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Awkward U.S.-Russia Dance on Syria

Interviewee: Nikolas Gvosdev, Associate Professor, U.S. Naval War College
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
September 19, 2013

Presidents Putin and Obama are far from close friends, but they have "tumbled into each other's arms" over Syria's chemical weapons, reports Russian expert Nicolas Gvosdev. Moscow wanted to "get out of this box as the defenders of the Syrian regime, no matter what," while the United States was looking for a way to check the Assad regime short of military action, says Gvosdev. However, he forecasts a "long, drawn-out process" for chemical weapons disarmament, whereby the United States and Russia will likely spar over the nature of Syrian delays.

Vladimir PutinRussian president Vladimir Putin (Photo: Maxim Shipenkov/Courtesy Reuters)

President Obama, who was hardly on talking terms with President Putin, now finds himself relying on the Russian leader for help in solving the Syrian crisis. The two powers are jointly trying to come up with a binding UN Security Council resolution that will lead to the Syrians putting an end to their chemical weapons. What has brought this about?

Two things, mainly. One was the reaction of other world leaders at the G20 in St. Petersburg in early September to President Putin's continual assertions that the opposition rebels used chemical weapons in Syria rather than the government. This has been the standard Russian line ever since the first attacks occurred earlier this year. At the G20, it was clear that Putin was not getting much traction with that argument and that most world leaders were convinced that, even if the attacks had not been necessarily ordered by the top echelon of the Syrian government, they nonetheless occurred because of the Syrian government's possession of these types of weapons.

"From the Russian side, there was a need to get out of this box as the defenders of the Syrian regime, no matter what."

So that was putting some pressure on the Russians—as long as they appeared to be protecting Syria against international pressure, it made them look as if they were condoning the use of chemical weapons. From the Russian side, there was a need to get out of this box as the defenders of the Syrian regime, no matter what.

And the second?

President Obama had a completely different set of problems having to do with domestic issues—most Americans were more or less convinced that the Syrian government was responsible for the attacks, but they were not necessarily sold on the need for the United States to do something about it. The president was moving in the direction of a limited military strike to degrade Syria's capabilities, but he wasn't finding a great deal of public support for such action.

Increasingly, even if the congressional leadership supported a U.S. military strike, the rank-and-file in both parties were not behind it. So President Obama needed to find a way to appear to be addressing the question of chemical weapons in Syria, but without committing the United States to a military strike. And so, in some ways, Moscow and Washington have tumbled into each other's arms.

Then you had Secretary of State John Kerry's press conference in London last Monday where, almost as an aside to a question, he held out the possibility that military action could be averted if Syria was prepared to disarm.

And that did it, didn't it?

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who was meeting with Syrian foreign minister Walid al-Moualem in Moscow, immediately seized on this and in effect said, "Well, there's an initiative here, let's see if we can get the Syrians on board." And from that we move to the talks in Geneva, which essentially satisfied the core political requirements of both presidents. Putin was transformed from being seen as an obstructionist on Syria to being a facilitator, and President Obama gets to be able to do something about Syria without having to resort at this time to a military strike.

There still seems to be a difference of opinion between the United States, France and Britain, and the Russians in the drafting of the Security Council resolution and the threat of Chapter 7 [of the UN Charter] action—whether that should be included. The Russians seem adamant against it. How do you think this will work out?

That is one of the sticking points. Obviously, what the Russians want to prevent from happening, having learned the lessons of previous U.S. military interventions, is that if you have a Chapter 7 inclusion in the resolution, it can be used by the United States as a justification for military action without necessarily having to go back to the Security Council for authorization.

The Russians, I think, see this as a way to be able to exercise a veto once again, because if the agreement breaks down, the parties may not agree as to the causes. The United States is more likely to view setbacks in the agreement as the result of Syrian malfeasance and therefore be more willing to launch military action. So the Russians want to make sure that there's nothing in a forthcoming Security Council resolution that could be interpreted as an automatic trigger for U.S. or Western military action.

And the UN weapons inspectors are going back there because the Syrian government, through the Russians, has given them information that the rebels have used chemical weapons?

