Middle East // Analysis

13 september 2013

Honni soit qui mal y pense

Andrey Kortunov Director General of the Russian International Affairs Council, RIAC member

The recent Russia’s proposal to put Syrian chemical weapons (CW) under international control has been met in the West with a lot of skepticism, mistrust and suspicion. Some say that the Kremlin is simply buying time for its buddy Bashar Assad, so that the latter can get better prepared for the coming retaliation airstrike. Others argue that Vladimir Putin is using his Byzantine tactics to split the fragile pro military action coalition and to put Barak Omaba into an awkward position in front of the still uncertain US Congress. The Russian initiative is often discarded as demagogic, tardy, unrealistic and self-serving.

I have my own reservations about the overall Moscow’s approach to the Syrian crisis, but in this particular case I would suggest granting Putin the benefit of the doubt. First of all, Russians are concerned about CW in Syria. Moscow has never encouraged Damascus chemical ambitions, and since the beginning of the civil war Russian officials stated more than once that the use of CW is absolutely unacceptable and should not be tolerated.

The red line was crossed: CW were used. We still do not know for sure who actually did it. It is very hard to find any rational for Assad to use CW exactly at the moment when he finally agreed to invite UN inspectors to investigate previous allegations. The military situation for Damascus was not so desperate that the regime had to play Russian roulette using weapons of mass destruction. An unauthorized use by rouge military or a provocation by a radical group on the opposition side cannot be excluded – at least for the time being.

But let’s assume for the sake of the argument that CW were used by the Assad regime, no matter who actually pushed the button. Can a limited air strike against Assad guarantee that CW in Syria are taken care of? Not at all. In fact, the opposite is more likely – a serious damage on the government’s command and control systems will be detrimental to the safety of CW stockpiles. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that loose CW in Syria might surface one day somewhere in Central Asia or even in the North Caucasus.

Moreover, foreign policy pundits in the Kremlin do have reasons to be doubtful about the general efficiency of a limited strike or even of a hypothetical large scale US led intervention in the region – the endgames in Iraq and Afghanistan have not been quite reassuring. Being a responsible state leader, Putin should be worried about potential geographical escalation of the conflict in a close vicinity to his country’s borders, above all – about a likely Iranian involvement.

The G20 meeting in St. Petersburg exposed yet another, arguably – even more serious challenge that a military action in Syria might present to Russia’s foreign policy interests. For the first time the majority of leading nations of the world supported the view that a sizeable military action against a sovereign state can be launched without a proper UN Security Council authorization. In other words, they agreed to shortcut the institution that has been the centerpiece of the global security system since mid XX century. A striking difference with the operation in Iraq ten years ago, when US failed miserably in trying to line up its NATO allies! A potential marginalization on UN should be a nightmare for leaders in the Kremlin, who still heavily rely on the Russia’s position as a UN Security Council permanent member and the veto power that goes with this position.

The Russian plan to put the Syrian chemical arsenal under international control is easy to criticize. It is an ambitious proposal and when rubber hits the road, many things may go wrong. Assad may cheat. International inspectors may be targeted by extremists from both sides. Participating countries may disagree on specific procedures. Physical destruction of CW may take years and cost billions. And so on, and so forth. But if the plan works out, it can well be a game-changer at least in two very important respects.

First, it would be the first significant concession of the Assad regime during the two and a half years of the civil war. The first step is always the most difficult one; after it is made, we can expect more flexibility to be demonstrated by moderate factions in Damascus. International control of Syrian CW would mean a de facto deployment of UN peacekeeping units. A non-military international engagement can gradually be built on, including UN humanitarian assistance programs, human rights and community rehabilitation NGOs, international media, etc. Such opportunities are not likely to emerge in case of a military strike against Assad.

Second, a joint action in Syria may well become a game-changer in broader relations between Russia and the West. A consorted effort in a sensitive and critically important matter like Syria is exactly what we need to reverse the current negative trend in these relations, saturated with mistrust, artificial crises and archaic Cold War rhetoric. If successfully implemented, the Russian plan on Syria would help to reach common ground on Iran, missile defense and similar disputed issues. It could become a powerful catalyst for a new US – Russian reset.

One can argue that with his new proposal Putin is trying to still the show from US and its allies and to position himself as the ‘savior of Syria’. Such a conclusion could be pretty irritating indeed. But we should keep in mind that even if the CW problem is successfully resolved, it is not the end of the Syrian tragedy. To stop the civil war and to rebuild the country will require much more than to handle one particular type of military hardware. The sheer scale of the Syrian problem gives enough room for action to everybody who is willing to make a contribution to its solution.

Source: Le Monde

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Andrey Kortunov, “Honni soit qui mal y pense,” Russian International Affairs Council, 13 September 2013, http://russiancouncil.ru/en/inner/?id_4=2345

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