The deal with Russia and its true potential

For better or worse, this deal is a “game changer” Photo: Associated Press

WASHINGTON, DC, September 21, 2013 — From the standpoint of American interests, Syria itself matters little if at all, and to the extent that it does, it is in how it affects America’s position versus Iran. Therefore it would have been better if the Obama Administration had measured its policy toward Syria by the effect that it would have on Iran, and had it done so, it would have sought from the very beginning to avoid a major conflict with the Assad regime. For a quagmire in Syria would have seriously damaged America’s ability to strike Iran, and thereby eliminated a key source of leverage on the more important nuclear issue.

It would have been wiser for the Administration to keep its powder dry by taking the matter, not to Congress, but to the UN, where a failure to act could have been blamed on others. Instead, the President took on himself the burden of coercing Assad, and then began dithering at the brink of a strike, placing himself into a corner where a refusal by Congress would essentially neuter him. At this point, a failure to strike would have harmed the United States more than could any quagmire, and we were in a truly perilous position.

Enter Putin then to save Obama from this self-created mess. On September 9, the United States and Russia signed a deal according to which the chemical weapons will be transferred out of Syria under U.N. supervision and subsequently destroyed. The deal is greeted with criticism by some, with relief by others who now seem to believe the crisis to be all but over.

Which side is right – the supporters of the deal or the detractors? The answer: neither. The supporters are wrong to think that all there is left to do now is wait on Russia to “take care of things.” If anything, the crisis has just begun, for if Assad sees a weakening resolve or a lack of unity between Russia and the United States, he may play for time and drag this process along and perhaps even cause a falling-out between the two giants. American interests, then, would be seriously harmed.

But at the same time, the deal presents a potentially marvelous opportunity – as long as America knows how to grasp it. For this agreement to succeed, Assad must be made to believe that if the weapons are not handed over by a certain date, there will be physical consequences. And supplying this threat is not Russia’s but America’s responsibility.

The Russians have already done their part by applying pressure and getting the Syrians to accept this process and to admit by proxy that they do in fact have chemical weapons. More importantly, the Russians have demonstrated that they are willing to cooperate with the United States against a country allied to Iran and not unfriendly to Russia, and this really is the one fact that makes this deal so special.

By signing this deal, both countries have placed themselves in a position where only cooperation can save both from disgrace. If Russia fails to get Assad to give up his chemical weapons, serious damage will be done to its prestige, and to its relationship with America, Europe, and also the Middle East.

At the same time, Russia’s ability to get Assad to comply depends on American, as well as Russian, effort. The agreement places both countries on the same boat, and a falling-out between the two will only serve the interests of Iran by shining a green light on its nuclear ambitions.

There is, of course, the theory that the Russians are incorrigibly anti-American; that their sole purpose in life is to do America harm; and that they have signed this agreement just to string us along and in the end contribute to our demise.

In reality, the interests of the United States and Russia, when it comes to the Muslim world, are very much aligned; for few countries are more vulnerable to the threat of Islamic fundamentalism, and the nuclearization of this region, than Russia. This is partly a function of its large Muslim minority, partly of its geographical position, which places it too close for comfort to the cauldron of Central Asia and the Middle East.

If this agreement fails, it will be due not to the machinations of Russia, but to the failures of President Obama. If the United States fails to provide the necessary coercion, fails to provide a threat, and fails to provide a deadline, then this agreement will surely fail and indeed the whole thing will turn out to be one vile Russian trick. But if we play our role well, as the “bad cop” of the duo, then there is a very high chance that a true cooperation will develop between the two countries, and this will be, as the President likes to say, a “game-changer.” 

Putin took the surprising step recently of appealing to the American people through an article in the New York Times, which has been the subject of intense commentary. But nearly all of the commentators seem to have missed the most important part of this letter, which is not what it contained but what it left out. For all its cheeky criticism of American policy and its dismissal of American exceptionalism, Putin does not make the one demand that would seem natural for such a letter to make – he does not ask of Congress that it forbid a military strike. And although he highlights the unfortunate consequences that could arise from a military strike, nowhere does he say that those consequences will be imposed by Russia.

Is it not logical, then, to conclude that behind the brazen rhetoric of this letter, there is a tacit acceptance of the American role, and the coercion necessary to fulfill it? A closer reading of this letter would show that its “worst” contents are intended for domestic, that is Russian, and perhaps Syrian, consumption. After all, what has Putin to gain from angering the American public, if not cover for a policy which in its essence is very favorable to America?

The future of the “Deal”

There is, as already mentioned, a danger that the Obama Administration will lull itself into thinking that the crisis is over and that, now, all there is to do is wait for the Russians to “take care of things.”

But the domestic effects of this deal may in a strange way prevent this; for at this moment, considerable pressure is being applied, paradoxically, by the opponents of the deal, to make the deal succeed. The President finds himself in a position where he must get those weapons out or be held accountable for weakness and gullibility. Should he fail in this endeavor, he would reach the status of lame duck quicker than any President before him. One hopes that this will have the salutary effect of pushing him into an aggressive, no-nonsense stance.

There is, however, a serious threat that may unravel this deal. It is a self-imposed threat and comes in the form of a belated fascination, on the part of our President, for the U.N.

The best time to resort to the UN was at the very beginning of this crisis, when conflict could have been avoided. But the die having been cast, an appeal to the UN now weakens America’s military threat and gives Assad cause for solace, not worry. More importantly it places Russia in a very difficult position, as Putin cannot be seen to publicly betray his friend and sanction a strike against him. Therefore, an appeal to the UN, if pushed to its full extent, can only result in either a clash with Russia or an incredibly weak resolution. Neither of these ends serve the purposes of this deal.

The real benefit of this deal is not so much that it deprives Assad of chemical weapons as it demonstrates, mainly to Iran, that a cooperation between Russia and the United States, against a Middle Eastern country, is by no means impossible. But more importantly, this deal can become a sort of blueprint for our future policy toward Iran; for what we are witnessing today is a deal that is quickly becoming a red line, drawn not only by the President but by a Congress which is unwilling to accept disgrace. This can become a precedent. If the Obama Administration can enter into a negotiation with Iran and come up with an analogous deal with that country, it will find itself once again in a position from which retreat is unconscionable. That is why a negotiation with Iran is an offensive move and, as I have described in a previous article, one that we should make.

Perhaps the present state of Syria would convince the Iranians to come to the table, and from there perhaps the talks can be moved from the subject of Syria to the more important question of nuclear arms. This is just speculation, but maybe, just maybe, there is opportunity here, even amongst this mess.


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Benjamin Ra

Benjamin Ra is a recent graduate of Sciences Po Paris. He writes mainly on foreign policy and is currently residing in South Korea. 

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