incoherent performance. The chemical attack in Syria “is not only a violation of international law, it’s also a danger to our security. … I determined that it is in the national security interests of the United States to respond to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons through a targeted military strike … I possess the authority to order military strikes … I have, therefore, asked the leaders of Congress to postpone a vote to authorize the use of force while we pursue this diplomatic path.”
In other words, “this presents a clear threat to American security; I must respond; I have the authority to respond; I will therefore punt this to Congress and not respond.”
It was not the speech of a man who is in the right, who knows he is in the right, and who believes that because he is in the right he has an obligation to act. It was instead the speech of a man who has no support and was desperate to escape the box in which he’d trapped himself.
Putin did not throw Obama a lifeline because he is an altruist. Russian thinking is strongly conditioned by Chechnya. Russia was willing to do anything necessary to crush Chechen rebels – as they saw them, jihadists – and destroy the opposition, even if that included killing thousands of civilians. They were terrified of the potential of that conflict to result in the “Yugoslavification” of Russia, hence their willingness to be utterly ruthless in suppressing it.
Russia fears a chaotic situation in Syria, seeing it as another Chechnya, just a little further from their borders. They would rather see Assad use chemical weapons successfully to suppress the rebels than see Syria lapse into chaos, which would promote a new wave of jihadism that could reach their borders.
Russia supported Assad while it seemed likely that he would successfully crush the rebels. They were willing to back him even though it cost them diplomatic points with the rest of the Middle East.
It is only now that he is no longer certain that Assad can hold on to Syria that Putin is interested in cooperating with us, and only to keep Syria from falling into the hands of the rebels, not to keep them from being gassed. Russia is not interested in getting rid of chemical weapons as an end, but only as a way to keep the U.S. occupied while they prop up Assad.
There is a temporary confluence of interests between Moscow and Washington, and it is that accident that induced Putin to help Obama. The deal they reached yesterday will be backed by a UNSC resolution that threatens sanctions, but does not include a threat of military force if Syria does not give up its chemical weapons. A draft agreement of the UNSC resolution calls for consequences if Syria does not comply, but the consequences are unspecified.
Obama insists that “any agreement needs to be verifiable and enforceable,” and he insists that the threat of unilateral action by the United States remains on the table. The possibility of that has just become much smaller, however, even if Syria does not comply with demands to disclose and relinquish its chemical weapons.
Former KGB officer Putin has helped Nobel Peace Laureate Obama avoid a war that his own foreign policy made more likely. The Russian-American negotiations will produce terms more favorable to Putin’s foreign policy than to Obama’s, and America’s credibility in the Middle East will not be enhanced.
Russia’s will. Putin’s coming visit to Iran to discuss Iran’s nuclear program at the invitation of Iran’s government on Friday is evidence that Iran’s leaders are impressed with his performance in Syria. Obama comes out of this looking diminished. Putin has demonstrated that there is no substitute in foreign policy for tenacity and a clear and ruthless sense of purpose - certainly not a gold medal and a kiss from Norway’s king.
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