UNITED NATIONS — We are witnessing an intense geopolitical chess game over Syria.
The players: Barack Obama, President of the United States, former Senator, and Chicago community organizer versus Vladmir Putin, President of the Russian Federation and former Soviet KGB intelligence operative.
Moscow has just made a move which appears to have offered Obama a brief political respite, but equally has prompted Washington to make yet another policy turnaround on the Syria crisis.[FLASHBACK: Where did Saddam’s WMD go? To Syria … ]
Days after the American side had publicly sidelined Security Council diplomacy and was set to militarily strike the Syrian regime for its alleged use of chemical weapons in the civil war, Russia has, not unexpectedly, countered to try to checkmate the U.S. plans.
Just a week ago, Australia’s UN Ambassador Gary Quinlan, speaking in his capacity as Security Council President for September, told correspondents that while there’s a stalemate in the Council the reality remains, “there needs to be a re-energized diplomatic effort.” Indeed so.
Yet a day later, Samantha Power the new American Ambassador to the UN, launched a pre-emptive political strike on returning to Security Council diplomacy and stated, “Russia continues to hold the Council hostage.” While this is technically true, she then went out of her way to slam the door and dourly stress “there is no viable path forward in this Security Council, ” as Russia is “the protector of the (Syrian) regime.”
Lakhdar Brahimi the UN’s point-man for peace in Syria conceded, “Even a fully united and engaged Security Council cannot produce a magical solution.”
Yet given that Moscow would likely veto any serious Western moves to censure the Assad regime, why not put Russia on record to exercise its veto, a resounding Nyet? Moscow and Beijing have provided continuing cover fire to their client in Damascus, thus showing the Arab world that Moscow plays by realpolitik rules, not those of finger in the wind diplomacy.
Clearly the Russians are playing for time to save their client regime in Damascus. The Assad family has long links to the former Soviet Union and today’s Russia.
Naturally the Russian plan for the UN to dismantle and destroy Syria’s chemical weapons program and capacity, has sidetracked but not stopped the Obama administration’s push for a military strike on Syria. But since Obama has little domestic or international support for such a move, Putin’s maneuver offers him a political lifeline.
Still for all the talk and hope over the vague Russian plan, the devil is in the details. First and foremost, finding, taking inventory and subsequently destroying Damascus’ horde of chemical weapons poses a major hurdle even with lukewarm cooperation from Assad. In the midst of a raging civil war, many of the stockpiles are inaccessible or in danger of falling into rebel hands.
But there are two other trickier points. Where do most of these toxic weapons come from? Mostly the old Soviet Union or they have been produced in Syria. The other point becomes, what if and when did some of Saddam’s chemical weapons which were squirreled out of Iraq just before the 2003 war suddenly reappear? Red faces all round.
Obama’s pedantic and awkward address lacking true emotion but evoking the emotional images of dead Syrian children killed by sarin gas, did not really change the political weather vane in Washington. Justifiable moral outrage over Syria’s civil war does not make a case for a compelling American national interest in the conflict.
And what of the massive humanitarian disaster as four million Syrians have been displaced from their homes internally and a further two million people have fled as refugees to neighboring countries such as Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon?
The UN’s “Independent International Commission” report blames both sides for atrocities. “The conflict in the Syrian Arab Republic has taken a dangerous turn The majority of casualties result from unlawful attacks using conventional weapons.
Nevertheless the debate over what international action to take, if any, has assumed new urgency following the alleged use of chemical weapons in August.”
Dangerously Syria civil war has morphed into a lethal sectarian struggle with a gaggle of fundamentalist rebels targeting the minority Christians. A riveting BBC TV report shows that jihadi fighters seized and partly destroyed a Maaloula, an ancient Christian enclave outside Damascus; ironically the Syrian army and Christian militias are trying to retake the town. Christians have fled to the Catholic Cathedral in Damascus.
Putin’s manipulative Syria policy moves aside, Russia aims to reassert itself back into the Middle East as a major player and broker.
Putin is playing Obama for keeps. Game On.
John J. Metzler is a U.N. correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He writes weekly for WorldTribune.com. He is the author of Transatlantic Divide ; USA/Euroland Rift (University Press, 2010).