“Why would you trust Assad,” Mitchell asked Heitkamp. “Assad has, until this initiative, denied there was an attack, denied he was part of it, denied he has chemical weapons. Why on earth would we trust this man to tell us he’s turned them all over to international monitoring and that he is signing a treaty that he’s never redesigned?”
“We’re not trusting Assad,” Heitkamp explained. “We’re trusting the Russians to come to the table…”
“Whoa,” Mitchell interjected. “You’re trusting the Russians?”
“We’re trusting Russia’s intent at this point to actually deliver the right set of circumstances,” Heitkamp clarified.
Their tense standoff, in many ways, is the outgrowth of previously undisclosed calculations about the level of U.S. interest in the civil war in Syria. In early 2012, White House and State Department officials asked themselves what the U.S. might be willing to do to wean Russia from its support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Curtail missile defenses in Europe? Pare plans to enlarge the North Atlantic Treaty Organization?
Their conclusion: These initiatives weren’t worth sacrificing for a deal on Syria, which was then lower on the foreign-policy priority list, say current and former officials who took part in the brainstorming exercise. Likewise, officials doubted such a gambit would work with a Russian leader whose motivations have confounded the U.S…
The idea of horse-trading with Russia didn’t go anywhere in 2012. Today, the official said, it isn’t an option either. Syria may be the “hot button issue of the day” but the White House still won’t link it to what it sees as more-permanent national-security issues, the senior White House official said.
“It’s almost a case of whiplash here in Washington,” Baier reported. “Why isn’t this the U.S. proposal to solve the Syria chemical weapons deal? It is the Russian proposal.
“Why didn’t U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, take to the United Nations Security Council a proposal exactly like this and steer the way?” Baier asked.
“Why didn’t, if the president, as he said to Chris Wallace and five other anchors, talked with Vladimir Putin about this at the G20 conference and that this idea is a continuation of that conversation, why hasn’t that even come up?” he continued.
“Several people I’ve talked to said this was all part of a grand scheme and that rollout was really a way that the administration could orchestrate this, and the Russians could steer the Syrians and all this kind of spin behind the scenes,” Baier revealed. “It’s just tough to stomach all of that watching how it transpired, and how much power Russia is now given on the world stage of steering this diplomatic effort.”
At this stage, though, here’s what Putin seems to have accomplished:
a) He has stalled and possibly ended the threat that his client thug, President Bashar al-Assad, will be struck by American missiles for gassing his own people. As long as the international community is debating the endless complications of finding, verifying and locking down Assad’s chemical arsenal, Congress and the allies have ample excuse to do nothing…
c) He has further demoralized the Syrian resistance, and strengthened the jihadi radicals among them, by demonstrating that American red lines mean little.
d) He has recast Russia – whose military helped the Assad dynasty create its chemical weapons program in the first place – as the global peacemaker…
f) While seeming to help President Obama out of a political fix, he has made the American president seem even more the captive of events. A president who once seemed sure-footed, combining prudent diplomacy with the occasional bold stroke (killing Osama bin Laden) now stands accused of being, as his Texan predecessor might have put it, all hat and no cattle. He vowed to bring the Benghazi killers to justice, to stand against the return of military rule in Egypt, to arm the rebels in Syria, to enforce a red line against weapons of mass destruction. So far, he has accomplished none of the above.
Oddly enough, Putin’s strategy is both ideological and rooted in self-interest. Essentially, Russia strongly opposes any kind of international intervention in a nation’s internal affairs because Putin fears that, one day, that logic may be applied to Russia and its satellites. Russia and China are great, multi-ethnic empires. Both, unsurprisingly, see the post-Cold War theory of the international community’s “responsibility to protect”—known to diplomats as R2P—as a direct threat to their ability to squash internal uprisings as well as a potential excuse for the West to meddle in their affairs. Think Chechnya or Tibet.
Putin is also, for obvious reasons, not a great fan of people-power democracy movements that overthrow corrupt, thieving elites. Thanks to a powerful combination of control of Russia’s vast oil wealth, and a personal ruthlessness honed by years in the KGB, Putin has so far been able to remain in power by imprisoning opponents and flooding his grassroots with State money. More important, he’s built a “power vertical” of loyal governors, police chiefs, and an army of subordinate bureaucrats whom he’s bound to the Kremlin in an unwritten pact: they are allowed to steal with impunity but must remain utterly loyal to Putin, the capo dei tutti capi…
Then there’s the question of respect on the international stage. Putin’s spinmeisters cast him as the man who made Russia a great power again. (He probably believes it himself—despite a slowing growth rate and a price collapse in Russia’s most valuable export, natural gas.) And one of the things the leaders of great powers do is stand up to the United States. For many years Russia opposed US sanctions against Iran (last year’s great threat to global peace)—even though a nuclear-armed Iran is every bit as much of a threat to Russia and its allies in the Caucasus as it is to the US and Israel. The Soviet Union was Washington’s great historic sparring partner; Putin is doing his best to make it so again.
This, in other words, is no light at the end of the tunnel. This, to borrow a phrase from a Congressional staffer at his wits’ end, “is an unmitigated clusterfuck.”…
There are two clear winners in this slow-motion train wreck, and they are not Obama or Kerry. They are Assad and Putin. Both wanted, for their own reasons, to avert a military strike, and a military strike was averted. Putin insisted on a diplomatic solution while doing everything to make a diplomatic solution impossible, and now he gets his phony, unenforceable diplomatic solution. Assad wanted to go on killing his opposition, and he will continue to do so.
