Russia’s Plan for Syria Could Rescue Obama, if Only it Wasn’t Likely to Fail

A litany of thorny practical and political obstacles to relieving Assad of his precious nerve gas

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Pablo Martinez Monsivais / Pool / Reuters

President Barack Obama listens to Russian President Vladimir Putin during the start of the G20 Working Session at the Konstantin Palace in St. Petersburg, Sep. 5, 2013.

In theory, Russia’s proposal that Bashar Assad relinquish control of his chemical weapons is a diplomatic masterstroke that turns Barack Obama’s foreign policy nightmare into a stunning victory. Talk of a crippled presidency might be replaced with comparisons to John F. Kennedy’s Cuban Missile Crisis triumph. That’s why Obama says he means to take the idea seriously. “We’re going to run this to ground,” Obama told CNN Monday, adding his administration was working to determine whether “we [can] arrive at something that is enforceable and serious.”

Alas, there’s good reason to think they can’t. The idea riveting Washington, Damascus, Moscow and most everywhere in between is so filled with obstacles and pitfalls that it might join the February 2003 plan to send Saddam Hussein into exile with $1 billion as a terrific-sounding idea that falls apart, to everyone’s detriment.

Why is that? Consider some of the chief obstacles to the Russian solution:

Are the Russians Serious? Moscow isn’t just a longtime supporter of Assad. It has shielded him even from the smallest gestures of international condemnation for his alleged use of chemical weapons. In the past two months, “Russia has blocked two resolutions condemning the generic use of chemical weapons and two press statements expressing concern about their use,” United Nations Ambassador Samantha Power said in a Friday speech. Any plan that the U.S. and its allies can support will probably require a U.N. resolution backed up with the explicit threat of military action, something it’s extremely difficult to see Vladimir Putin supporting.

Can Assad Be Trusted? Obviously any plan to secure or remove Assad’s chemical arsenal will require thorough verification. But the process of sending inspectors or security forces to accomplish that task will take time, and Assad will have opportunities to delay and complicate it — perhaps buying himself time in the hope that the world’s attention and indignation will fade. As Roger Cohen of the New York Times noted on Twitter Monday night, Bosnian Serb forces forestalled NATO air strikes in the 1990s by making false promises to hand over their heavy weapons. In the 1990s, Saddam mastered the art of delaying and deceiving U.N. weapons inspection teams.

(MORE: Report Claims Syrian Troops Used Chemical Weapons Without Assad’s Approval)

Is it Logistically Feasible? Last year, the Pentagon estimated that securing the dozens of sites at which Syrian chemical weapons are thought to be stored could take up to 75,000 U.S. troops. A much smaller number (of what would almost certainly will be Russian, and/or United Nations personnel) should be required here, given the presumed cooperation of the Syrian government; they won’t have to shoot their way in. But it’s still a mighty task that could require many hundreds, if not thousands, of trained professionals — plus ample security to protect them: remember that U.N. inspectors were fired upon in Syria earlier this month. “It is a daunting task to get a hold of all these weapons,” deputy national security advisor Tony Blinken told CNN Monday afternoon, “and you probably need a cease-fire.” The odds of that seem awfully small, not least because it would require the fanatical Islamist fighters of al Nusra to agree.

Seriously. How Would This Even Work? Even if trained and armed inspection teams do reach every chemical site, then what? Securing as many as 50 sites for more than a nominal period of time isn’t very practical. But destroying chemical agents safely can take years. A workable option might include moving the chemicals to an easy-to-defend central location in a remote part of the country, but that’s not a simple thing to pull off in the middle of a civil war and in concert with a government that will resent the outside intrusion. Plus, moving Assad’s nerve gas invites the risk of a horrible accident, or an attack by would-be terrorists who want to steal the weapons.

It’s possible these problems are more manageable than they first appear to the likes of Blinken, John McCain and many others. There’s no question that peacefully removing chemical weapons from the Syrian conflict would solve one of the world’s great national security dilemmas more easily than most people dreamed possible.

