Russia Rising

After checkmating Obama, Putin ramps up his quest for regional hegemony.


Following up on its proposal to place Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles under international control for inspection and destruction, Russia submitted its plan to implement this proposal to the United States for review. One day after President Obama’s prime time televised speech in which he called for a diplomatic pause before moving forward with any military action against the Assad regime, Secretary of State John Kerry sounded a hopeful note. He liked what he heard from his phone conversation on Wednesday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, whom, Kerry said, "had some interesting observations about the ways in which he thinks we might be able to achieve this." This situation is not likely to be resolve so simply, however, and geopolitical complications appear to be mounting, as Russian President Putin senses his advantage and Obama's weakness.

Kerry and Lavrov are to meet in Geneva on Thursday to try and reach agreement on securing Syria’s chemical weapons, which Kerry reiterated must contain an "ongoing verifiable process" with "unlimited" access by international inspectors to all Syrian chemical weapons sites. "This cannot be a game. And that we have made very, very clear to the Russians," Kerry insisted.

The problem for Kerry and his feckless boss is that, to the Russians, this is little else but a game. And the Obama administration is being played. Putin helped Obama get out of the corner in which he painted himself – at least temporarily – but at a steep price. Sensing Obama’s ambivalence and the likelihood that he would lose a vote in Congress for authority to launch a punitive strike against Syria, Putin pounced. The wily former KGB agent has managed to gain the moral high ground while Obama looks like a combination of a paper tiger and a deer caught in the headlights.

Russia is demanding that Obama foreswear the future use of any military force against Syria. It opposed a draft UN Security Council resolution put forward by France, with U.S. and British backing, which would have authorized the use of force if Syria reneged on the transfer of all of its chemical weapons to international control. Give peace a chance, Putin is telling Obama, all the while chuckling as he outflanks the Nobel Peace Prize-winning U.S. president as the anti-war world leader.

Yet while Putin projects a peacemaking image to the world, he is busy sending arms to the Assad regime as well as to Assad’s friends in Iran. He is renewing his offer to supply Iran with sophisticated S-300 air defense missile systems as well as offering to build a second reactor for the Bushehr nuclear plant. Putin and the new, supposedly more “moderate” Iranian President Hassan Rowhani will be discussing "questions of military technical cooperation" at a summit meeting this Friday, according to Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov.

Putin’s interest in advancing an international monitoring plan for Syria’s chemical weapons, while continuing to arm Syria and Iran, is designed to enhance Russia’s influence in the critical Middle Eastern Shiite arc at the expense of the United States and its allies. Russia also wants to maintain its naval base in Syria as well as build a bulwark against Sunni jihadist expansion from the Middle East into the North Caucasus and the rest of Russia. Putin is not about to let Syria slip out of Assad’s hands if he can help it.

From the perspective of Putin’s overriding interest to keep the Assad regime in power, his international monitoring proposal makes Machiavellian sense. The devil is in the details of monitoring and enforcement. Who would be responsible? Assuming that the United Nations is called upon to provide chemical weapons inspectors for the mammoth task of verification, custody and destruction of Syria’s vast chemical weapons stockpiles, just consider how difficult it was to get even the small UN expert team into Syria, for a short period of time, to investigate past allegations of chemical weapons use. The “modalities,” in UN-speak, took months to negotiate. And we are still waiting for the results from their investigation of the August 21st chemical weapons attack – simply to ascertain that chemical weapons were in fact used, which we all know already, not who used them. We are now told that the results will be made available by this Monday.

Negotiating the mandate and procedures for a more permanent presence of UN chemical weapons inspectors in Syria is sure to run into far more difficulties. As they have already shown, the Russians will not agree to a Security Council resolution with any firm deadline or ultimatum imposed on Syria to surrender its weapons for inspection or face the use of force. Thus, Obama would have to go back into the corner from which Putin rescued him a few days ago. Either he would have to ask Congress for the authority to launch a strike on his own if negotiations with the Syrian regime drag on too long for his taste, or risk domestic and international wrath if he proceeds without any authorization from Congress or the UN Security Council while the UN is still in negotiations.

Even in peacetime situations involving nations that volunteer to give up their chemical weapons, the process of collection, identification, destruction and deactivation can take years. Syria is a war zone. The chemical weapons are dispersed, including in areas where the conflict with the rebels is raging. Security is imperative, as the small UN chemical weapons expert team found out last month when it came under sniper fire and had to temporarily retreat. Even with full cooperation from the Syrian government and military, the al Qaeda forces and their jihadist allies will not stand idly by. They are sure to do everything they can to disrupt the chemical weapons transfer to international control and launch attacks to seize loose chemical weapons for themselves.

As a former UN weapons inspector from Iraq, quoted by the New York Times, said: “We’re talking boots on the ground. Whichever country would be sent in there to try to get the accountability and do the security, and maybe eventually get to the destruction – they will be a target for someone, for one group or another. Because no matter who you are, you get mortared somewhere by one of the parties.”

A Pentagon study concluded that just securing the weapons would take more than 75,000 troops on the ground.  They will obviously be in harm’s way.  Where will they come from?

The United Nations will not say whether there is any contingency planning underway for a UN peacekeeping force to provide security. However, the UN peacekeeping operations are stretched thin as it is, have suffered significant casualties in other missions, and are not set up to handle this kind of massive task.

NATO is a possibility.  Turkey, which is a member of NATO and is a neighbor of Syria’s with the potential for direct exposure to Syria’s chemical weapons, provides a rationale for NATO involvement. However, a NATO-led operation, even if were to be under the auspices of a UN Security Council resolution, is almost certain to run into heavy resistance from Russia, which does not want to see a repeat of the Libya experience. In any case, it is inconceivable that the American people would support a significant commitment of American troops as part of a NATO or other international force contingent, after being assured that there would be no American “boots on the ground” in Syria.

Unless Turkey, Arab League countries and possibly some European countries such as France take up the slack, that leaves Russia itself and the Syrian military as the prime guarantors of security with some other nations’ troops possibly involved for window-dressing. In other words, to carry out Russia’s plan for protected international assumption of control over the Assad regime’s chemical stockpile, the price would be the Assad regime’s retention of power to avoid the specter of complete chaos.

The Assad regime buys significant time. Russia increases its military presence under the pretext of providing security for the transfer to international control. The rebels, including the so-called “moderates” whom the Obama administration says it is supporting, are marginalized.

In short, Russia wins. And the United States, under President Obama, looks weaker than ever.

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