Moscow has quickly exploited Secretary of State John Kerry’s off-the-cuff remark on Monday about how Syria could avoid a U.S. military attack by giving up its chemical weapons.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov swiftly launched a Russian initiative, which Syria immediately welcomed. Now the Obama Administration has been drawn into a Russian-designed diplomatic labyrinth that is likely to alter the direction of U.S. policy without yielding an acceptable resolution of the Syrian chemical weapons issue.
President Obama, who painted himself into a corner by casually announcing his red line against chemical warfare in an answer to a reporter’s question at the tail end of an impromptu press conference in August 2012, now has a vested interest in the success of the Russian diplomatic initiative. The President has been unable to convince the American people, Congress, and the international community that a military strike is necessary against Syria. If the Russian initiative works, it would give Obama a face-saving exit from the current crisis.
But the problem is that Moscow’s diplomatic scheme, which Heritage Foundation distinguished fellow Kim Holmes has dubbed “an off ramp to nowhere,” is extremely unlikely to resolve the crisis. The diplomatic gambit will deflate the Obama Administration’s coercive pressure, reward Syria’s Bashar al-Assad regime with greater international legitimacy, demoralize Assad’s opposition, and increase his chances of survival.
Moscow’s efforts will, unsurprisingly, advance Russia’s national interests, but they will not end Assad’s massacres in Syria. Once again, the Obama Administration has failed to recognize the limits of shared interests with Russia, as recommended by Heritage Foundation analysts Dean Cheng and Ariel Cohen.
Secretary Kerry today is trying to hammer out an acceptable agreement with Lavrov in Geneva, Switzerland. But Lavrov has pushed for dropping the U.S. threat of force, which was the chief motivating factor behind Assad’s sudden offer to put his chemical arsenal under international control.
And it’s not looking any better at the U.N., where Russian diplomats continue to obstruct Western efforts to keep the pressure on Assad. The Russians quickly rejected the initial draft of a Security Council resolution proposed by France because it contained a reference to Chapter 7 of the U.N. charter, which allows U.N. member states to “use all possible means”—including the use of military force—to enforce a resolution.
Even if Russia can be trusted to broker an acceptable deal, Syria cannot be trusted to comply with it. Assad has already set unacceptable conditions for his cooperation, including a halt to U.S. support for the Syrian opposition. In an interview with a state-controlled Russian news agency, Assad proclaimed:
When we see that the US genuinely stands for stability in our region, stops threatening us with military intervention and stops supplying terrorists with weapons, then we will consider it possible to finalize all necessary procedures and they will become legitimate and acceptable for Syria.
In the unlikely event that Russia can be trusted to help forge an acceptable arrangement, Assad actually signs off on the proposed arrangement, and both follow through to safeguard and remove the weapons, the proposed mission would require a significant military presence with a robust mandate and prodigious logistical support in the midst of a civil war. This would require a huge, costly, and risky international effort that could take years to locate, remove, and destroy Syria’s chemical weapons.
Even then, it would be difficult if not impossible to verify that all of the weapons have been removed. But Moscow’s plan would bolster Russian influence, help Assad get away with murder, and increase his regime’s chances of survival. President Obama may call the initiative a diplomatic “solution,” but by limiting the focus to chemical weapons alone, President Obama misses the mark.