SYRIA IN CRISIS Obama invites Rouhani to join great game
By M K Bhadrakumar
It was vintage Barack Obama, hitting back when he is supposed to be at his weakest. The US president said it in a flat tone - almost casually - towards the end of his interview focused on Syria with George Stephanopoulos of ABC news, which was telecast on Sunday.
The exchange was as follows: STEPHANOPOULOS: What do you think Iran makes of all this? ... Do you think they can look at all this and say, "Maybe all options aren't on the table, you're not willing to use force?" OBAMA: No, I think - I think the Iranians, who we communicate with - in - indirect ways - STEPHANOPOULOS: Have you reached out personally to the new president [Hassan Rouhani]? OBAMA: I have. And - and he's reached out to me. We haven't spoken - directly. But - STEPHANOPOULOS: Letters.
The Middle Eastern politics and international security have been
thrown into a tizzy.
Obama's interview was riveted around the issue of Syria's chemical weapons and the criticism he faced domestically for his apparent zig-zag.
Obama asserted that he acted according to a game plan to employ the Russians to take out Syria's chemical weapons on a contract job, as it were, which would also have the tangential gain of opening the door open to serious negotiations for a political transition in Syria.
But in a display of smart power, he has got in touch - through back channel and personally - with the Iranian leadership with a view to bringing Tehran also into the matrix.
Primary sponsor as broker
Three three things emerged in Obama's interview: one, the chemical weapons deal brokered by Russia can lead to political transition in Syria; two, the US approach to Russia remains one of selective engagement; and, three, direct US-Iranian talks are commencing, finally.
Obama made a persuasive case. He has forced the Syrian regime out of its denial mode to acknowledge for the first time its chemical weapons stockpiles and to join the international convention banning the use of such weapons and got the Russians who are the Syrian regime's "primary sponsors" to volunteer they'd "push Syria to get all of their chemical weapons out of the country".
Obama spoke just before the deal was formally struck in Geneva on Saturday, but he fully factored in that the Syrian issue is about to come under Chapter VII of the UN Charter and an Iraq-like framework is being put in place through a UN Security Council resolution that:
contains steps to ensure verification and effective implementation of the deal;
defines the UN's role in eliminating Syria's chemical weapons;
provides for Security Council review of the implementation on a regular basis;
also provides for Security Council imposing "measures" under Chapter VII in the event of non-compliance by Syria.
The Geneva deal also harmonized US and Russian estimation of the amount and type of Syria's chemical weapons and expects the Syrians to:
turn in within a week their inventory list within a week, including the location and form of storage;
provide "unfettered access" to the UN and Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) personnel to "inspect any and all sites" in Syria who will work on the control, removal and destruction of the stockpiles;
Alongside, Obama maintained that a foundation is also being laid for an international process to begin over a political transition in Syria.
The expectation is predicated on the defanging of the Syrian regime via the Geneva deal and the incremental shift that would follow once Russia realizes that continued support of President Bashar al-Assad is unsustainable in the world opinion.
Obama didn't speak of regime change as such, but he thinks it is becoming apparent that Assad has lost legitimacy and as long as he remains in power there is going to be "some sort of conflict there" - which in turn would compel Russia to look at a "post-Assad" scenario for Syria.
In this scenario, Obama visualized a major role for Iran in the peace talks. Washington is factoring in that there are diplomatic brownie points to be made out of the genuine horror with which Tehran views the use of chemical weapons in Syria or anywhere, having been a victim of Saddam Hussein's horrendous attacks during the Iran-Iraq War.
Obama didn't say anything by way of anticipating the contents of the UN inspectors' report due for release in New York on Monday, but he seemed to suggest that the Syrian regime's position - and of "Assad's sponsors, primarily Iran and Russia" - will become increasingly untenable, which in turn will give impetus to the search for a settlement.
Against this backdrop, Obama held out two tantalizing assurances to Russia (and Iran):
"The United States can't get in the middle of somebody else's civil war. We're not gonna put troops on the ground. We can't enforce - militarily - a settlement there."
"... this is not the Cold War. This is not a contest between the United States and Russia. I mean the fact of the matter is that if Russia wants to have some influence in Syria - post-Assad, that doesn't hurt our interests."
Obama spoke candidly on US-Russian relations to the point of being blunt. He insisted caustically that he and Putin have nothing in common in terms of values or politics, hinting he is being pragmatic because he needs to work with the Kremlin leader on issues where the interests of the two countries "converge".
