Page 1 of 2 Obama moves on Iran, Putin keeps Syria
By M K Bhadrakumar
The euphoria over the Syrian chemical weapons resolution passed by the United Nations Security Council on Friday is swirling around making the headlines, but a sense of dark foreboding also lurks below the surface threatening to spoil the party.
True, after an inordinately long interval when nothing seemed to be going well between them, the United States and Russia agree on something. That calls for celebration. But then, details are emerging that there was much wrangling between the two foreign ministers, John Kerry and Sergey Lavrov, including some tense moments. The trust deficit is palpable.
Potentially significant step
To be sure, there is testiness in the air. President Barack Obama hasn't spoken a word with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir
Putin, since their 20-minute chat during the Group of 20 summit in St. Petersburg almost a month ago.
In his statement on Saturday, Obama was conspicuously modest. The eloquence was lacking. His understanding of the resolution probably needed a clarification by Lavrov on Russian state television the next day.
Obama viewed the resolution as "legally binding, that would be verifiable and enforceable, where there will be consequences for Syria's failure to meet what has been set forth in the resolution", and to that extent he saw that the resolution "actually goes beyond what could have been accomplished through any military action".
Obama noted the resolution's "explicit endorsement" of the Geneva process on Syria. He was "very hopeful" about the prospects but immediately voiced concern "whether Syria will follow through on the commitments" and agreed with "legitimate concerns" as to how the implementation of the resolution will be possible in civil war conditions.
All things concerned, however, Obama cautiously estimated that the Security Council resolution "represents potentially a significant step forward". What probably was not audible was the sigh of relief on his part that a military action against Syria was not necessary - for the present, at least.
Obama's reticence stands in comparison with the triumphalism with which Lavrov claimed the resolution as a victory of Russian diplomacy, which "did not come easy". Lavrov listed the gains:
Russia made sure the professionals of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons will be the main actors in the implementation of the resolution rather than the UN Security Council;
Russia "achieved its goal" of ensuring there are "no pretexts or loopholes" for the use of force, bearing in mind the Libyan experience and "the capabilities of our partners to interpret the UN Security Council resolutions".
The possibility of any military strike against Syria within the ambit of the resolution is "out of question."
Whereas Obama put the onus of implantation of the resolution on President Bashar Al-Assad and his government, Lavrov underscored that the mentors and sponsors of the Syrian rebels bear a special responsibility by ensuring that their "fosterlings" do not indulge in provocative acts.
Lavrov has every reason to be satisfied that Moscow negotiated an optimal resolution. The fact of the matter is that the resolution does not contain any mechanism allowing for sanctions against Syria in the event of non-compliance, leave alone military action by foreign powers.
Russia has blocked any sort of condemnation of the Assad regime for use of chemical weapons. In effect, the American side has tacitly allowed a watering down of its self-defined "red-line- doctrine," while the resolution puts the onus on both the regime and the rebels.
Lavrov glossed over the civil war conditions in Syria and indeed the resolution's major lacuna insofar as it lacks a roadmap towards a ceasefire.
The likelihood of the implementation running into difficulty in a few months down the road is exceedingly high. If that happens, the possibility of the Security Council passing a second resolution under Charter VII of the UN Charter is very remote, given the acrimonious nature of the US-Russia relations at present.
Simply put, Syrian regime's cooperation is entirely voluntary. What needs to be factored in is that the resolution deprives the regime of several billions of dollars worth of military goods, which constituted its strategic deterrent against external aggression.
In the prevailing climate with the protagonists in the civil war locked in mortal combat and looking for outright victory, Syrian regime cannot even be faulted if it chooses to hide away for any emergency a portion of its chemical weapons stockpiles. It could be 10% of the stockpiles, as Henry Kissinger thinks; it could be more; or, it could be less. But the high probability is already being discussed openly.
Turkish President Abdullah Gul was candid in his interview with the CNN over the weekend, warning "we should not fool ourselves" that Assad would comply without the threat of military force. He said, "If it's going to be real cleaning, that will be wonderful. That'll be good for everyone. But if it's going to be given some time, that at the end still there will be some chemical weapons there [in Syria], so that would be a loss of time."
Gul is one of the most moderate voices from his part of the world. Now, coming from a country that is neck deep involved in the Syrian civil war, his words are ominous.
In fact, the attitude of the Syrian opposition groups - and, more important, the regional states sponsoring them - is going to be highly critical. Interestingly, no one is celebrating out there in Ankara, Amman, Doha or Riyadh that on Friday there has been a Security Council resolution on Syria.
These regional capitals, who are power brokers in Syria, feel uneasy that the regime change agenda is being superseded by the chemical weapons initiative.
As for the opposition groups, the picture is even more dismal. They are hopelessly divided and are increasingly at each other's throats but the one thing that brings them together is their common rejection of the whole idea of the chemical weapons initiative.
General Salim Idris, the relatively moderate head of the military council, which notionally supervises the Free Syrian Army, was plainly dismissive, saying all this "does not interest us". The onus lies on Washington to bring on board the ilk of Idris. But, as a Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty commentary admitted,
With the opposition so negative, an enormous amount of diplomacy now must be done to assure rebel groups do not find it in their interest to sabotage the deal in hopes of still getting Western military intervention. But that diplomatic job is complicated by the fact that the fastest rising opposition groups in Syria today appear to be Islamist groups that have few or no ties to Western powers.
When it comes to the hardline groups, the scenario is actually frightening. Last week, 13 major rebel factions rejected the leadership of the Western-backed exiled opposition to announce the formation of an "Islamic Alliance".
The 13 groups are estimated to control tens of thousands of fighters and, as Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty noted, "if the [Islamist] coalition holds, it could mean Western powers would have no influence over what happens on the ground over a large part of the north as well as parts of Homs and Damascus".
Suffice to say, if the Islamist groups find it in their strategic interest to seize the chemical weapons or in any other way to sabotage the Security Council resolution, the US and its Western allies (and Israel) will get sucked into the affair. Cynics may even say that such a specter may just be the alibi needed for a Western military intervention - with or without a second UN Security Council resolution.