Senate Sees Putin as Major Snag in Diplomatic Option on Syria

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Michael Klimentyev / RIA Novosti / Kremlin / Reuters

Russian President Vladimir Putin makes a statement on issues connected with Syria's chemical weapons at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow on Sept. 10, 2013

President Obama met with both sides of the Senate on Tuesday to pitch a new diplomatic approach to the use of chemical weapons in Syria’s civil war: Get Russia to get rid of them. While the Senators welcomed the new President’s proposal, there is little indication that they believe it will be possible to work with their country’s old Cold War enemy.

“If the next couple of weeks include intelligence and pictures of trucks headed down to [the Syrian port city] Latakia loading CW [sarin gas] aboard Russian ships, then it’s a win for the President,” said Senator Mark Kirk. “The critical thing is that he [President Obama] noted that Vladimir Putin was head of the KGB, so he had some realism you have to ‘trust but verify’ in regards to the Russians.”

The “trust but verify” refrain, adopted as a signature catchphrase by President Reagan during the Cold War, has been used since President Obama endorsed the Russian approach to Syria on Monday night. The U.S.-Russia relationship is seen as a cause for concern across party lines, and a major snag in President Obama’s solving this conflict through a diplomatic option.

“There is hope, but not yet trust in what the Russians are doing,” said Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York, after meeting with the President. The new proposal is “something that needs to be seriously considered and rejected out of hand, even though it is the Russians that you are dealing with,” said Senator Jim Risch, Republican of Idaho, who opposes military intervention in Syria. “I would just say for myself, the trust level would be extremely low if existing at all,” said Republican Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, ranking member of the chamber’s Foreign Relations Committee and a proponent of military strikes.

“I think the general response is, Can you trust somebody who used to be the head of KGB?” said Senator Dean Heller, Republican of Nevada, referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin. “Whether or not we can trust the [Assad] regime to do that — who is to say he would give you all of it? Who is to say he wouldn’t use it again if he didn’t give you all of it? It’s pretty tricky.”

There is ample reason to distrust Putin. Russia has blocked previous U.N. efforts to calm the rage in the country. Putin called reports of Syrian President Bashar Assad regime’s chemical attack on rebels “utter nonsense.” On Tuesday, Putin said the initiative eliminating the chemical weapons depends on the U.S. renouncing the use of force against the Assad regime, a potential crippling condition.

“Keep the pressure where it belongs, which is on Syria and on Russia, to deliver on what they say they are interested in doing, which is giving up their chemical weapons,” said Senator Carl Levin, Democrat of Michigan. “If that can be accomplished promptly, that does the job without a military strike. In order for that to happen, you’ve got to have the prospect of a military strike.”

Senator Corker said the chamber’s proposal for military authorization, which he co-authored, “absolutely has to stay on the table.” “Otherwise I don’t think these negotiations will go anywhere, and they likely will not anyway with who we are dealing with,” he said.

Before the negotiations, the U.S. will need to iron out a few wrinkles in their proposal. Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California who is the chairwoman of the chamber’s Intelligence Committee, for example, doesn’t agree with Senator Kirk’s wish to move the chemical weapons. Instead, she prefers to “consolidate the sites” so that they can be “secured, guarded and inspected.” On whether or not the U.S would have a role, she said, “that’s to be worked out.”

Such snags will delay in the short term the U.S.’s reaction to the chemical attack that reportedly killed around 1,400 men, women and children three weeks ago. President Obama’s message to the Senate Democrats and Republicans was essentially that he needs more time to figure out the diplomatic approach, Senators Dick Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, and Heller confirmed. But the timetable remains unclear. “He didn’t give us a specific matter of days into next week,” said Durbin. “I think for a short period of time our best action is to pause to see if this is credible or not,” Corker said.

Even if Putin becomes a reliable partner on Syria and the kinks in the deal are solved, the end goal through these diplomatic means doesn’t solve the underlying suffering in Syria. It will, instead, prove a slim silver lining.

“This is something on both sides, no matter if you are for or against involvement or not, you ought to be hopeful that there could be a peaceful resolution that gets the most dangerous thing in Syria out of Syria,” said Senator Rand Paul, who opposes military intervention in Syria. “If the chemical weapons could be gone, it’ll still be a disastrous atrocity of civilian deaths there, and it probably will continue, but then we don’t have to worry about surrounding countries being the victim of the gas attacks.”

In other words, the diplomatic resolution would be a new, post–Cold War form of containment.