Vladimir Putin’s op-ed article in the New York Times puts President Barack Obama in a tight corner by re-framing the debate over Syria to favor Russian diplomatic interests.

Vladimir Putin. Photo: Reuters

Russian President Vladimir Putin has taken advantage of the opening given by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry for Russia to frame the debate on what to do next about the civil war raging in Syria.  And he has done this with consummate skill. In his recent letter to the U.S. public, published as an op-ed article in the New York Times, he puts President Obama in a tight corner. Putin argues convincingly that a strike by the U.S. could expand the war, result in victory by terrorist Islamic forces, and undermine the role of the U.S. Security Council in deciding the legitimacy of military actions against sovereign states.  

Putin makes a compelling case that, as long as there is an alternative to such a strike, it should be pursued. Moreover, Russia is offering to facilitate this alternative.  This letter, and Russia’s actions in response to Kerry’s candid comments about chemical disarmament, have stolen the initiative from the United States, and seemingly put Russia in charge of a process that will prevent the U.S. from carrying out its threat to launch missiles against Russia’s ally.  It is, so far, a triumph of diplomatic maneuvering.

Thus handcuffed, how will the U.S. respond?

From the outset, America’s primary strategic goal should have been to seek the removal of a Syrian leader who supported Hezbollah and Iran in threatening Israel, and who had lost legitimacy with his own people. As part of this goal, America should have been willing to support pro-democracy rebels in shaping a new inclusive regime.

However, a war-weary President Obama has not acted in pursuit of those goals. Instead, he has waited for events to unfold in the hope they would go favorably for American interests.  He gave America what he thought would be a surefire plan for staying out of Syria’s war while still holding the moral high ground, promising that he would not intervene in the conflict unless Syria used chemical weapons.

President Assad apparently called President Obama’s bluff. America claims to have firm evidence that Assad used chemical weapons, and on a scale that killed over one thousand Syrians.  Confronted with this evidence, and his past promise, Obama felt compelled to act at last to strike at Assad.

Yet this decision was not well thought out. Engagement in another Middle East conflict, even if only via missile attacks, and only to punish the use of heinous weapons, was neither popular among the American people nor generally supported by Congress.  Since Russia would veto a proposal for such a strike if brought to the United Nations Security Council, it was not obvious how such a strike would acquire international legitimacy.  

Nor was it obvious how the task of punishing Assad for the use of chemical weapons would be effectively carried out without changing the balance of power and affecting the outcome of the civil war.  Indeed, bringing an Islamist regime to power in Syria also is against the strategic goals of the United States, and the risks of this outcome would be increased by a powerful strike against Assad.

So Putin’s offer gave the Obama Administration a welcome way to back out of its hasty and ill considered plan to strike.  Much as the White House dislikes seeing initiative pass to Russia in this situation, the Obama Administration has publicly embraced Putin’s offer and promised to work with Russia to remove chemical weapons from Syria. 

Certain elements in Putin’s message in the New York Times certainly rankled. American anger has particularly focused on his admonition to Americans not to think of their nation as exceptional. This comes across strangely from a leader who has just celebrated the 1025th anniversary of the baptism of Rus, in a country that has often seen itself as having a special mission in regard to its Orthodox faith.   For the moment however, the official U.S. response is a willingness to accept Putin’s offer to seek a peaceful way to end the threat of Assad’s further use of chemical weapons.

Still, one has to ask – for how long?  The weakest element in President Putin’s letter was his statement that “there is every reason to believe [gas] was used not by the Syrian Army, but by opposition forces, to provoke intervention by their powerful foreign patrons.”  If the United States can, over the next few weeks, persuade most countries in the world that chemical weapons were unmistakably used by the Syrian Army, not by the rebels, it would undermine Putin’s credibility.

At the moment, it is in the interest of the U.S. to cooperate with Russia and seek a peaceful path.  But in a matter of weeks, it seems likely that the impossibility of walking down such a path will be clear.  After all, America and Russia are not the main actors in this struggle – it is the rebels and Assad who control events on the ground.

Already, the U.N. inspectors who sought to verify the use of chemical weapons faced sniper fire and shelling; who will guarantee the safety of the inspectors and crews expected to locate and remove Assad’s vast stockpile? 

The rebels have already stated they will not agree to this plan and claimed that Assad is moving some of his chemical weapons to Iraq for safekeeping, so that Russian and American and U.N. teams won’t be able to find and remove them all.  And will Assad and the rebels agree to a ceasefire for long enough for a chemical weapons team to do its job? 

In the weeks while these questions are being addressed, the U.S. will continue to seek to prove that Assad was responsible for the use of chemical weapons, and to build support for a strike if Assad does not fully cooperate. Russia would prefer that the issue of who was at fault be put aside, and that any plans for a strike be halted unless the U.N Security Council should vote to approve them.  Thus the steps that America and Russia plan to follow while efforts to remove the weapons are beginning will be different from the outset.

Russia has played its cards brilliantly, and for now, it has stymied American plans for an attack on Syria.  But a few months from now, we may see the U.S. and Russia return to where they were just a few weeks ago:  the U.S. trying to encourage the removal of Assad from power, and Russia resisting it.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.