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How Effective is the US-Russia Deal on Syria?

Commentary, 16 September 2013
Americas, Europe, Middle East and North Africa
The deal between Russia and the United States over Syria is more an agreement to disagree rather than a pact between two powers which see eye to eye. But its impact could be profound for Barack Obama's foreign policy legacy.

The deal between Russia and the United States over Syria is more an agreement to disagree rather than a pact between two powers which see eye to eye. But its impact could be profound for Barack Obama's foreign policy legacy.

 Sergei Lavrov and John Kerry

Technically, the US-Russia agreement to eliminate Syria's arsenal of chemical weapons is not as unusual as it is touted in the media: during Yugoslavia's civil wars two decades ago, diplomats in Moscow and Washington frequently concluded disarmament deals which, admittedly, did not include chemical weapons but did include plenty of military hardware. All these agreements were - like the Syrian one now - designed to preclude a US military intervention. And all failed.   The same, of course, may also happen with the current Syrian agreement.

Nevertheless, the Syrian deal is unique in both its purpose and potential impact. For, almost regardless of whether it succeeds or fails in its objective of disarming Syria, this agreement will define US President Barack Obama's foreign policy from now and right until the day he leaves the White House in early 2017. The stakes could not, therefore, be any higher.

A Hurried Deal

The temptation among political commentators and diplomats is to assume that the US-Russia deal over Syria must have been hatched in secret talks over a longer period of time; after all, that's the story of most deals between these two former Cold War opponents. So, Secretary of State John Kerry's off-the-cuff remarks that a military strike could be averted if the Syrian regime gave up all its chemical weapons was seized upon as proof that the issue was actively discussed between the Russians and the Americans before, or that the Americans inadvertently provided the Russians with a hint of how to 'resolve' the issue or that, perhaps Presidents Obama and Putin discussed the matter on the margins of the recent G20 summit in St Petersburg, and the all the Russians did was produce a document which supposedly saved the Americans from their own predicament.

Interestingly, Russian officials denied none of these speculations, partly because Moscow always relishes conspiracy theories and partly because such speculations worked in Russia's favour: since the Russians were desperate to get the US to agree to the deal, it suites Moscow to pretend that the agreement's authorship is shared by the two countries. But the truth on this occasion is far more prosaic: the deal is a haphazard arrangement intended to paper over botched policies in both Russia and the US and seized by both sides because both are actually weaker than either would care to admit in public.

President Obama's difficulties with persuading the US Congress to back a military intervention against Syria's chemical weapons dumps are well known, so Washington's eagerness to sign a deal which promises to achieve the same thing without firing a shot is understandable.

But Russian President Vladimir Putin was also in a similar bind. Mr Putin knew that his vetoes in the UN Security Council would not prevent a US military operation against Syria. He also knew that, once such an operation begun, Russia would be powerless to affect its outcome. The US military would have also made mincemeat of the air defence systems which Syria bought from Russia, so the macho-strutting, judo-loving Mr Putin would have been served with a further humiliating reminder of just how technologically backward his country really is. For all these reasons, the Russians also needed a deal which averted a military showdown.

No Compromises, Actually

Predictably, therefore, the agreement consists of compromises by both sides although a closer reading of the text indicates that neither Russian nor the US have made any serious concessions. The Americans have given up their threat of immediate military action but, as Mr Obama subsequently explained, 'if diplomacy fails, the US remains prepared to act'.

The Russians, in turn, won the right to lead diplomatic efforts, but in exchange had to accept that if these fail, the Syrian dossier will return to the UN Security Council 'under Chapter VII of the UN Charter', traditional code-words for internationally-sanctioned use of force against an offending state. The US administration's 'spin doctors' quickly pounced on this as some proof that the Russian position has suddenly budged and that, somehow, Russia will support a future military operation against Bashar al-Assad's regime in Syria if it proves recalcitrant. But such a hopeful interpretation is not justified, since Russia has made no concession whatsoever, even on this point.

To start with, Russia retains the right to veto any resolution, so even if it theoretically accepted that Syria could be discussed in a future UN Security Council platform under Chapter VII of the Charter, this most certainly does not meant that Russia will go along with enforcement measures against the Assad regime. When he previously served as prime minister - a post which does not involve a formal responsibility for foreign policy - Vladimir Putin was against Russia's 2011 decision to abstain in a UN Security Council vote authorising a humanitarian operation in Libya.

The Russian leader warned - correctly as it turned out - that the US would use this as a blank cheque to overthrow the Libyan government. Now that he is back in his old job as president, Mr Putin is determined to avoid a repeat: Moscow's purpose is to teach the US a broader lesson in the futility of the unilateral use of force, so the Russians are highly unlikely to go along with a Chapter VII resolution in the UN Security Council. Furthermore, it is usually forgotten that Chapter VII of the UN Charter explicitly mentions many other 'measures not involving the use of force'. In short, the deal over Syria is more an agreement to disagree rather than a pact between to powers which see eye to eye.

