Playing Poker With Putin
How to Win the Next Round in Syria
Foreign Affairs, sept. 16 2013
After talks last week in Geneva between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, the U.S dilemma on Syria has been replaced by a deal. In effect, Washington has traded the threat of imminent force (which it did not want to use) for Moscow’s promise to see that Syria surrenders chemical weapons (which Syria would be hard pressed to use again, anyway). What’s more, Moscow has pledged to push Syria toward a long-stalled international conference to end the war.
Even if Syrian and Russian compliance is only partial, the bargain still represents real progress. The Syrian regime has finally admitted that it has chemical weapons. It will soon be asked to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention, which it has agreed to join, and then to start dismantling its deadly arsenal. In light of the horrific chemical attack last month and the previous diplomatic paralysis, it is hard to overstate just how important a change in attitude that is. Even so, partial compliance is all that this deal is likely to deliver. Russian interests are simply not aligned enough with those of the United States for anything more. U.S. President Barack Obama needs some new cards to play -- and he will have them once he grasps the Russians’ real game.
Implied in the Geneva accord is the notion that Moscow shares Washington's fear that chemical weapons could get into the hands of Sunni extremists. If that were really a paramount concern, Russia would have long ago used its clout in Syria to address such a grave threat. In place of pressure, however, Moscow backed Syria to the hilt, blocking even watered-down UN Security Council resolutions on Syria while supplying the regime with advanced missiles designed to complicate U.S. air strikes.
In truth, Moscow has always seemed to believe that Syria’s chemical arsenal is worth the proliferation risk. If Syria loses its chemical weapons altogether, Damascus would lose its deterrent against Israel. That would tilt the strategic balance toward that stalwart American ally. And that, in turn, would hurt Russian President Vladimir Putin’s goal of boosting Russian influence in the region. The same pessimistic logic applies to the peace process. The Obama administration, particularly Kerry, has tried hard to cooperate with the Russians on talks. The assumption has been that both sides share an aversion to a continued, destabilizing bloodbath or a victory by Sunni extremists. That bid went nowhere, even after Washington conceded this summer that Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad need not step down in advance of peace talks. It is possible that the current crisis over chemical weapons awakened Moscow to the need for diplomacy. The recent election of the moderate Hassan Rouhani in Iran also could have played a role: Among the serious differences separating the United States and Russia over Syria has been the role of Iran in any international peace conference. Not surprisingly, Washington has been less than thrilled about Iranian participation whereas Moscow has said that it is essential. Rouhani’s election might have inclined Moscow to take another run at a formulation for including Iran. In truth, given Russia’s consistent record of obstructionism, it is likely that its overriding objectives -- regime preservation or even outright victory -- remain the same. After deliberation, the Russian leader surely decided that his ability to influence a United Nations-led process to control Syria’s chemical weapons was greater than his ability to influence events should the crisis continue and the United States strike. In Geneva, Lavrov to great pains to emphasize that the UN Security Council (in which Russia has a veto) will be the sole authority for deciding any measures to take in the event of allegations about Syrian non-compliance. Foreshadowing Russia’s position in the event such allegations arise, Lavrov noted how difficult they are to prove and insisted that force, in any event, was ruled out.
If the game was complicated before this weekend, it will certainly grow even more so in the weeks ahead as talks begin.
The United States will be saddled with the burden of getting a fractious Syrian opposition to coalesce around a common negotiating position. In a way, Washington has succeeded in unifying the opposition; unfortunately, in fury over the U.S. refusal to follow through on threats to bomb its enemy. At best, opposition leaders see the chemical weapons deal as a sideshow to a war that has claimed 100 times more lives through conventional means. At worse, they believe it is a ruse that strengthens Assad’s prospects. Unless Washington’s reported decision to start supplying (really this time) the moderate opposition with arms significantly boosts the rebels’ morale or gives them an edge on the ground, the administration will have a difficult time even rounding up delegation for the peace talks slated for next month.
Meanwhile, the Russians must only manage one client -- an Assad who sees that he is winning and wants no part in any compromise of the regime’s monopoly on state power. And since Moscow is not particularly interested in fully removing Syria’s chemical weapons or in finding a negotiated settlement that satisfies all parties, it is likely that, from here on out, Russia will use negotiations to cover for both the regime’s intransigence on negotiations and possible cheating on the chemical weapons scheme. It can count on the fact that the Obama administration’s leverage -- the threat of force in the event of non-compliance -- will inevitably diminish to the vanishing point once Syria demonstrates initial cooperation in the inspection process. Unless Damascus were to actually use chemical weapons again, the United States would find itself even more isolated domestically and internationally if it again broached the idea of force.
