Playing Poker With Putin
EDWARD P. JOSEPH is a Senior Fellow at the Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies.See more by this author
After talks last week in Geneva between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, the U.S dilemma on Syria has been replaced by a deal. In effect, Washington has traded the threat of imminent force (which it did not want to use) for Moscow’s promise to see that Syria surrenders chemical weapons (which Syria would be hard pressed to use again, anyway). What’s more, Moscow has pledged to push Syria toward a long-stalled international conference to end the war.
Even if Syrian and Russian compliance is only partial, the bargain still represents real progress. The Syrian regime has finally admitted that it has chemical weapons. It will soon be asked to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention, which it has agreed to join, and then to start dismantling its deadly arsenal. In light of the horrific chemical attack last month and the previous diplomatic paralysis, it is hard to overstate just how important a change in attitude that is. Even so, partial compliance is all that this deal is likely to deliver. Russian interests are simply not aligned enough with those of the United States for anything more. U.S. President Barack Obama needs some new cards to play -- and he will have them once he grasps the Russians’ real game.
Implied in the Geneva accord is the notion that Moscow shares Washington's fear that chemical weapons could get into the hands of Sunni extremists. If that were really a paramount concern, Russia would have long ago used its clout in Syria to address such a grave threat. In place of pressure, however, Moscow backed Syria to the hilt, blocking even watered-down UN Security Council resolutions on Syria while supplying the regime with advanced missiles designed to complicate U.S. air strikes.
In truth, Moscow has always seemed to believe that Syria’s chemical arsenal is worth the proliferation risk. If Syria loses its chemical weapons altogether, Damascus would lose its deterrent against Israel. That would tilt the strategic balance toward that stalwart American ally. And that, in turn, would hurt Russian President Vladimir Putin’s goal of boosting Russian influence in the region.