Can It Work?

The technical difficulties are considerable. The underlining assumption behind the entire deal is that Russia exercises sufficient control over Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to force him to give up his chemical weapons. But that's a tall order, since Syria's chemical capabilities were developed not as an instrument of internal control but as a deterrent against Israel's nuclear arsenal, so giving them up will alter the Middle East's strategic balance. Furthermore, the Russians will discover the same experience the Americans have had: that it is rather easy to collect 'allies' or client states in the Middle East, but much more difficult to persuade these clients to do what their patron wants; just look at the currently fraught relationship between Israel and the US for this example. So, the Russians will not find it that easy to push Assad, particularly since the Syrian leader is unlikely to be particularly impressed with the argument that giving up his chemical capability is the only way to ensure his survival; he may recall the fate of Muammar Gadhafi, the Libyan leader, who was first persuaded to give up his arsenal of weapons of mass destruction, only to then be rewarded for his cooperation by being bombed out of existence by the US-led NATO alliance.

But even if Assad does cooperate, there will be disputes about the list of his chemical weapons facilities which he has to submit within a week. Nobody knows how an international team of inspectors will be put together, what mandate it will have, whether the UN will be given control over this operation and whether the chemical inspectors would require military protection, precisely those 'boots on the grounds' which everyone currently rules out.   And the proposed timetable for the operation, which envisages that all Syrian chemical weapons should be dismantled or destroyed by the middle of next year is hopelessly optimistic: neither the US nor Russia, which are engaged in destroying their own chemical arsenals, have meet even one of their self-imposed disarmament deadlines over the past two decades.

Still, the technical difficulties should not be exaggerated. Both the US and Russia know a great deal about the size of Syria's chemical arsenal. The Russian military also has a great deal of experience in evacuating chemical dumps in a great hurry: that, after all, is what it did as the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. And there are short-term measures which can ensure that Syria is deprived of its chemical capabilities: the country's stocks of mustard gas - which are probably too dangerous to move - can simply be kept under foreign control, while the stocks of Sarin and other nerve gases are built into weapon delivery systems and can be airlifted out of the country quickly. So, if the will is there, technical means can be found.[1]

Who Has a Longer Fuse?

The real problem with this deal is its impact on America's global standing. US officials are right to claim that, had it not been for Washington's threat to use force, the deal would have never come about.  Still, the agreement is universally seen as a triumph for Russia, for it comes after a series of goofy diplomatic moves from Washington. A US president who did nothing about a Syrian civil war which lasted more than two years and already killed at least 100,000 people suddenly decided to act, but then had second thoughts and asked Congress for its opinions while also asserting that he did not really need Congressional approval.  And, just as bizarrely, while President Obama warned ominously that, once engaged the US military doesn't do 'pinpricks', his Secretary of State told everyone that what was being planned in Syria was an 'unbelievably small' operation. The deal has come at the conclusion of a none-too-glorious period in US foreign policy.

For the deal to be respected and implemented, the US will have to accept that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad remains in power; indeed, the Americans may soon be asked to stop supplying weapons to the rebels if they wish to see international chemical inspectors enter the country. But that would reinforce the image which the US already has in the Middle East as a fickle, fair-weather friend: while the Russians defend their allies, the Americans dump theirs whenever this suits Washington, at a moment's notice.

But if the US-Russian deal fails, the Americans will still be faced with equally unpalatable choices. President Obama will still have to convince Congress not only about the use of force, but also why he trusted Russia and Syria's President Assad. And, even if he gets Congressional support, Mr Obama will never be able to shake off his image as a reluctant warrior, a leader who did not know how to exercise the considerable military power at his disposal.

Precisely because of these pitfalls are already known in Washington, it is likely that that the real problem with the deal over Syria is not whether its provisions will be respected by the Syrian government but, rather, how many concessions the US is prepared to make in allowing diplomatic efforts to continue.  And the answer must be 'not many': America's patience is very limited, for President Obama knows that if the deal succeeds in disarming Syria he may not get much credit for this, but if it fails and the US does nothing, he will be accused of allowing the US to be tricked by Russia into a fake arrangement which provided neither peace nor honour. And that, in turn, will mark the reminder of his presidency just as surely as it did that of Jimmy Carter's during the 1970s.


1. I am indebted to my colleague Igor Sutyagin for many of these ideas.


Jonathan Eyal
Associate Director, Strategic Research Partnerships

Dr Eyal is the Associate Director, Strategic Research Partnerships, and International Director, at the Royal United Services Institute... read more

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