On 14 September 2013, US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reached an agreement in Geneva on the full inventorying and subsequent destruction of Syria's chemical weapons and their components.
The agreement comes as a relief not only to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government but also for the US and Russian Presidents – Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin. The aim of this article is to examine what urged Washington and Russia to achieve this agreement at a time when their relationship is at an extremely low ebb.
After the use of chemical weapons on 21 August in an attack near Damascus that claimed the lives of 1,400 civilians including hundreds of children, the White House launched an international campaign against Assad's regime that initially seemed to point towards inevitable US military intervention in Syria.
However, with the US population being skeptical towards yet another military confrontation, President Obama appealed to Congress for approval of launching a limited military action.
The very fact that President Obama decided to seek the approval from Congress has itself become a hot topic of discussion. A segment of American legislators still believe that the US President does not need any Congressional approval for a (military) response to the breach of the almost century-long ban on the use of chemical weapons.
That attitudes towards military action in Syria are mixed in Washington – both towards any military action and because of the suggestion of only a limited military response – was clear from the hearings of the foreign relations committees of the US Senate and the House of Representatives.The voices heard during the foreign affairs committee hearings were not divided on the traditional partisan grounds. It seems strange when one Republican Senator, John McCain from Arizona, votes for a resolution submitted to Congress by the White House – albeit with certain amendments, whilst another Republican Senator, Marco Rubio from Florida, goes against the resolution. What, then, is the matter?
During the committee on foreign relations hearings held at the Senate and House of Representatives, Secretary of State John Kerry (a former Democratic Party presidential nominee who lost to George W. Bush in 2004) emphasized one central idea: we may argue over what a US military operation – even in limited form – against Syria may entail, but one thing is crystal clear – anything is better than inactivity.
It is thus important to realize how the inactivity of the United States threatens the Middle East and the world in general, and from this perspective, to discuss what will result from US military interference in Syria's civil war.
The theory is well known: the inactivity of the United States offers a form of encouragement to dictators, emboldening them to launch yet further waves of repression inside and, perhaps also outside, their countries. The role of the world's policeman neither pleasant nor without cost, but this is precisely what the exceptionalism of the US rests upon: the US is not merely an ordinary country; it is a superpower (in some people's opinion, by the will of god) precisely because it serves as the guardian of morals and international order.
If the US were to deny its exceptional role, it would:
- Threaten the world with chaos;
- Shatter global belief in the capacities of the US;
- Endanger America's allies; and
- Encourage the enemies of the US.
Using the example of the events that have unfolded in the Middle East, this, in turn, would mean:
- Burying the century-old international prohibition on the use of chemical weapons;
- Encouraging Bashar al-Assad to take many more actions that contradict international humanitarian and human rights norms;
- Forcing Turkey, Saudi Arabia and other Islamic allies in the region to adopt a more cautious position in future when it comes to US national interests;
- Emboldening Iran to take more aggressive steps and convincing Tehran that, no matter how close Iran's nuclear program comes to completion, the US will not dare to undertake even limited military actions against it.
Republican Senator John McCain's support for limited military action in Syria is explained by the arguments listed above. However, his fellow Republican, Senator Marco Rubio, does not believe that limited military action will bring about any substantial result. Furthermore, Senator Rubio and a segment of other Republican senators are seeking to exploit Obama's indecisiveness for internal political aims: they are trying to convince the American population that their Commander-In-Chief is not up to the demands of his position. Of course, as one of the potential Republican candidates for the 2016 presidential elections, Marco Rubio is also concerned about whether President Obama will emerge from this situation without losing face or whether any type of settlement of the Syrian crisis will lower the rankings of the President and the Democratic Party.
One should also take into account the opinions of US military experts. A segment of them reckon that limited military action – that is, only air strikes against Syria's military infrastructure – will fail not only to weaken Assad's regime to such an extent that it agrees to enter into peace talks with the opposition, but will also fail to achieve the minimal goal of the destruction of the chemical weapons arsenal.
Under circumstances whereby a vote in Congress on intervention might have brought about a result similar to the recent rejection seen in the British parliament, the acceptance of Russia's proposal by the White House and the conduct of negotiations in Geneva (even if they had ended without result) was the best way out. It was such reasoning that led Obama to ask Congress to postpone the vote and send John Kerry to Geneva.
Holding negotiations in Geneva and achieving a form of agreement with the United States was a necessity for Russia's President, much like it was for the US President who is under domestic political pressure. Vladimir Putin could simply not risk merely pinning his hopes on the US Congress voting against Obama's proposal.
