Tuesday, September 10, 2013

What Lies Behind The Syria Deal?

I probably should not be posting this, but it seems that I see stuff in this emerging deal between the US, Russia, and Syria that I have not seen put together in one place so far.  Even the usually astute Juan Cole falls short today with http://www.juancole.com/2013/09/congress-embarrassing-themselves .  Most of this post is on the money, but he makes simple errors, such as saying that the G20 happened in Moscow rather than Saint Petersburg and also claiming that somehow Putin sprung this new deal on Obama after Kerry made his "offhand remark" about international control of Syrian chemical weapons.  This does not appear to be what is the situation at all, but it is also worth looking further into what is lying behind each party's behavior, with indeed Juan Cole providing the key for part of this.  It does look like it could be a big win all around, with indeed the post cited above listing many of those gaining, including the US Congress and the European Union, besides the core parties.  I wish to focus on them.

First of all, this is almost certainly not some random odd job that just popped up out of nowhere.  US Press Secretary Jay Carney has now said that this was negotiated "last Friday" in St.Petersburg.  I am astounded that Juan Cole has not caught that, see http://www.viralnewschart.com/ShowLink.aspx?linkld=12823271 , and go to "read more."  OK, so some who want to show Obama and Kerry as just bumbling fools being played by the brilliant Putin are claiming that Carney is just lying.  But there are very good reasons to believe otherwise, quite aside from the fact that all main parties gain from this, as well as all those subsidiary ones that Juan Cole mentions.

What is the main evidence that Carney is not lying?  It is how swiftly both the Russians and the Syrians responded favorably after Kerry made his remark and how quickly the US then responded to their favorable responses. This sort of thing only happens when it is planned ahead of time.  Kerry's remark was not "offhand."  It was planned and the Russians and Syrians were simply waiting for it.  This should be pretty obvious.  But what is in it for them?

Probably the biggest mystery is the Russians.  There are several factors, all of which come back to the fact that even though Congress was likely to vote Obama's request for war powers down, he had made it clear he felt free to act even without their approval.  On top of this is the perception that the chemical weapons are not under even good long term control in Syria and arguably not even under good short term control either.  The long term issue amounts to that even without an attack by the US, which would inevitably aid the rebels at least somewhat, the probability that Assad will lose to the rebels is non-trivial.  In that case, it could well end up that an anti-Russian Sunni radical regime might come to control those weapons, and that such a regime could easily start supplying them to Muslim rebels against Russia in such places as Dagestan, where our Boston bombers came from.  This could also ultimately impact their Winter Olympics, with Sochi not all that far from these troubled zones.  Russia has a real interest in getting these weapons under international control and out of the possible hands of a radical Islamist regime, quite aside from not wanting to see its client, Assad, fall from power, thus endangering their only naval base outside of the old Soviet bloc.

The short run issue is also what affects Syria, although I suspect that most of what is involved in that one is simply Putin strong-arming Assad, who is almost completely dependent on Russia.  It was Juan Cole who reported what I have yet to sse anywhere else in the US media, and he did so twice, and I am surprised he has forgotten his own reporting in this goofy post today.  The problem is that apparently according to some US intel sources, this last chemical attack was far bigger than what was supposed to be the case, with a local commander responsible and the Defense Ministry and presumably Assad as well, very unhappy about it.  This is reportedly based on US intercepting military communications  What is unclear is if this was due simply to a mistake in mixing the chemicals or if this local commander was actually a rogue.  See one of Cole's two posts on this at http://www.juancole.com/2013/08/western-strike-stall.html

The real bottom line here is that Assad may have realized that he really does not have control of his own chemical weapons.  Furthermore, they do not really gain him all that much militarily.  Yes, they kill lots of people, but it is not clear that they really result in that much tactical advantage, and the bad fallout in terms of international publicity as well as outright threats of US attack are simply too great.  Again, no matter what, I suspect that he has figured out that it is simply not worth it to use them again, given Obama's serious threat to attack if he does so, and the widespread perception that he might well do so if there is another chemical attack, even if there were a negative vote in Congress.  If this is the case, and he really has nothing to gain from using them, then he might as well get the US and the rest of the world off his back and sign the international treaty and let the UN or somebody just take control of them. After all, the awful behavior of his enemies (eating hearts of people, attacking ancient Christian villages) has many people around the world sympathetic to his side and hoping that he will actually win, or at least survive.

Juan Cole does conclude his most recent post with the reasonable suggestion that assuming this deal goes through, with Obama getting to have the weapons under contorl without an attack or a negative vote in Congress, the next move, to be initiated by the Russians, will be a serious peace negotiation in Syria. The parties there are probably not quite ready for it, but if the current effective stalemate continues, eventually the likely outcome will be some sort of cease fire with a de facto partition on the ground between the current areas of control, which seem increasingly fixed.

Update after Obama TV address:  It would appear that I have oversimplified the situation regarding who has been in charge of the chemical attacks in Syria.  Obama and others are saying that "senior" people planned the attack(s).  There has been a lack of clarity on this.  It has been widely reported that there were multiple attacks earlier on a much smaller scale.  Clearly this program must have had senior support and almost certainly had the approval of Assad.  What remains unclear is just who was in charge of the larger most recent attack and how high that went and was this followed by the reported upset calls from the Defense Ministry.  These may be fine points, but they are also related to how willing the Syrians will be to go along with the new proposal.  It would appear that Russia would like to proceed now, but it remains important how willing the Syrians will be to go along with this, with this issue of just who was in charge at what level and when being an indicator of this.

Barkley Rosser


Shag from Brookline said...

Might Putin be aiming for a Nobel Peace Prize?

Muslim nations in Central Asia that were part of the USSR have many corruptions issues, perhaps with dissenters rising. These sovereign nations, which are considered part of the Greater Middle East, may create problems for Russia, especially since Russia has huge economic energy ties with them, including pipelines, that may cause Russia to seek actions/approvals by the UN Security Council at which the US might exercise a veto.

Russia has problems in the Caucuses with muslim groups. Russia may realize that chaos in Syriamayl do long run damage to Russia's economy.

And Russia may be concerned that if it does not act as a broker, its shaky reputation on human rights will suffer from Syria's use of chemical weapons. Remember the upcoming Olympics and safety issues Russia will have to address.

Will it all work out? Only if there is give and take, balancing, by all parties, without chest-beating of victory by one or more of the parties. At some point the peoples of the Greater Middle East should understand that they are the ones primarily suffering from sectarian clashes.

rosserjb@jmu.edu said...

You might be right, Shag, and if in fact a deal really happens and the Syrian chem weapons are brought under control, he might well deserve one, despite a lot of nonsense.

I note on day after Obama's speech, it has now been widely reported that discussions/negotiations over Syrian chem weapons between US and Russia not only were going on at the G20, but have been going on for months, indeed were initiated between Obama and Putin at the last G20 meeting a year ago. Lavrov and Kerry have been discussing it since April.

OTOH, it is more possible than I thought above that Kerry's remark was spontaneous and not planned. But if it was, it clearly reflected that he was thinking about this matter due to the extensive ongoing negotiations with Lavrov.