Obama and Kerry surely know all that. To avoid falling into the trap, Washington can and should press Moscow to extract concessions from Assad up front that really do advance the prospects for peace. This could be achieved in two steps: first, by restoring the credible threat of American force through a broad -- and obtainable -- congressional authorization. Second, Obama could push Russia and Syria to accept specific, binding United Nations-proposed terms as the basis for peace negotiations. These would cover the core powers and structure of the so-called “transitional government” that would be the basis for a peace settlement. The international communiqué is long on aspirations for the transitional government, but short on the practical elements of how it would function. Addressing at least a few of these, especially the key question of how to share control of Syria’s police, military, and internal security apparatus, would force the Assad regime to demonstrate its seriousness about a negotiated solution to the conflict.
It is true that Russia might refuse to go along with this approach. In that case, Washington loses nothing and gains clear proof of the limits of Russian cooperation. In turn, as Kerry might explain to Lavrov, the United States could use its military deployments in the eastern Mediterranean to make Russia a little more uncomfortable. By contrast, if the Russians pass this early test and play ball on creating a meaningful basis for peace talks, Washington can reciprocate by reducing its naval presence. Such a naval redeployment would be largely symbolic, since the United States would retain the ability to strike Syria with cruise missiles from bases in the region. Still, in diplomacy, symbolism matters.
The fact that the limited peace proposal would have originated with the United Nations and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, not Kerry, would provide a further face-saving measure for the Russians. Having demonstrated their ability to command influence in Damascus, the Russians can hardly claim that they are unable to press Assad to swallow balanced United Nations terms that would impose concessions on the opposition as well. Ban and his Syria envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, are sophisticated diplomats who know where the slender middle ground lies.
So far, Ban and Brahimi have not put forward their views. But former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who led the initial attempt to mediate a solution, showed up unexpectedly at the recent U.S.-Russian parley in Geneva, a reminder of the inherent need for United Nations mediation. Lavrov gave a long, evasive answer to a straightforward question about Annan’s role, suggesting that the former secretary-general was perhaps doing more than just providing encouragement to the Russian and American negotiators.
A nudge from Washington could incline Ban to put a peace plan on the table. At any rate, he has every reason to jumpstart real talks. As the United Nations well knows from its experience in Iraq, the inspections process is thankless and can rapidly become politicized. The inherent challenges of weapons inspection and control are formidable enough without a raging civil war. And United Nations inspectors in Syria will quickly be placed in the uncomfortable position of having to justify their findings to vigilant skeptics, such as the United States, and to protective patrons, such as Russia. If Ban could get the parties to accept a narrow proposal up front, then the prospects for a ceasefire that would actually hold, which would allow inspectors to do their work, would be vastly improved. Likewise, forging common ground between Moscow and Washington on issues that go to the core of the conflict would add badly needed confidence into an otherwise contentious scene.
All of this is possible only if Congress swallows its reflexive “nyet” on Obama’s request to use force in Syria. The palpable relief on the Hill that followed the diplomatic breakthrough with the Russians creates an opening. Obama can return to Congress with a compelling addition to his speech from last week. “Give me your firm authorization to use force in Syria,” he could credibly argue, “so that I never have to use it.” He might continue by saying that the United States has come this far with only the threat of force -- and that it is time to reaffirm that threat to ensure cooperation. Putin’s own patronizing op-ed in the New York Times last week, which congressional Republicans denounced, will give even more resonance to the president’s appeal. Members could point out to their own wary and war-weary constituents that this approach will, paradoxically, reduce the need ever to employ force in Syria. It is worth remembering that Obama asked Congress to delay the vote, not cancel it. He could start those wheels in motion again at any time.
There’s still time for the administration to improve the bad hand it was dealt on Syria. Going to Congress with both a plea for firm authorization to use force, and a plan to convert that threat into further progress on diplomacy, can win over skeptics. Then, by asking the Russians for up front concessions towards peace, Obama will find out sooner rather than later whether he has a real partner in Putin, or playing poker with a four-flusher.