A press conference in which US Secretary of State John Kerry opened up the possibility of the United States backing down from their threat of military invasion of Syria if Assad agrees to surrender his stockpile of chemical weapons has left the whole world scratching their head. Was this merely a slip of the tongue on the part of Kerry, a hyperbole taken as a realistic suggestion, or a calculated move by the Obama administration to save face after momentum for a strike against the Assad regime seems to have cooled off?
Enter Putin, stage left, grabbing the torch from the Americans and running with it. Why not actually approach the Assad regime with the offer to scale down rhetoric of a military strike by the West if he turns over his chemical arsenal, Russia suggests as China’s Xi Jinping emphatically nods his head in the background. Suddenly, it is Russia (not the United States) that has emerged as the cool-headed peacemaker in Syria.
It seems that the Obama administration has hamstrung itself in regards to the Syrian conflict, perhaps unwittingly but still precariously. It has lost face with the international community and now seems to carry more bark than it does bite. It has given Russia a dangerous position as the prime negotiator in the Syrian conflict, a role that the pro-Assad Putin will likely relish given Russia’s strategic interests (Syria is home to the last remaining Soviet-era Russian military base). It has signaled to the world that Americans (and Brits as well) are simply tired of the Middle East and are turning towards isolationism regardless of the atrocities being committed in the region.
Many in the Middle East will most likely breathe a sigh of relief as the prospect of an actual American-led invasion of Syria dwindles daily. In fact, a strike most likely would not have been the best solution, and I personally am wary of the United States wandering down the same rabbit-hole it did 9 years ago, undertaking an invasion of a South Asian dictatorship on uncertain suspicions of WMDs and loosely defined mission parameters with no foreseeable end and a very poor understanding of the conditions within the country. However, the most dangerous aspect about the diplomatic game being played over Syria is the resurgence of a Russian leadership in the international community and a Moscow-Beijing consensus on international public policy that seems to be gaining traction.
The fact is that the plan to dismantle Assad’s chemical arsenal is completely unrealistic. The United States is still in the midst of dismantling its own chemical weapons inventory, a project that was begun in the 1990’s and is projected to last until 2023, billions of dollars later. The plan to strip Assad of his nerve gas would require unprecedented cooperation from his regime and an opening of Syrian chemical weapons facilities to international teams of highly trained professionals who most likely would have to work for over a decade until the project was complete. While it is an admirable goal, it will certainly not put a halt to the killing in Syria.
This is most likely being done as a way for Putin to put down the flames of another American-led invasion of Asia and to consolidate his own power in international diplomacy. His recent op-ed in the NYTimes (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/12/opinion/putin-plea-for-caution-from-russia-on-syria.html?ref=opinion&_r=0) is full of high-minded talk of international cooperation and rule of law. Let the world not forget, however, that this is the same Vladimir Putin that presides over one of the most repressive and corrupt regimes in the entire world, a man who time and time again (from his earliest days as an officer in the KGB) has shown a penchant for cruelty and ruthless, and a calculating ambition that has often left innocent people dead.