But it’s also worth considering that, according to Obama himself, Vladimir Putin privately raised this plan with him last week. For reasons Obama hasn’t explained, he apparently chose not to pursue it. Perhaps because he concluded that, as Secretary of State John Kerry put it on Monday, “it can’t be done.”

MORE: Assad Warns of Repercussions of a U.S. Strike

45 comments
panchasenior82
panchasenior82

However much we would like to get rid of the spectre of chemical weapons, we know there are rogue states determined to thwart all such intentions! At long last we have secured the admissions from Russia and Syria that Syria has large stock-piles of lethal gases and chemical weapons. Syria has long been protected by Russia. But now that the cat is out of the bag, what can the Obama Administration really do to punish Syria?  Sanctions against Syria will simply not work without the active support of Russia. Putin will protect Syria through thick and thin! All the empty noises made with regard to disarming Syria will take years! So Assad is off the hook yet again! Pulverizing Syrian government positions is a non-starter as that could lead to a world conflict! Economic sanctions would only hurt  the Syrian people! The only viable alternative is to haul Assad to the International Criminal Court to face human rights violations along with a catalogue of other heinous crimes.

Pancha Chandra

jimmy.chy1948
jimmy.chy1948

All countries chemical weapons stocks,not only Syria's must be destroyed.

BrahmandamLakshmiNarasimhaMurthy
BrahmandamLakshmiNarasimhaMurthy

Now Americans are worried that they may lose a good opportunity to use their weapons on weak country and help their arms lobby.Any talk of peace is anathema to Americans. They want their quota of killing per year,to satisfy their hunger for violence

SpikeLee
SpikeLee

"It’s possible these problems are more manageable than they first appear to the likes of Blinken, John McCain and many others."

Only a fool would hesitate to notice that John McCain sees the problems of war as easier to manage than the problems of peace. He's a consistent warmonger.

SamuelClemens
SamuelClemens

Just a side note. It is interesting that events are moving so fast that even Internet commentary is out of date in hours. This article looks seriously still dated within a day of its first appearance.

SamuelClemens
SamuelClemens

Consider another perspective. In general chemical weapons are nearly useless as effective means of offense. That's why so many militaries rushed to dump them under treaty. I suggest this move may be a calculated strategy that for once pretty much means what it says. We'll see if enlightened self interest is in play or not. If so, Obama's moves will turn out to be as spectacularly successful as Clinton's in Kosovo where political objectives were achieved without the loss of a single American soldier. Of course that didn't keep the future master war criminal, Bush II, for criticizing them or his hypocritical party from railing against "nation building" in Kosovo (oh, the irony).

Assad is finding the same thing Saddam did when he used poison gas against civilians without Reagan's prior blessing. It causes one hell of a stink diplomatically. If Assad gives up his gas it is because he has figured out that gas causes much more trouble internationally than whatever small gains may be made on the ground where it's use is primarily as a weapon of terror, not serious military gain. The terror gain is small compared to the international reward from publicly dumping weapons of dubious use at this critical juncture in his fight for life and power.

All chemical weapons do militarily at most is deter the other side from using them. WW II had the most unlimited ferocity of warfare so far in history while both sides had and sat on massive stockpiles of chemical weapons. I have seen picture of fields of Nazi gas that were captured, sunk in the North Sea after the war and obviously never used. Why? Because gas is hard to control literally blowing in the wind, there are somewhat effective countermeasures militarily, but more importantly what goes around comes around (deterrence works). If the Allies and the Nazi fighting unlimited warfare did not use gas, it just isn't that great an idea militarily. 

You won't get that agreement on nukes which is why nuclear disarmament is so difficult. Saddam with Reagan's help did manage to use poison gas to slow down the Iranians (yes Iraq was ruled by the same Baath Party that now rules Syria) and Nasser (founder of the political regime now running Egypt again) had very limited success with gas in Yemen, having ultimately  to withdraw. You might say the Saddam/Reagan use of poison gas is the most successful use of gas of all time. Even so the Iranians did not want to respond in kind (gas is basically just modified pesticide) and it did not settle that war.

