SYRIAN CHEMICAL WEAPONS Putin lures Obama towards engagement
By M K Bhadrakumar
Through an agonizing Tuesday, with the prospects alternating between good, indifferent or bad, the idea of the international community taking control over Syria's chemical weapon stockpiles seemed struggling to take off.
But at the end of the day, President Barack Obama decided to set aside false pride and revive the idea with his extraordinary national address, virtually relegating his own earlier decision to undertake a "limited action" against Syria as his Plan B, while
upfront exploring the "encouraging signs" that a negotiated deal could be possible.
He sized up that the country isn't ready for war, the political class is reluctant, and his own instincts favoring dialogue and negotiations in preference to war have a fair chance to prevail in the national discourse.
Obama qualified that it is too early to say whether the diplomatic track will reach anywhere but there is "potential" to remove Syria's chemical weapons without the use of force. So, he asked the US Congress to defer the vote on the ''Authorization of the Use of Military Force'' (AUMF ) while the US military keeps its "posture" on Syria even as he's "giving diplomacy a chance".
Obama pointedly recalled his "constructive talk" with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in St Petersburg last week and explicitly acknowledged that Russia has "shown willingness" to work with the US. He disclosed that Secretary of State John Kerry will visit Moscow on Thursday and he himself will follow up with President Putin.
Obama sidestepped the tendentious French move on Tuesday to moot a Security Council resolution under Charter 7 of the UN Charter (which Russia brusquely rejected) and instead stressed that the US would seek a resolution by the UN Security Council in consultation with Russia and China.
He simply ignored the audacious Saudi-sponsored statement by the Gulf Cooperation Council issued earlier in the day from Riyadh insisting that chemical weapons is not the agenda in Syria but regime change.
Clearly, Obama has put the ball in the Russian court, taking note of the news from Moscow that it is fleshing out a detailed plan on Syria's chemical weapons. But what clinched the issue, finally, would have been Putin's extraordinary interview in Moscow on Tuesday on the issue even as Obama was giving the final shape to his speech in Washington.
The big picture
Putin elaborated on what he had hinted en passe at his news conference in St Petersburg after the G-20 last Friday where he had said,
Incidentally, we [Putin and Obama] have agreed on some possible scenarios designed to settle this [Syria] crisis peacefully. We've agreed that Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Secretary of State John Kerry will be in touch in the near future to discuss this very sensitive issue.
Avoiding any blame game that Kerry instead jumped the gun publicly in London, Putin calmly reaffirmed, "We [Russia], too, think this is a serious matter which requires thorough consideration."
Putin underscored that "this is a viable option ... a big step forward" - bringing Syria's chemical weapons under international control, "also to have them destroyed" and getting Syria to join the international convention.
But he hoped the Syrian government would "take this responsible decision", implying there are limits to Moscow's capacity to influence Damascus. Putin cited two inter-related reasons.
One, "Syrians have always regarded it [chemical weapons] as a counterbalance to Israel's nuclear stockpile." Two, Putin said,
... all of this will only mean anything if the United States and other nations supporting it tell us that they're giving up their plan to use force against Syria. You can't really ask Syria, or any other country, to disarm unilaterally while military action against it is being contemplated.
Putin suggested, in essence, that Syria also deserves some sort of security guarantee from aggression.
But he made it clear he's not setting pre-conditions: "We will work together with Syrians and our partners, and ... I hope this will be a big step forward towards a peaceful resolution to the resolution to the Syrian crisis."
Indeed, the fine print in a Putin statement needs to be explored, too. Embedded within his statement was an innocuous line:
In fact, the matter of bringing Syria's chemical weapons under international control has long been a subject of discussion by experts and politicians.
He thereby hinted the Russians also have a "big picture". The heart of the matter is that the idea of safeguarding the Syrian chemical weapons is at least one year old.
Senator Lugar's pupil
It was publicly mentioned by the venerable statesman and former US senator Richard Lugar during one of his periodic visits to Moscow in August last year, when he proposed that the US and Russia could join hands to eliminate Syria's chemical weapon stockpile.
Lugar drew inspiration from the US-Russian cooperation within the framework of the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program in the early 1990s to safeguard the Soviet-era stockpile of nuclear and chemical weapons that Russia inherited and was unable to handle in the chaotic Boris Yeltsin era as well as to deactivate 7,500 nuclear warheads that were located in the Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus when the Soviet Union collapsed.
Lugar proposed that similar US-Russia cooperation could be stretched to Syria as well. Being a key figure in the US foreign policy establishment, it is entirely conceivable that he carried a brief from the Obama administration to sound out the Russians.
Now, as a young senator, Obama regarded himself as a protege ("pupil") of Lugar; he had served in the Nunn-Lugar program (which took him on his only visit to Russia before becoming president).
In fact, the 20th anniversary of the Nunn-Lugar Program was one of the first public functions that Obama attended on December 3 last year after getting re-elected. He made a remarkable speech on that occasion in Washington where he hailed the track record of the Nunn-Lugar "far beyond the old Soviet Union". Obama said,
Nunn-Lugar is the foundation for the vision that I laid out, once I was elected president, in travel to Prague - where nations come together to secure nuclear materials, as we're doing with our Nuclear Security Summits, where we build on New START and continue to work to reduce our arsenals; where we strengthen the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and prevent the spread of the world's most deadly weapons; where, over time, we come closer to our ultimate vision - a world without nuclear weapons.
Suffice to say, Putin factors in that disarmament is a key policy agenda for Obama. Putin cannot be oblivious of the potential of the Russian plan on Syria going far beyond the resolution of the immediate conflict situation at hand in the Eastern Mediterranean.
It could be Syria today that Russia is working on alongside the Obama administration. But it could as well be on Iran tomorrow. And incrementally, Obama also would need to think about addressing Russia's core concerns - missile defense, for instance.
A paradigm shift
Working with the Obama administration as "equal partner" has always been Putin's core Russian foreign-policy objective and any constructive cooperation over Syria can possibly change the entire alchemy of Russian-American relations.
The pro-western Russian elites who dominate policymaking in Moscow whole-heartedly welcome Putin's working relationship with Obama. For the majority of Russian people, at the same time, Putin's brilliant handling of the Syrian crisis has enhanced the country's image and international standing.
To be sure, an interesting paradigm shift is taking place as the Russian leadership identifies with American public opinion, with which Obama also instinctively empathizes, as his speech on Tuesday night amply bears out.
On the other hand, many of the "cold warriors" in the Washington establishment who harbor antipathy toward Russia also happen to form a vocal segment of the war camp clamoring for regime change in Syria - whom Obama is neatly sidestepping by his decision to work with Russia. Meanwhile, the US-Russia cooperation over Russia will further erode the "enemy" image of Russia in the American public perception.
Of course, the war camp can be expected to tear Obama apart in the coming days and weeks for his zigzag on Syria. The Saudis and other Gulf petrodollar states will also mount sustained counterattacks through their lobbies in Washington and in Paris.
They (and Turkey) will also be seething with frustration that the more the diplomatic process advances in the coming weeks, the greater the chances of the US resuming engagement of the Bashar al-Assad regime at some point.
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India's ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001).
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