Why Russia Is Now in Control of the Syria Situation

The deal Putin has offered plays off of Obama's nonproliferation interests and keeps Assad in power.  
Russia's President Vladimir Putin makes a statement on issues connected with chemical weapons in Syria at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow. (Michael Klimentyev/Reuters)

Vladimir Putin wants to keep Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad in power. The best way to do that is to preserve Assad’s maximum military advantage over rebel forces. It would also suit Putin to enhance Assad’s legitimacy on the world stage.

The deal offered by the Russian president and rapidly endorsed by Assad achieves all three of these goals. Assad reigns supreme in Damascus, retains all of his conventional-military might, and is enlarged on the world stage as an enlightened soul willing to hand over chemical weapons—even after using them to murderous effect on Aug. 21. The deal, as currently structured, has the added benefit of appearing the world over as a case where Syria, with its authoritarian puppet master Russia pulling the strings, has stared down the American military colossus.

This is all possible because Putin knows that one of President Obama’s central foreign policy goals is to reduce nuclear and chemical weapons. Pursuing nonproliferation is how Obama sought to “reset” relations with Russia, and he still considers New START to be one of his great foreign policy accomplishments. Putin knows this, because he was the co-negotiator of the treaty in his capacity as prime minister while Dmitri Medvedev served as Russia’s president.

Putin watched as Obama offered no serious military support to anti-Assad rebels while civil war raged for more than two years. After the White House declared in April that Assad had twice used chemical weapons, it promised new military aid for the rebels. That amounted to MREs and medical kits. The White House and some in Congress fear putting lethal arms into the hands of jihadist extremists within the opposition forces. But experts who have traveled to Syria argue that the White House could find moderate rebel forces and arm them if that, in fact, was a priority. Meanwhile, Putin knows how to measure intent, muscle, guile, and leverage. Dithering mixed with MREs and medical kits has told him plenty.

Obama’s reluctance to wage war in Syria is understandable. Unlike the war on terrorism that he inherited, this would be a war of his own choosing, and he would own the results and repercussions. Expanding the use of Bush-era drones was a largely hidden escalation of the war on terrorism. Broadening the reach of Bush-era electronic surveillance of phone calls and Internet traffic has proved embarrassing and politically problematic for Obama. But going to war and owning the likely blowback in the region or on America’s shores gave the White House considerable pause.

This was one of the many reasons Obama sought shelter in Congress. But Congress heard from Americans of all political stripes, and they told senators and House members that they want no part of a “limited, targeted, and proportionate” war. Average Americans knew in their marrow that launching missiles is an act of war. Obama has spoken lately of war weariness. Americans are not weary. They are exhausted, terrified, and besieged. After a week of constant administration lobbying, public opposition to war in Syria hardened. Phone calls and e-mails to House and Senate offices are not just running 10-to-1 against missile strikes. They are not running 20-to-1 against. In some cases, they are running 1,500-to-1 or 4,000-to-1 against military action.

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Major Garrett is a congressional correspondent for National Journal.

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