Assad at most could try to scare the nuclear armed Israelis next door. But they took out his nuclear option. Gas against nukes is like bringing a knife to a gun fight. So really not much use there once the ego thrill of posing chemical weapons is gone. Gas against rebels has the same problems as gas in general (hard to contain, and they might capture some to use it back) plus it brings international condemnation - in this case, including the threat of US military strikes. Assad might just be making a clever tactical move. As for critics, remember the worst form of idealism is cynicism - keep watching with an open mind to see what transpires next.


aryehlevin
aryehlevin

aryehlevinFeatured

just now

Putin has suddenly realized he's going to be in deep water if Obama attacks Syria (Putin would be then  completely sidelined - not only in Syria but in Iran as well) The proposal put forward by Lavrov is to get Putin and Russia out of the quagmire they themselves stepped into by threatening to get involved in the Syrian crisis. This way - if the Russian plan is adopted - Putin will be on the front-page of every newscast wearing uniform of an international hero, saviour of the world from an impending catastrophe in the "Muddle" Est.



Read more: http://swampland.time.com/2013/09/10/russias-plan-for-syria-could-rescue-obama-if-only-it-wasnt-likely-to-fail/#ixzz2eVCrKwg0

aryehlevin
aryehlevin

Putin has suddenly realized he's going to be in deep water if Obama attacks Syria (Putin would be then  completely sidelined - not only in Syria but in Iran as well) The proposal put forward by Lavrov is to get Putin and Russia out of the quagmire they themselves stepped into by threatening to get involved in the Syrian crisis. This way - if the Russian plan is adopted - Putin will be on the front-page of every newscast wearing uniform of an international hero, saviour of the world from an impending catastrophe in the "Muddle" Est.

PaulDirks
PaulDirks

A civilian population has been gassed by their own government. That government is a client state of a significant world power and an ally of a rogue state that may soon be capable of building nukes. The rebels against the said government are allied with a worldwide network of terrorists.

So why the EFF YOU SEE KAY is this story about whether the eventual outcome is good or bad for Obama.

Can we get a little bit REAL here?


BubbleBurster
BubbleBurster

It's NO victory for Obama.  It is a victory for Russia!  

NOTICE, Assad agreed to RUSSIA's request, NOT Obama's fiddling with the idea.  It was the IDEA of the U.N. - NOT OBAMA!

So it was really another SNOB by the WORLD to Obama and his FAILURE to be a LEADER.

WHY does Time have to desperately try and SPIN the TRUTH to make Obama look good?  What does it take for TIME to tell the TRUTH of the absolute FAILURE Obama is and the EMBARRASSMENT Obama has been and continues to be.


Sibir_Russia
Sibir_Russia

Syrian chemical weapons control idea derives from Russia-US contacts - Lavrov

"The proposal for establishing international control over Syria's chemical weapons is not quite Russian. It derives from exchanges we had with American colleagues and from yesterday's statement by US Secretary of State John Kerry, who said that a strike could be avoided if this problem is solved," Lavrov said at a joint press conference with Libyan Foreign Minister Muhammad Abdelaziz.

Russia has always been trying to take advantage of the slightest chance for a peaceful settlement of any given crisis, he said.

"Therefore, we made use of Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al Mualem's stay in Moscow and asked him to consider this possibility," Lavrov said.