Obama, on the other hand, found himself constantly check-mated, either by his own hand, or, this time, by Kerry’s. First, he drew a red line on chemical weapons, seemingly by accident. Then, he all but ignored chemical weapons use by Assad until the evidence forced itself on the world. Then he agonized on whether to act, while Dempsey and the Pentagon rolled him, leaking their military plans to anyone who would listen, “probably,” said one insider, “because they didn’t want to act.” Then, he talked about how limited the strikes would be, all while Assad moved his men and his guns into residential areas and the Russians moved their ships in. Then, out of nowhere, he decided to take it to Congress. “The president says that he’s going to launch strikes and then, suddenly, he’s going to Congress. It’s probably one of the more incredible things I’ve ever seen,” McCain told me. “We were all dumbfounded,” said another Senate staffer…
Obama, meanwhile, took off for Sweden, and, as the town halls roiled with anger, put off his address to the country for the following week. While abroad, he managed to further humiliate himself in the eyes of Putin, who already sees him as weak. Obama, having just called off his bilateral summit with Putin because Russia granted asylum to Edward Snowden, went ahead and met with Putin anyway. It was a pointless meeting—”We both stuck to our guns,” Putin said afterwards—but in Russia, the message was unmistakable: Putin is stronger, and Putin won.
He got himself into it and now Vladimir Putin, who opposes U.S. policy in Syria and repeatedly opposed a strike, is getting him out. This would be coldly satisfying for Putin and no doubt personally galling for Obama—another reason he can’t look as if he’s lunging.
A serious foreign-policy intellectual said recently that Putin’s problem is that he’s a Russian leader in search of a Nixon, a U.S. president he can really negotiate with, a stone player who can talk grand strategy and the needs of his nation, someone with whom he can thrash it through and work it out. Instead he has Obama, a self-besotted charismatic who can’t tell the difference between showbiz and strategy, and who enjoys unburdening himself of moral insights to his peers.
But Putin has no reason to want a Syrian conflagration. He is perhaps amused to have a stray comment by John Kerry be the basis for a resolution of the crisis. The hidden rebuke: It means that when Putin met with Obama at the G-20 last week Obama, due to his lack of competence, got nothing. But a stray comment by the Secretary of State? Sure, why not rub Obama’s face in it.
Reset with Russia was originally a strategic priority for the Obama administration because it saw Moscow as the key to getting Iran to come to the negotiating table. Putin, from the White House’s perspective, was destined for the role of junior partner. Now Putin has turned “Reset” upside down. By helping Obama out of a jam with Syria, Putin has made himself the senior partner to whom the White House is now beholden. Accordingly, when Putin proposes the same sort of deal with Iran, with Russia having established its bona fides as an interlocutor for Syria, Obama is almost certain to jump at it…
Who knows what the Russians told Assad? For God’s sake, just say it’s your chemical weapons arsenal you’re turning over for safekeeping. Send them canisters of perfume, or cat urine. The Americans just want a deal, the president thinks he’s saving face. If the Americans are smart, they’ll let the whole thing drop and call it a win, but knowing them they’ll come back later and complain that you’re not keeping your end of the bargain. No problem. We’ll stall them. And then every time Obama whines it will remind your adversaries and U.S. allies around the world that the Americans are empty suits, a bunch of legalistic bureaucrats who are incapable of standing with their friends.
It’s hard not to be impressed with Putin. A man who up until yesterday seemed merely crass, has revealed himself to be capable of great subtlety. For years his method was so transparent, so obvious, his vulgarities intended to appall and shock the White House. He accused one secretary of state of plotting against him, and another he calls a liar. He gave Edward Snowden refuge. He dispatches his thugs to beat up LGBT teenagers. After a while, the administration learned not to be surprised by anything Putin does. He’s a bully, smitten with his own macho self-image. That’s all true, but now we see that Putin was testing Obama and looking for openings…
The Russian proposal not only saves Obama from having to do something about Syria, it also, and much more important, shows the way forward with Iran. From the White House’s point of view, its credible threat of force made Syria buckle and will similarly bring Iran to the negotiating table. Putin has shown his bona fides as a credible interlocutor with Damascus and will do the same with Iran. Obama can relax now and imagine that he has finally earned his Nobel Peace Prize and that that sound he hears is the tide of war receding.
From Russia’s perspective, this outcome also offers other benefits. Securing Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles, let alone dismantling them, would be a time-consuming and difficult process that would only begin after the sketchy details of the proposal are clarified and approved by all sides. These delays, which could take months, would give Assad more time to crush the rebellion against him, says Konstantin Sivkov, a Russian military analyst who worked between 1995 and 2007 as a strategist for the Russian General Staff. Putin and his top officials have long maintained that a Syria without the Assad regime would be more dangerous than one with it…
Indeed, some Russian officials are enjoying their chance to help Obama find a way out of the Syrian crisis, which has caused the White House plenty of trouble at home and abroad. After the chemical weapons attacks near Damascus on August 21, “I think Obama regrets that he reacted so belligerently,” says a former officer of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, who holds the rank of Major General. “He’s losing face. So this is a chance for the Americans to step back from some of their threats,” he says, asking to remain anonymous.
“That’s where we are. In the United States of America, the most powerful country on earth. The Russians just threw a head fake and we bit.”