Middle East

Sep 11, 2013

Russia may yet offer US a Syrian lifeline

The United States may have been given an opportunity to avoid military intervention in Syria while saving face. But will Bashar Al-Assad really play ball?

Professor Damien Kingsbury

Crikey international affairs commentator

Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad's sudden willingness to put its chemical weapons under international -- i.e. Russian -- supervision might allow the regime to avoid a US attack while at the same time preserving its advantage in Syria's civil war. Despite tough rhetoric from the United States, if an agreement can be reached on the modalities of safeguarding the chemical weapons, the US can avoid becoming embroiled in the Syrian conflict while still, more or less, saving face. President Barack Obama's delineation of the "red line" that would trigger intervention if crossed trapped the US into acting in Syria. Not to do so would have been a serious blow to the US’ pre-eminent standing in global affairs. But to strike without UN Security Council approval would have drawn international opprobrium and likely have escalated involvement by Russia and Iran. The logic of intervention, too, would be to step up from "degrading" the Assad regime’s capacity to use chemical weapons and probably damaging its air power to damaging the regime’s wider capacity, allowing greater prospects for regime change. At this stage, the US is not backing down on its internal discussions about attacking Assad's regime. But its rhetoric should now be read primarily as keeping up pressure on Russia to finally act to help moderate the conflict. Having Russia involved in Syria would help prevent the US from being drawn into a no-win situation. Should the US intervene, it will create four problems that do not currently exist. The first problem is that any hope for detente with Russia would collapse, raise the spectre of opposition on a range of other global issues the US is trying to manage, including China’s strategic manoeuvring, a nuclear armed Iran, and a mad and bad North Korea. It would also damage the opportunity to work with Russia on the mutual concern with the spread of international jihadist Islamism. The second problem is that any US intervention in Syria would turn a number of its Middle Eastern friends into critics, based not on their strategic alliances but on the "great unbeliever" again imposing its will on Islamic land. One should not underestimate the offence to Muslims caused by non-Islamic military involvement in Islamic countries. The third problem is that if the Assad regime were to fall, Syria’s patchwork of over a dozen ethnic groups would descend into an ethnic cleansing bloodbath. The conflict would also almost certainly spill over into Lebanon and further destabilise Iraq and perhaps Jordan and would pose a greater threat to Israel. The fourth problem is that while few like the Assad regime, everyone but Saudi Arabia and Qatar are much more concerned about the likely jihadist Islamist alternative. Should Assad be toppled, the Syrian Islamic Front -- a coalition of radical Salafi jihadist organisations linked to al-Qaeda -- would very likely defeat the alternative anti-Assad Free Syrian Army. This would create a combative Islamist state in the heart of the Middle East. The US and Russia would be equally aghast at this eventually. At least with Russia now offering to "safeguard" Syria’s chemical weapons -0 if with conditions - the possibility they will fall into the hands of a combative Islamist state would be removed. And the US may be able to avoid again setting itself up as Islam’s "great Satan". Assuming it can obtain sufficient guarantees, the US will likely accept Russia’s offer. More than punish Assad, the US wants to preserve its credibility while extricating itself from a situation it has never wanted to be in and that, on balance, it knows will only get worse. *Professor Damien Kingsbury is director of the Centre for Citizenship, Development and Human Rights at Deakin University

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3 thoughts on “Russia may yet offer US a Syrian lifeline

  1. Mike R

    Again, another excellent piece from Damien Kingsbury.

    I just hope it doesn’t unduly upset the herd who reflexively adopt their default positions when it comes to the Middle East.

  2. Dan B

    Damien, seriously?

    Why were you chosen to write about the Syrian conflict if you were not prepared to communicate about the entire subject? This is such a porous and vague article, I am highly surprised this came from you.

    Could it not be possible that al Assad’s “sudden willingness to put its chemical weapons under international — i.e. Russian — supervision” would also eliminate any future suspicion that he or his regime have no, or had no desire to use them? That is a question I would ask. And what advantage are you speaking of with regards to the Syrian Government? Not only is he, his family and his Government being threatened by islamic militant thugs, but it would appear those islamic militant thugs have the weight of the US currently behind them. An advantage I think not.