The idea is to put Syria's chemical weapons under international control with a prospect of reaching an agreement on their complete elimination and Syria's joining the Chemical Weapons Convention, he said.

http://www.strategic-culture.org/news/2013/09/10/un-experts-should-return-to-syria-to-continue-chemical-attack-probe-lavrov.html

StevenKate
StevenKate

It is particular attention that the second principle will mean little to world leaders if Obama loses in Congress and chooses not to act… http://tiny.cc/xfhl2w

TomHes
TomHes

I always have had respect for Time as being a more or less neutral news source. In recent weeks however, Time has shown very little journalism and high levels of false pattriotism. Why not be somewhat more critical on the US government and it's intentions, not from a domestic political angle, but from an international, diplomatic and legal perspective?

"Can Assad Be Trusted?"

Why not ask: can the US be trusted? The US government has yet to show evidence of any chemical attack, let alone that it is the Syrian army on orders of Assad.

"In the 1990s, Saddam mastered the art of delaying and deceiving U.N. weapons inspection teams."

As history has shown: the weapons weren't there! America tricked the world into believing that there were WMDs in Iraq and subsequently went into an unjust war. There was no deception as there were no WMDs. Shortly before the Iraq war started in 2003, the UN weapons inspectors (Hans Blicks) testified and said that they were under the strong impression that there were no WMDs.

Sibir_Russia
Sibir_Russia

Britain, Germany Welcome Russian Plan for Syria

News | 10.09.2013 | 10:15  

Britain and Germany have welcomed a Russian proposal to avert a looming attack on Syria by placing stockpiles of chemical weapons in the war-torn country under international control.

Russia seems to have gained a diplomatic initiative in the Syrian standoff by offering on Monday to persuade the Syrians to hand over control of its chemical weapons and to have them subsequently destroyed.

British Prime Minister David Cameron said Monday that putting Syria’s chemical weapons under international supervision “would be a big step forward and should be encouraged.”

"If that were to be the case it would be hugely welcome," Cameron said addressing British lawmakers.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the Russian proposal was “interesting” but added that it should be followed by “action.”

"If this is followed by action and not about buying time and this materializes, then Germany will push for that road to be followed," she said on German television.

http://www.strategic-culture.org/news/2013/09/10/obama-mulls-whether-to-use-force-against-syria-if-congress-opposes.html

Sibir_Russia
Sibir_Russia

German Chancellor Angela Merkel called "interesting" Russia's proposal to transfer the Syrian chemical weapons under international control, informs on Tuesday night website of German TV channel ARD.  The Chancellor stressed that Germany intends to undertake all necessary measures for a political solution to the conflict in Syria.

arvay
arvay

So the alternative is what? War? 

Obama (and I voted for the guy) has proven his ineptitude and macho-brained recklessness with these threats. He and Hillary, who backs him -- are both unqualified for the presidency. They're both servants of the oligarchy, liars (remember her 'ducking snipers in Serbia?) and chain-jerked by their rich contributors. 

Next time let's elect someone who actually will work for the American people, not K Street, AIPAC and the financial "industry."

Putin is no dream, but he's an adult, a statesman and not reckless. 

united_we_stand
united_we_stand

Obama makes Bush look like a genius SMH. He's lucky Putin is a nice guy and give him an out.

panchasenior82
panchasenior82

@BrahmandamLakshmiNarasimhaMurthy 

Unfortunately  for you, President Obama has set himself lofty ideals. America bashing is not at all helpful! Rather one should look for the peace feelers he has graciously extended! There are far too many rogues out there like Assad who are determined to make the world an unsafe place. He needs to be taken to the International Criminal Court at the Hague.

BrahmandamLakshmiNarasimhaMurthy
BrahmandamLakshmiNarasimhaMurthy

Typical American response. Since it is difficult to control and eliminate chemical weapons let us eliminate the country itself. war at any cost , peace never? Any ruler who has the guts to defy US has no right to exist. Dictators kill their own people ,Democracys kill other country's people. that is what the powerful American democracy is doing for the last two decades.

anon76
anon76

@PaulDirks

Allow me to add to what I think makes Crowley's offering such a crappy article:

Are the Russians Serious? Practically, the Russians can block any Security Council action against Syria.  That doesn't mean they like to do it, nor that they particularly want to be seen as defending a regime that gasses its own population.  If their proposal puts an end to the talk about chemical weapons, it will be a huge international coup for them, so yes, we can assume they're serious.

