Putin, Obama and Syria: Checkmate in one move.


September 15, 2013

Vlad “The Impaler” has thoroughly outfoxed Barack “The Dissembler”, besting the president at his own game with a plan to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal — one of the biggest in the world. The agreement takes Obama off the hook on military strikes where, had the matter gone to a vote in the U.S. Congress, the president likely would have suffered a humiliating defeat.

The laudable goals of the agreement are to ensure that chemical weapons aren’t used again and don’t fall into the wrong hands. However, the flaw in the agreement is that it contains no enforcement mechanism, which is why it may look better than it is. Also, the U.S. has now withdrawn the military threat — a complete concession to Putin. This is not a rabbit out of a hat. This is little more than a temporary, face-saving gesture.

It is also important to remind ourselves what the agreement does not do. It does not end Syria’s civil war. Nor will it see the removal of Syria’s leader, something President Obama called for many months ago. In fact, to implement the agreement both Russia and the United States now need Assad. Obama acknowledged that dictators “depend on the world to look the other way” when they commit atrocities, but that is precisely what is happening now in Syria as the ‘diplomatic path’ is pursued.

Completely lost in the diplomatic gavotte is the unanswered fact that the Assad regime used chemical weapons against its own people. The focus has shifted now to the future for these weapons.

Putin has been clear about Russia’s interests in this crisis from the outset. He considers radical Islam Russia’s greatest threat and he doesn’t want the U.S. to dictate what happens in Syria. Russia is now in the process of consolidating its influence in the region — not just with Syria and Iran, but also Saudi Arabia, which reportedly has sent its own emissaries to Moscow to meet with the Middle East’s new kingmaker.

In stark contrast, Obama has zigzagged erratically, between demanding that “Assad must go” to setting “red lines” — stances which ultimately he was not inclined to support more than rhetorically.

The “unacceptable” use of chemical weapons may fade out of the immediate spotlight, but the long term effects of U.S. dithering offers little hope for the problems besetting the Middle East. No amount of chatter in Geneva or New York, or self-serving pats on the back about pulling a rabbit out of a hat, will erase the stain of ambivalence or retrieve a semblance of credibility for a president who has not had a firm hand on foreign policy.

So it was a remarkably successful week for Putin the diplomat and defender of international law. Much less so for President Obama, now seen as ‘following from behind’, his credibility diminished at home and abroad, with even less room for manoeuvre or for leadership.

The most glaring deficiency still is the lack of a coherent U.S. strategy and the most poignant critique of all is that U.S. policy in the Middle East is “unserious”. It is, in fact, a muddle — and not just in Syria. Events in Egypt show a similar lack of U.S. focus flowing from a similar lack of coherent strategy. Meanwhile, North Korea is restarting its nuclear reactor — no doubt assuming that it will prompt little more than harsh words and finger-pointing.

Iran must sense that the power vacuum now so apparent gives ample scope for its nuclear ambitions. It would be difficult for Israel to draw any comfort from the recent gyrations between posture and purpose. The Asian “pivot” is fading out as any kind of priority for Washington, arousing predictable concerns among U.S. allies in the Pacific.

Closer to home, the domestic battles confronting the president will only intensify. Whether on budget issues or the looming debt ceiling, Republicans — most notably the rabid Tea Partiers among them — smell blood in the water. The art of political compromise is nowhere to be seen.

A leaderless, dysfunctional America is bad news for many — notably America’s neighbours and like-minded allies, none of which is capable of filling the vacuum. The reality in Washington today is much more sombre than bright.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.

About the Authors

Derek Burney was Canada’s ambassador to the United States from 1989 to 1993. He led the Canadian delegation in concluding negotiations of the Canada-U.S. free-trade agreement.