Maybe Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin really did discuss the idea of putting Syrian chemical weapons under international control last week on the sidelines of the G20 conference. Putin sure doesn’t care that Obama’s taking credit for the proposal, or that the administration is posturing like a Mob enforcer. “The only reason why we are seeing this proposal,” said White House spokesman Jay Carney, “is because of the U.S. threat of military action.”
Right, Putin is laughing to himself. Whatever. If Obama wants to sell it like a Christmas miracle on Pennsylvania Avenue that’s fine with Putin, because Putin won.
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.
What’s unclear is whether Obama understands that his foreign policy legacy will be to have ruined the American position in the Middle East, our patrimony of the last seven decades. If the 1979 takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran signaled weakness, the Russian deal screams surrender. The real surprise is that it’s not Iran kicking the United States out of the region under Obama’s watch, but Putin.
The Syrian government has accepted the proposal because they understand it is an empty formalism. As everyone knows, as even all but the most obtuse White House officials must also understand, Assad will not give up his unconventional arsenal because he cannot. The use of chemical weapons in a Damascus suburb August 21 is evidence that, contrary to the regime’s narrative, Assad and his allies are not routing the rebels. The district that was targeted is a strategically significant node that, among other things, is close to the Dumayr airstrip where the regime is supplied with direct flights from Iran. The rebels had held the territory for over a year, thwarting repeated attempts by Assad’s forces to retake it. Presumably, Assad calculated that given the importance of the area it was worth testing Obama’s red line to take it. Without chemical weapons, Assad fears he may lose the war.
But what’s even more terrifying for Assad is the prospect that he, his family and friends, regime officials, and indeed the entire Alawite community might lose their lives. In the event the regime should find itself in such an existential crisis, plan B is to withdraw from Damascus and head to the coastal mountains that make up the historical Alawite homeland. The question for Assad then is, how to ensure the safety of that retreat? Further, once there how are the Alawites to defend their redoubt from a Sunni community galvanized by a shared vendetta against Assad and his community? From Assad’s perspective, without chemical weapons the Alawites might fall off the face of the earth.
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 president’s supporters and publicists in the press know how to package Obama’s weakness. The fear that everyone else in the world smells emanating from him like a wounded animal is really just humility and modesty—fitting attributes for the leader of a superpower that needs to make amends for having meddled so long in the affairs of others. And besides, this talk of strength and weakness is juvenile—the world is not a schoolyard. And so Obama ignored Putin’s slights and held his head high. This revealed to Putin Obama’s real liability, his vanity. Obama always needs to look good. He will embrace defeat so long as he can still imagine himself a handsome princeling. After pushing Obama around for five years, now Putin escorts him out of the Middle East. Here, friend, take my hand. Let me help you to the sidelines.
As David Samuels wrote last week, Putin’s goal is to replace the United States as the regional power broker. Sure, Russia is less a state than a criminal enterprise with lots of energy to sell, while the United States drives the global economy, but so what? What good are American aircraft carriers if you don’t have the will to use them? Putin will use anything he has to win, while Obama is looking for a reason not to fire a few cruise missiles into the Syrian desert. There is absolutely no chance Obama would risk a shooting war with Iran.
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.
In fact, it is the sound of American allies around the world—the Poles and Czechs, the Japanese and the South Koreans, the Saudis, Jordanians and Israelis, among others—gnashing their teeth. They now see that they are on their own, and that the word of the United States means nothing.