The recent appearance of Russian President Vladimir Putin descending from the heavens to resolve the chemical weapons issue in Syria reminded me of a quote from the classic film, Goodfellas:
If you’re part of a crew, nobody ever tells you that they’re going to kill you, doesn’t happen that way. There weren’t any arguments or curses like in the movies. See, your murderers come with smiles, they come as your friends, the people who’ve cared for you all of your life. And they always seem to come at a time that you’re at your weakest and most in need of their help.
No one can blame those who oppose the horror of war for wanting badly to find a peaceful but effective U.S. response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons on its own people.
Especially not Putin. He has made his career on ruthlessly exploiting the hatreds and fears of the many to benefit himself and the few. So it was a bit disorienting for many to see this enemy of peace and freedom, stepping up to propose a peaceful and sensible approach to resolving this issue with Syria.
It is absolutely reasonable to have seen this as a necessity for Putin, in order to protect his key ally Assad from having his military mortally wounded by U.S. strikes, perhaps to the point of losing the civil war. However, as the generalities of this “miracle” proposal that was made just at the right time and just when it was so desired and needed, transform into specifics, the proposal looks to be nothing more than a sham intended to thwart a U.S. military response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons.
But even though that now seems more likely to have been the intent by Putin, it may succeed despite him.
Putin has announced that he will block any attempt by the U.N. to actually enforce such a deal or recognize the crime behind the need for a deal. He stands squarely against there being any military action against Syria if they renege and don’t get rid of their chemical weapons, he opposes any affirmation that Syria committed the chemical attack and he won’t agree to having those who have committed this atrocity tried in the International Criminal Court.
So this “deal” that Russia is presenting appears to be nothing of the kind. It instead appears to be a facade of a deal to deter a U.S. attack on Syria. Russia is in fact proposing nothing that is substantive or enforceable and is fighting for Syria to be protected against all legal and military actions while they are free to commit war crimes and retain chemical weapons.
It is a deal, a great deal for the criminal Syria regime and Russia but that’s all.
Putin has apparently calculated, like the Goodfella-type gangster that he is, that swooping in at the last minute before a potential and undesired-by-all-sides military attack and making an offer that couldn’t be refused, even though he has no intention to make good on it, would be irresistible to those “suckers” who don’t want greater bloodshed.
In this way, Putin touches many bases. He and Russia win the Megabucks of PR coups, military action against Syria is blocked and Putin gets to stick his thumb hard into America’s eye.
Is this just cynicism? Is Putin just using his unreasonable conditions as a starting point for negotiations? It is possible but perspective is everything, when looking at Putin’s track record, one would be highly challenged to see any decision every made by him that displayed any genuine intent to pursue peace in a conflict in which he has a stake. This alleged proposal is inconsistent with Putin’s long and sordid track record.
This is the guy who assassinates and imprisons those, no matter how powerless, who he sees as opposing him (see: Pussy Riot). He poisons his critics in foreign countries with radioactive material, this is not exactly the background of a modern day Gandhi who will bring a peaceful solution on Syria.
The end game here now seems to be, signal a peaceful and responsible solution to Syria’s use of chemical weapons with one hand while with the other hand, tying up the U.S. and U.N. so they are unable to act against Syria.
This is a big game of geopolitical Risk with many devious calculations by Putin. It may be that he believes that while he goes around in pointless circles with the U.N. insisting on Russia’s sincerity to broker a peaceful response to Syria’s chemical weapons attack but making sure his demands prevent it from occurring, the U.S. could get fed up and attack Syria and then be seen as rejecting the world’s ongoing pursuit of a peaceful resolution and acting as an impatient warmonger. So proposing yet blocking an agreement is a win-win for Russia to stop or demonize a U.S. attack on Syria and make Russia look good on the world stage while destroying America’s image.
There is one flaw to Putin’s plan though, by pulling together the nations of the U.N. over an impending solution to Syria’s war crime, by bringing Syria around to finally confessing their possession of chemical weapons, by allowing the U.N. time to establish the use of chemical weapons and Syria’s guilt in numerous massacres, the momentum to address the war crimes of Syria can take on a momentum of its own that can go beyond Russia’s ability to control.
This may turn out to be a case of delayed but not denied justice for Assad and his regime. The world and the U.S. are war weary and don’t relish the prospects of intensifying the war raging in Syria, let alone the possibility of war spreading in the already-unstable region. However, by holding out the carrot of peaceful resolution then repeatedly yanking it away, Russia could in fact whip up enough resentment and frustration around the world that the reticence to act against Assad becomes outweighed by the intensity of emotion to finally act.
To thwart part of Putin’s plan to weaken and disgrace the U.S., it may mean that the U.S. may have to wait for this twisted game to play out a bit, until its agenda becomes clear to the rest of the world and they too are ready to take action. It would be playing right into Putin’s hand and his scheme to rally opposition to the U.S. (and perhaps Israel) as a warmonger if the U.S. made a military strike on Syria unilaterally. So as difficult as it is to do so, waiting may be the key to success for the U.S..
Perhaps this assessment of Putin and the situation is misguided, perhaps Russia will eventually relent and agree to some kind of meaningful mechanism to forcing Syria to disarm itself of chemical weapons but if that rosier picture doesn’t come to fruition, the U.S. and President Obama need to be prepared to turn Putin’s cynical game against him and Syria and gain international support before taking action against Syria.