Can Assad Be Trusted? Once again, Russia does not want to be seen as supporting someone who uses chemical weapons, Iran is having internal debates on whether they should be supporting someone who uses chemical weapons (a very big deal for them, considering their own experience of such weapons), and virtually every military analyst agrees that Assad does not need to use chemical weapons to maintain his hold over Damascus.  Against that you have the threat of a military action that will seriously degrade his military superiority in the middle of a civil war.  Assad is many things, among which is a dictator with a keen interest in self preservation.  Keeping his chemical weapons does not help him much in that goal, while giving them up would be hugely beneficial in this case.

Is it Logistically Feasible?/Seriously. How Would This Even Work? Crowley goes on to describe several ways in which this could work, even though he downplays the vested interest each group has in making sure this works.  The one wild card is al Nusra, but certainly the Syrian Govt., the FSA, and the varied Kurdish groups would have a lot of motivation to see that this works, and I imagine that those groups + UN/Russia/Arab League people could ensure that this plan gets accomplished.

anon76
anon76

@PaulDirks

Censor evasion accomplished!

If Swamplanders have to write about anything other than the horserace, they quickly lose interest.  It's the only flavor of world event that can distract them from the you-know-what weenies.

ShirleyGallagher
ShirleyGallagher

@BubbleBurster  Its strength VS Strong. Russia maybe strong, but its a man with Strength that willing to give t this time to work, and that my Friend is President Obama.

anon76
anon76

@BubbleBurster 

Caps lock ≠ serious argument.

Ask yourself this, would Russia have made this proposal, and would Syria be eager to follow it if the US wasn't making a credible threat of the use of force?  Sorry to burst your bubble.

Lilly333
Lilly333

@BubbleBurster 

So the heck who cares whose "idea" it was.???  If this is possible a solution to avoiding another middle east war, let's seriously look at it.  


pampah86
pampah86

@Sibir_Russia yesterday's statement by US Secretary of State John Kerry, who said that a strike could be avoided if this problem is solved,"

Kerry later said that statement was rhetorical and did not believe it was possible.

When is this administration going to learn to keep its big mouth shut?

SamuelClemens
SamuelClemens

@BeebeLisa Poorly considered. The real war is the civil war in Syria. This is a maneuver within that. The civil war is far from over. But one small detail may be cleared up successfully. Those weapons are ultimately a threat to both side. It's like shooting your son because you thought he was a burglar or the burglar using your loaded weapons against you (is that analogy American enough for you?).

BubbleBurster
BubbleBurster

@BeebeLisa 

Putin is building UP his military and taking advantage of Obama's vacuum of disrespect.  One by one other WORLD leaders are backing off of loser Obama.  Obama is NOT taken seriously.  Leading from behind is not working out for Obama and neither is Obama's SUPPORTING of TERRORISM in Syria.  Yes, to bomb Syria would be the AQ airforce.

ShirleyGallagher
ShirleyGallagher

@StevenKate No one wants another War in the Middle East, and that would include President Obama, who voted against the IRAQ War. Common sense should tell people that President Obama and Putin had talked about this long before now. President Obama will give them 48 days because he knows the world doesn't want another IRAQ, and nor do the American people.

But is ASSAD does as Putin ask I will be shocked.

SamuelClemens
SamuelClemens

@TomHes Too busy hating to see that something might be happening that actually benefits all sides. Those weapons are military useless but dangerous to all. Just maybe this is an easy way out for all sides. But soo much easier to stay in a hating pattern. Try an open mind and see what happens.

anon76
anon76

@TomHes

"The US government has yet to show evidence of any chemical attack ...."

