President Vladimir Putin’s remarks on the Syrian crisis, while on a visit to Vladivostok in the weekend, were his first ones since the crisis began snowballing over the United States’ moves to launch a militarily attack against the Middle Eastern country.
What is striking from the Kremlin’s transcript is that Putin spoke far more extensively than what the media reports suggested, and, second, he spoke on virtually every aspect of the explosive situation.
The timing is very important, too, as less than a week remains for the major international event G20 summit which is scheduled to be held in St. Petersburg on Thursday, bringing together the world’s top leaders, including President Barack Obama around a conference table.
Certainly, Putin towers head and shoulders above other world statesmen today in taking a highly principled stance, given Russia’s involvement in Syria. Russia's advantage is its deep knowledge of Syria and the Middle East, and it’s a well-known fact that it continues to play a big role to cobble together Geneva 2 conference despite all heavy odds…
The big question is how far Obama has been influenced by Putin’s remarks while deferring his decision to launch a «limited attack» against Syria till September 9, which is what his move to get a US Congressional endorsement amounts to.
Much depends on this big question, because, prima facie, Obama’s decision to defer the attack makes it difficult for him to launch the attack before the US Congress convenes on September 9. By then, the G20 summit will have taken place where Syrian crisis is expected to come up for discussion. Obama will get to sense at the G20 the US’s isolation from the world opinion, which abhors recourse to force in Syria, and Putin has disclosed that he intends to broach Syria with the US president.
On the other hand, it is virtually certain that the US Congress will endorse Obama’s decision to attack Syria. In actuality, the decision to defer the attack by ten days or so will get for Obama more time to rally the European opinion. This is already happening.
The diplomatic waltz over Syria is more and more looking like a cross-step waltz. An infinite variety of variations can be expected to appear in the fateful days ahead. The latest is the strong possibility, reported by LA Times today quoting senior officials in London, of the British House of Commons opting for a second vote regarding participation in US president Barack Obama’s «limited action» against Syria. The leading British newspapers have picked up the story as well.
Indeed, a consensus is possible between Prime Minister David Cameron and Opposition Leader Ed Miliband. Much as Cameron lost face in Thursday’s vote, Miliband too faces criticism from within his party – and from Britain’s western allies – for precipitating a US-UK divergence on a key issue, while Britain as a whole becomes a much diminished power by being nettled in the predicament of a schism with the US on a major international project of immense consequence.
It is useful to recall that Miliband too favored military action against the Syrian regime and his rider was that there should be a «road map» as regards follow-up. Now, what if Cameron is open to that suggestion? Clearly, the dancers are travelling laterally together, as in promenades or grapevines. This is one thing.
Putin alleged that the entire crisis is a hoax («provocation») by «those who want to drag other countries into the Syrian conflict and who want the support of powerful members of the international community, especially the United States.» He implied that a cabal of regional states would have tried to drag the US into direct intervention in Syria, which the Obama administration so far refused to do, much to their chagrin. Putin also doubted the veracity of the US claim — and called into question the intention behind it — that Washington is in possession of «evidence» regarding the culpability of the Syrian regime. He challenged the Obama administration to present the «evidence» rather than take the alibi that it is classified information. Putin stressed that the US lacks a «foundation for making a fundamental decision» to attack Syria.
Washington knows these are impeccable points and hard to dispute with and the Obama administration, therefore, will continue to dance around these troubling questions Putin posed. The secretary of state John Kerry did precisely that in his latest CNN interview on Saturday, «They [Russia] chose, I literally mean chose, not to believe it [Syrian regime’s culpability] or at least acknowledge it publicly. If the Russian president chooses yet again to ignore it, that’s his choice.»
Putin said he saw the G20 as «a good platform» to discuss the Syrian crisis, although it is not a «formal authority» or a «substitute platform» for the UN Security Council. He looked forward to discussing Syria «in an expanded format» with Obama at the G20 next week. To be sure, Putin’s hope is to work on Obama’s calculus and deflect the gravitas away from the military track, and, hopefully, toward resuscitating the Geneva 2 process. It is an ambitious bid and if anyone can swing it today on the world stage, it is only Putin.
However, will Obama bite into it? Here, it is important to clinically analyze the American motivations. There has been a rush to judgment over the weekend that Obama’s decision to defer the attack till the US Congress deliberated signifies that he is «backtracking». Well, he isn’t. On the contrary, all that he is doing by taking the matter to the Congress is that he is gaining time to sort out the European allies, apart from making a smart move to cover his flanks in the domestic American politics.
As for the latter point, BBC’s North America editor Mark Mardell rightly assesses, «Some will say this shows Obama is weak. Rather, it shows his hand is weak… Taking action that is unpopular, with an uncertain international coalition and domestic reluctance, is not a strong position to be in. But it is sensible to make sure the responsibility for unpopular action is shared with other politicians, as Caesar’s assassins knew. It is also canny for domestic reasons to keep a very sour Congress sweet. Some might even argue in a democracy it is the right thing to do».
No more the top gun
There is growing danger today, as a matter of fact, that the «limited action» may well come to assume a much bigger dimension of a broad-based military intervention based on the sort of «road map» that Miliband had proposed — especially if the French parliament also falls in line on Wednesday, which is highly probable, given the fact that the Socialists and the Greens who command majority in the parliament both support military action against Syria, with the French intellectual left providing the requisite stimulus in the public opinion.
In sum, a slippery slope lies ahead and we could even be heading toward a Kosovo-like western intervention in Syria. In fact, that seems increasingly to be the only way Obama can find a way out of the «red-line» trap he cavalierly set for himself on the chemical weapons issue — unless some compromise formula such as the «international community» taking charge of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles appears at the G20 next Thursday.
The point is, if the US’s «limited action» is militarily challenged by Syria and/or Iran and Hezbollah, it could overnight morph into an «unlimited action», as the US is bound to respond with far superior force. (Interestingly, the US continues to augment its naval armada in the Eastern Mediterranean.) It all began as a «limited action» of air strikes on Yugoslavia on March 24, 1999, but when the so-called Operation Noble Anvil ended eleven weeks later on June 10, 1999, a UN mission in Kosovo sailed into view.
What needs to be factored in from the geopolitical angle is that Obama may not even think he has any option other than to act on Syria. Or else, the US’s days as the top gun are finished in the Middle East — ties with Saudi Arabia will come under unprecedented strain; Israel’s security will be seriously affected; Iran will inexorably gain the upper hand both as regional power and in the standoff; and, US will have to negotiate with Tehran from a position of weakness. All in all, failure to act on Syria now will deal a lethal blow to the US’s standing in the Middle East from which it will be hard to recover, and that in turn will turn the tide of the Arab Spring and trigger a host of downstream convulsions on a variety of fronts such as Egypt’s future, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine problem, American military presence in the region and so on. A dangerous period lies ahead.