As war again looms over the Middle East, the world has looked to the so-called “Russian proposal” to keep the peace. Responding to an off the cuff comment by US Secretary of State John Kerry, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s administration has designed a deal whereby Syria would surrender its chemical weapons to international control in order to avoid a US-led military strike to take them out. US President Barack Obama has been receptive, delaying hostile action while the details are worked out through diplomacy.
The outcome remains unknown. Bashar al-Assad will either turn over his chemical weapons to the international community’s satisfaction or he will not. Nevertheless, pro-Putin sources are already hailing the deal as a great Russian diplomatic success. The Russian President himself published a patronizing op-ed in last Thursday’s New York Times admonishing the people of the United States (a majority of whom already opposed the strike) to weigh carefully the risks of foreign intervention. Almost as forcefully, right-wing American media are assailing the Obama administration for having sustained a calamitous strategic defeat, even for having “surrendered.” The Anglo-Canadian media mogul Conrad Black has compared its effect on US great power status to the fall of France in 1940 and, ironically indeed, to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Yet for all the cold war rhetoric and ideological subtexts, it is hard to see how Russia could bask with pride in either possible outcome of its proposal. If Assad does not comply, or complies insufficiently, the US-led strike is still on the table, only probably with more kick. But if Assad does comply, Putin’s “accomplishment” will merely have been to broker his embattled Syrian client’s partial disarmament in the face of a powerful and enduring internal rebellion while simultaneously allowing belligerent foreign opponents to infringe upon his national sovereignty. Without the full use of his military arsenal, Assad’s ability to combat the Syrian rebels will be diminished. Indeed, the Syrian dictator is already trying to add language to the proposal that will require the US to pledge not to arm the opposition in any way. Regardless of the proposal’s final language, the international community’s attention will bear down on his regime with renewed vigilance, waiting either to pounce on him if he violates the agreement or rejoice if his Russian-limited military capabilities help turn him into the next Qaddafi.
We live in an increasingly bizarre world, but this might be the first time in the annals of global diplomacy that working hard to take weapons away from one’s own ally has been declared a major strategic success. Indeed, an honest embrace of the “Russian proposal” could be actually be worse for Assad. If he agrees and is honest about it, he would have to turn over all of his chemical weapons while allowing pesky UN inspectors to comb his entire defense apparatus. If he does not agree, on the other hand, the US-led strike that would likely ensue could very easily overlook important installations and stock piles and leave at least part of his chemical arsenal intact and available for use. Despite all the hagiography, Putin’s vaunted role is little more than that of a sleazy outer borough lawyer counseling a mob racketeering victim to pay up before he gets his thumbs cut off. This is not the stuff of heroic leadership.
Paul du Quenoy is Associate Professor of History at the American University of Beirut, Former Kennan Institute Summer Research Scholar