That's a consistent Russian narrative: that if weapons have been used, then either the opposition got their hands on the Syrian government's weapons or they constructed them themselves. But this does point to a problem for the [Obama] administration, because once you have the UN process in place, the UN has to respond to any and all of these allegations. They have to investigate.

So Washington may see this as a delaying tactic. We want to make Syria comply as quickly as possible, but then if there's an ongoing investigation, it slows the process down. So that's why you have skepticism on the part of some in Washington that the agreement that was reached will in fact be enforceable.

And even if Syria complies with the agreement, they don't have to turn over their chemical weapons until next year sometime, right?

This would be a long, drawn-out process. Even in the best of conditions, it takes time to identify all the stockpiles, secure them, safely transport them, and then begin the process of destruction.

When this was done in Libya in the 1990s, it took years, and that of course was in conditions of peace. In conditions of fighting, it's going to be much more difficult. The United States is going to look at delays and say the Syrian government is stalling; they're not sincere about the agreement. Meanwhile, the Russians will say delay is normal. Look at the environment. Look at the conditions. Of course, [Syria] can't expect to stick to an agreed timetable because of all of these variables.

"The United States is going to look at delays and say the Syrian government is stalling. Meanwhile, the Russians will say delay is normal. Look at the environment. Look at the conditions."

So which side are you going to believe? The problem for the Obama administration, whether it likes it or not, is that it's a successor to the Bush administration. A number of countries around the world now believe—and it turns out based on the post-[Iraq] war inspections that those concerns were legitimate—that the Bush administration rushed the [weapons inspection] process [in Iraq]. They believe it was too quick, that [Bush] didn't allow the inspectors to do their job, and, therefore, you could have avoided the Iraq War.

So what's the timetable now?

The timetable that was agreed to in Geneva is extremely optimistic—that we're supposed to have a full accounting of Syria's chemical stockpiles within days. I'm sure we can get a start on it, but I don't know that we'll have a full accounting and that within weeks we're going to have a process to start transferring weapons out.

The Russians, I think, will then be prepared to say that we have to give this process more time. Meanwhile, the United States wants Syria to comply as quickly as possible, and it is going to be putting pressure on not only Syria, but on U.S. allies to be ready for a retaliatory military strike if it perceives delaying tactics.

The other problem that the agreement has is that, again, both Moscow and Washington have preset narratives when it comes to Syria. So let's assume that the Syrians do submit a completed declaration either by the deadline or at some point after, and then there's another chemical weapons attack in Syria. The Russians will say, well, if the Syrian government made its declaration, then any further chemical weapons used in Syria must be the opposition.

On the other hand, the United States is going to say, well, the Syrian government cheated, these are weapons that were hidden. So then we're back to the impasse we had right before the G20 summit, with Moscow saying one thing about a chemical strike and the United States saying something else.

And what about relations between Obama and Putin? They have only had the briefest of meetings at the G20 summit. Do you think it would help if they had a regular sit-down to really thrash things out?

It might, if we thought that there was a potential breakthrough to be had. I don't think there is. The Putin-Obama relationship, since the 2009 Moscow summit, never got off on the right foot. They've had subsequent meetings and things haven't connected. This may be a case where it's important for the two presidents to say to their deputies: we entrust you to make sure this works, and we give you our full support—but don't expect a face-to-face between Obama and Putin as part of the process.

It's interesting to see how John Kerry and Sergey Lavrov—based on their earlier meetings, particularly their meeting in Berlin earlier this year—have reached some sort of personal accord, and that they're able to talk to each other, and have a good working relationship. So it may not be a bad thing to have Kerry and Lavrov be the two main guys working on this, just as long as both presidents make it clear that they are acting with their full support.

We just have to accept that Obama and Putin are going to have cool personal relations. It's not like Obama can invite Putin to Washington and say, "Let's go out for a hamburger," the way he did with Dmitry Medvedev. The best thing for both of them to do is, maybe, step back and not do anything that could mess up the cooperation currently under way.

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