    “Despite tough rhetoric from the United States, if an agreement can be reached on the modalities of safeguarding the chemical weapons, the US can avoid becoming embroiled in the Syrian conflict while still, more or less, saving face.” You’re kidding right? Since it was Putin’s proposal to safeguard Syria’s vast chemical weapons stockpiles (allegedly 1000 tons spread over 50 sites) this not only demonstrates that Obama and the US Administration can not come up with alternatives other than all out war, it shows that the Russians remain the regional power who are able to interject and dominate a more peaceful proposal than the US. It is therefore, certainly highly unlikely to save Obama any face whatsoever. Further, Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles are spread out over an expansive distance (that we know of). Safeguarding them requires boots on the ground. Who do you assume that job will go to? The Russians? The US? The UN? – Ha! So in fact, the proposal by Putin does significantly embroil the US into the conflict since it effectively increases the profile on the ground, and contradicts Obama’s initial “punitive airstrike” proposal. But it also corners the US into “chasing it’s tail” on anything proposed. Moving along; “But its rhetoric should now be read primarily as keeping up pressure on Russia to finally act to help moderate the conflict.” Damien, Russia is the only country acting (at least overtly) to moderate the conflict – without any pressure at all. The Russian’s currently own Obama and his Administration over the Syrian issue(s). But unfortunately this has now developed into a pissing contest between Russia and the US, it’s becoming less about Syria. It’s just unfortunate that Syria and the Syrian people, to include, perhaps (bold/underlined), Bashar al Assad and elements of his Government are caught in the middle. Very, very unfortunate.

    Let’s look at your 4 currently non-existent problems;
    1) Putin’s proposal is not unlike professionals playing chess. He has made a “check” call against the US knowing that if the US agrees, deploys troops to “secure” the CW’s they will be bogged down in another protracted, massively expensive, unpopular campaign. Thus providing more time for Russia, Iran et al to continue doing what they want. They have enjoyed this for the last decade plus. The relationship between Russia and the US soured when Russia gave sanctuary to Ed Snowden, it continues to remain sour. (not to mention the blatant DoS sponsoring of Russian “NGO’s” who Russia see as a tool of instability…)

    2) The real problem to any US intervention is who they will be supporting. It’s apt that I raise this today, the 12th Anniversary of the Sept 11, 2001 WTC disaster – huh? The evidence that the Syrian “rebels” have conducted joint operations with known Al Qaeda (AQ) affiliated groups is abundant. The evidence that US/Western funds/weaponry have already fallen into, and are being used by AQ affiliated groups is rife – and factual. The evidence that the Al Assad Regime deployed CW’s against its own people is not yet known. The Al Nusrah Front, the ISIL, the PFLP-GC – all AQ affiliates have publicly stated they will destroy Al Assad for his alleged use of chemical weapons against Syrian civilians. Therefore any type of military intervention by the US and or a coalition is fraught with conspiracy to act with a known enemy. It is simple.

    3) “The third problem is that if the Assad regime were to fall, Syria’s patchwork of over a dozen ethnic groups would descend into an ethnic cleansing bloodbath.” This is already happening. Christians, shiites – anyone who opposes the “rebellion” are already being specifically targeted and killed by; guess who – yep, those guys who Obama and his “mates” have already armed and intend to support in a military intervention. Talk about disrespectful…

    4) It is interesting that you mention Saudi Arabia and Qatar here. The Saudi’s just want Al Assad gone because he is getting too cozy with Iran (the arch enemy to sunni/wahhabi muslims) and is a protégé state of the Russians. But Qatar, hmm – Qatar v. Russia (in affect Qatar/US/EU v. Russia) is an interesting topic. Since Russia is heavily focussed, and reliant on its energy sources, the proposed LNG pipeline that would run from Qatar (one of the world’s largest LNG producers) and transit Syria en-route to Europe would have quite a negative impact on Russia’s state energy giant GASPROM. I didn’t want to start talking about the dreaded and “conspiratorial” subject of “war for fossil fuels” but the open source information that is readily available is definitely something that requires further investigation. The Saudi’s have no right being concerned with islamic jihadists since we, the Western World know they are the largest state sponsors of global jihadism ( you may scream “no, it’s Iran!”, but you would be wrong). Qatar has everything to gain from a regime change in Syria because Al Assad refuses to allow their LNG pipeline to transit their country – at the behest of the Russian’s I might add…

    This whole thing is a complete disaster, and one without a decent or peaceful outcome for the poor Syrian’s who are caught in the middle. I wish I had the solution, but I don’t. But I don’t think the US, the Russian’s, the UN – anyone outside Syria has either. The support of all Syrian “rebels” must cease immediately if any legitimacy is to be regained by the international community. But until then, and more so, until it is without doubt, that the Syrian Regime, at the request of Bashar al Assad attacked Syrian civilians with chemical weapons – the west must tread extremely cautiously and stay out of it. The smoke and mirrors on this subject are without historical peers…

  3. AR

    DanB – double plus good.

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