Russia, China, Iran, and the Syrian government all agree that a chemical attack took place.  Saying that the US has not offered compelling evidence on this point is a very quick way to remove your argument from serious consideration by any potential audience.

anon76
anon76

@arvay 

Putin is a borderline extra-constitutional, journalist-murdering, ex-KGB megalomaniac, who quickly reminds us that your favored term "oligarch" has a long history of association with Russia.  Or, as you so eloquently put it, "a statesman".

BubbleBurster
BubbleBurster

@united_we_stand 

Putin didn't give Obama an "out".  Putin is CAPITALIZING on Obama's INCOMPETENCE and giving himself more standing.  Putin PLAYS with Obama. Remember Putin's lecture to Obama on "privacy".  Again he was MOCKING Obama.  Putin is stepping all over Obama.  Putin is the cat and Obama is the mouse.  BTW, if Putin cares so much about Obama, WHY is he building UP his nuclear arsenal while Obama is unloading his?  It's because Putin sees Obama for the FOOL he is and does the OPPOSITE. Putin is no fool.

SamuelClemens
SamuelClemens

@ShirleyGallagher @StevenKate What makes you think this is Putin's idea? My guess is that Assad see all those chemical weapons as more a threat to him either directly or from the reaction to their use. He has little to lose getting rid of them as they will not keep in power but they must cost him US military intervention that ultimately could weaken him. Obama's threat's may have given him notice and a face saving means to make the move. Time will tell.

arvay
arvay

@anon76 @arvay 

 A number of American presidents, including this one, have committed murder. Not personally of course, but via the official command structure or secret panel George Bush Sr. was head of the CIA -- a fist-class murderer if there ever was one.

Putin's no saint either -- but his actions in this crisis -- created by Obamas imperiousness and ineptitude -- win the "statesman" label hands-down. If he succeeds in averting a war  -- a war threatened by Obama -- it's Nobel Peace prize material -- unlike Obama's -- shall we say -- premature -- award? 

ShirleyGallagher
ShirleyGallagher

@SamuelClemens @ShirleyGallagher @StevenKate President Obama had talked about this with Putin during the G20 and Putin though that he would put the plan into ACTION by telling Assad. Putin and Assad are two of a kind, and Assad doesn't want Putin against him. This is what President Obama and Putin stayed up late one night talking about. Putin though he pull a fast one on President Obama, but instead President Obama put this Ball  in Putin field and he ran with it. LOL !!!!!!!!!!! 

arvay
arvay

@anon76 @arvay

Threatening to attack a country that hasn't attacked you, based on unproven allegations is a violation of international norms, as are the threats against Iran, the cyber-attacks against Iran, the assassinations, drone strikes and their associated "collateral damage"  -- the list is very, very long.

No argument that the situation is the outcome of Assad's stupid and brutal reaction to protests, but the US is a bit late to the table when it comes to chemical weapons. 

http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2013/08/25/secret_cia_files_prove_america_helped_saddam_as_he_gassed_iran

No, this has all been an attempt to posture and make Iran afraid, and it backfired. Iran is making conciliatory sounds and something MUST be done to create hostility.  Th US population is vociferously opposed to another war, and this demonstration of "weakness' will serve us well. 

The faster al Qaeda in Syria is crushed, the better. There will be no good outcome to all of this, it's a giant disaster and human tragedy. But the crippling of the "special relationship" and battering the war party/neocons have taken is a salutary effect. 

Possibly one of those famous "inflection points" after which nothing is ever the same.

anon76
anon76

@arvay @anon76 

Obama threatened air strikes in retaliation for the use of chemical weapons, a clear violation of International norms, imperiousness had nothing to do with it.  The "war" is between Syrian factions, brought on by Assad deciding that bullets were the best response to peaceful protests and Putin deciding to support him in his endeavor.

Putin probably only made his offer (and certainly it was only palatable to Assad) because of Obama's (non-inept) threat of strikes.  If the offer works (and I sincerely hope it will), it will merely avert the airstrikes.  Assad's war, supported by Putin, will go on just as bloody as ever.