Obama delimited Putin's "important role" as one of volunteering to take up "responsibility for pushing ... [Moscow's] client, the Assad regime". Obama hit hard where it hurts, saying,
Well - you know, Ronald Reagan said, "Trust but verify." And I think that that's always been the experience of US presidents when we're interacting with - first, Soviet leaders, and now Russian leaders.
Nonetheless, Obama explained, working with Putin despite "strong disagreements on a whole range of issues" has been profitable. He listed as example the Northern Distribution Network to supply the North Atlantic Treaty Organization troops in Afghanistan.
Clearly, if anyone in Moscow ever fancied that working together on Syria would make Russia an "equal partner" for the US, it was wishful thinking.
Templates shifting ...
All in all, Obama underscored that selective engagement of Russia will be his mantra and he will remain wary of Russian intentions. It's not difficult to see that after the affair of the ex-CIA whistleblower Edward Snowden, where Moscow outmaneuvered Washington brilliantly, something has changed in the way Obama is going to deal with Russia in the remainder of his term.
Obama will deal with Russia to the minimum extent necessary limited to specific issues but beyond that there is unlikely to be any interest in reviving or recasting the reset.
It indeed comes as surprise that Obama harped on the US-Russia differences and what differentiates him from Putin just when their foreign ministers displayed great bonhomie in Geneva. A Beijing datelined Xinhua commentary on Sunday probably hit the nail on the head:
The diplomatic breakthrough [in Geneva] lessened the possibility of US military action for the moment ... Clouds of uncertainty, however, loom over the deal. And concerns regarding the upcoming implementation process persist. ... For one thing, the deal, though prescribing no military options, does not rule out the possibility of military intervention; for another, Syria's volatile situation could still hamper or even halt the agreement's implementation.
In other words, the two-faceted Syrian crisis, an ongoing civil war plus threats of foreign military intervention, suggests a bumpy road ahead when the agreement is to be carried out.
The stunning part of the ABC interview was Obama's tacit acknowledgement that the templates beneath the great US-Iran standoff have finally begun to move.
... as estranged allies meet
Interestingly, on Saturday, the influential chairman of the Iranian parliament's national security and foreign policy commission, Alaeddin Broujerdi, suggested that the next round of the P5+1 (the US, Britain, France, Russia and China plus Germany) talks might be held in Tehran. If that were to happen, a visit by a top US diplomat to Tehran becomes necessary and it would be the first since the US broke off diplomatic relations with Iran on April 7, 1980.
Again, Tehran also announced on Sunday that Rouhani has "agreed to meet" British Foreign Secretary William Hague "at London's request" on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meeting in New York later this month.
In sum, traction can develop in the incipient US-Iranian engagement much sooner than one may imagine. What is the big picture?
To be sure, Obama continues to dribble with the Syrian ball, contrary to an erroneous impression that he gave it away to Putin for good and left the soccer field for the stands.
Obviously, Putin's scathing criticism of US policies in his controversial op-ed in the New York Times last week in full view of the American public did touch a raw nerve in the White House - especially his mockery of America's exceptionalism. Putin may have scored in public diplomacy but it may prove a short-lived success.
Thirdly, from the American viewpoint, it pays to play the Russians and against the Iranians. The Russian-Iranian ties have been under stress and mutual trust is lacking.
Washington ought to know this better than anybody, because one of the key objectives of the US-Russia reset during Obama's first term was to derail Russia-Iran relations by persuading Moscow to resile from the S-300 missile deal with Tehran.
In fact, Obama mentioned more than once Iran's role in negotiating a Syrian settlement. He said he trusted the Iranians to have the intellectual sophistication to figure out that the latest happenings over the Syrian chemical weapons testify to the "potential of resolving these issues diplomatically".
Obama estimated that negotiations with Iran are going to be difficult but expressed optimism that "you can strike a deal" if the US combines its credible threat of force with a "rigorous diplomatic effort".
On the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Bishkek last week, both Chinese President Xi Jinping and Putin discussed the nuclear issue with Rouhani. It is unclear whether Rouhani took Xi and Putin into confidence regarding his communications with Obama. At any rate, Obama's comments foreclose the need of any third-party role in the US-Iran tango.
Obama knows Iranians, too, prefer to keep things that way - direct cogitation without third parties tapping into the electrified air when two long-estranged allies get along together again.
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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