Moreover, Putin feared that even a negative vote from Congress would not have prevented the US from undertaking military action in the Middle East if something unexpected happened in the next few months.
Before the Geneva talks, the Kremlin was facing the threat that the US and its allies would undertake certain measures without the UN Security Council's approval and Russia's right to veto would again be little more than an empty word, just as it was before the start of NATO operations in the Balkans in the 1990s or in the war against Iraq in the 2000s.
Everyone knows perfectly well, and Putin knows that everyone knows perfectly well, that if the US decides to punish Assad, Russia would be unable to do anything. This is the greatest threat for Putin, who has ambitions for Russia to be a global player of the same caliber as the US.
On 11 September (!), Vladimir Putin published an op-ed in the New York Times. The premise of article was, of course, the Syria crisis, but its real underlying motive was to question America's claims of exceptionalism. Putin's effrontery added to the indignation of Obama's critics.
But what is behind this rhetoric? The most unacceptable scenario for Putin is a form of US involvement in the Syria crisis that will not encumber Washington with such extensive multi-year responsibilities as happened in the cases of Iraq and Afghanistan. Limited military actions are exactly the kind which Putin fears because they:
- Would weaken Assad to the extent that the military potential of the Syrian opposition becomes comparable with that of the government forces;
- Fully ignore Russia's interests, showing to everyone that, despite Putin's desires, the Kremlin is not commensurate to Washington; and
- Do not lead to a long-term military involvement of the US in Syria's civil war with specific responsibilities.
Of course, Putin is against a US military attack on Syria, but if this attack is inevitable, then he would prefer to see the US get bogged down in Syria on the same scale as it was in Iraq and Afghanistan; then Moscow will speak about how bad a world policeman America is.
For the time being, Putin has benefitted from Obama's internal political weakness. By at least postponing the start of US military operations in Syria, Putin has evaded the exposure of Russia's military helplessness.
The Geneva Agreement and Its Consequences
International inspectors will arrive in Syria in November and are supposed to destroy all production facilities for chemical weapons throughout that month. According to the plan, the chemical weapons themselves existing in Syria will have been destroyed by June 2014. How realistic this ambitious plan is, will be seen in the forthcoming months.
It is worth noting that if Bashar al-Assad violates the Geneva agreement, the UN Security Council will again have to debate which form of intervention – military or non-military – to pursue in accordance with Chapter 7 of the UN Charter.
Russia gave no pledge in Geneva that it would support a proposal of the UN Security Council on military intervention in Syria should the necessity for such an action appear on the agenda. The Geneva agreement does not envisage the automatic authorization of military intervention in the event of Assad violating the agreement's terms.
Unfortunately, one should expect Moscow to make any possible breach Assad might make to the terms of the agreement as debatable as it previously had made the issue of the use of chemical weapons by Assad's army. To establish any breach would probably entail the setting up of new commissions, conducting new inspections and holding several-months-long international debates.
Moreover, at this stage the agreement changes nothing in the Syrian civil war. The fight between Assad's army and the insurgents continues.It is therefore doubtful that Washington has gained anything from the Geneva talks except for President Obama evading a war which is undesirable for both American society and, more significantly, for him personally.
Instead, Russia maintained its Syrian ally (which it supplies with arms) and has shown to Assad and Russia's other allies that the Kremlin is still capable of containing the US, or at least its current administration. The most damaging development for international order and peace is that although the Geneva agreement refers to the destruction of the chemical weapons arsenal, it says nothing about the responsibility of Bashar al-Assad who has already used those weapons.
In a joint statement Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham expressed their concern that "friends and enemies will take the same lessons from this [Geneva] agreement – they see it as an act of provocative weakness on America's part."
Syria's Crisis and Georgia
The ideal scenario for Georgia is the one which Putin dreads the most – a limited military action in Syria, without the US committing itself to long-term liabilities, which will end in the toppling of the dictatorial regime of Putin's ally. This will underline the global leadership and strength of the US and show Russia's weakness, and on the other hand, it will not encumber US foreign policy to such an extent as to give Russia a free hand for yet more aggressive actions in its neighborhood.
It is easy to be unhappy about Obama's decisions. However, one important thing to understand – which may be of some relief for us – is that the White House has taken a pause not under pressure from the Kremlin (though it used Russia's proposal for that pause), but because of the internal political situation in the US.
Let's hope that Washington fully understands the price of its inactivity.