Russia, US seeing eye to eye on Syria? Don't bet on it

Russian proposal on Syrian chemical weapons may get hung up if US maintains threat of military strikes.

Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP
President Obama (r.) gestures as he speaks to Russia's President Vladimir Putin during arrivals for the Group of 20 summit at the Konstantin Palace in St. Petersburg, Russia, last week. Mr. Putin insisted Tuesday that Russia's proposed peace plan can only work if the US renounces the military option against Syria.

It's one of those rare moments when Russia and the United States seem to be on the same page. After more than two years of acrimony over how to respond to Syria's spiraling civil war, Moscow and Washington suddenly appear to agree on a common way forward.

President Obama put threatened military strikes against Syria on hold Tuesday in favor of a diplomatic plan, championed by Russia, to end the Syrian crisis through negotiated measures to remove President Bashar al-Assad's chemical weapons stockpile. The three countries' top diplomats, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, US Secretary of State John Kerry, and Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem are scheduled to meet in Geneva on Thursday to discuss the details.

But there is one fundamental point on which Russia and the US remain diametrically opposed. And it could be a deal breaker: whether to maintain the threat of military intervention against Mr. Assad.

Mr. Obama appealed Tuesday to Congress and the US public to back a military option because, he argued, the threat of force has driven Assad to consider dismantling his chemical arsenal. That was something he was not prepared to do when the Russians raised it with him last year, and Obama argued more pressure will be needed to keep him at the table.

But Russian President Vladimir Putin insisted Tuesday that the proposed peace plan can only work if the US renounces the military option.

"Of course, all of this will only mean anything if the United States and other nations supporting it tell us that they're giving up their plan to use force against Syria. You can’t really ask Syria, or any other country, to disarm unilaterally while military action against it is being contemplated," Russian agencies quoted Mr. Putin as saying.

In fact, experts say, the Russians remain deeply suspicious that Obama is pursuing regime change in Syria, and is only maneuvering through diplomatic channels right now because he's hit a brick wall with global, US public, and congressional opposition opposed to another Middle East war.

Russia on Tuesday blocked a French-drafted United Nations Security Council resolution, whose language seemed to support Moscow's proposal to put Syrian chemical weapons under international control. It also, however, explicitly blamed Assad for carrying out the alleged Aug. 21 gas attack that killed hundreds of people in a Damascus suburb. Moscow rejects apportioning blame for the event until the UN inspectors have reported their findings, because it fears that could become a pretext for attacking Assad.

"If the US administration goes on insisting that it must have war powers before we can reach agreement on a UN Security Council resolution to implement the chemical weapons plan, that could derail the whole process," says Sergei Karaganov, who heads the Council on Foreign and Defense Policies, a leading Moscow think tank.

"The primary task right now, which we should all focus on, is to get an enabling Security Council resolution, to authorize an international team to go in and put these chemical weapons under control. It's very much in our common interests to get this done, but we can only do it together. And we must be mindful that there will be forces on the ground in Syria, and some nations like Saudi Arabia, that will seek to scuttle this whole enterprise," Mr. Karaganov says.

The Russians have stressed that the idea of removing Assad's chemical weapons is one they have raised repeatedly with the US in the past, but claim they got no cooperation. Putin said explicitly on Tuesday that the current plan was "indeed discussed" between himself and Obama during a 20-minute meeting in St. Petersburg last Friday, and that they delegated Lavrov and Kerry to "work together and see if they can achieve some progress in this regard."

That would seem to contradict the originally reported version that Lavrov picked up the idea after Kerry made an offhand remark at a London news conference Monday that Assad might avoid US military strikes if he handed over "every single bit" of his chemical weapons to the international community.

"We discussed this idea with Obama months ago. Fortunately, he is now ready to think seriously about this Russian proposal," says Andrei Klimov, deputy chairman of the State Duma's international affairs committee.

Mr. Klimov says that Moscow and Washington must now urgently hammer out the details, which can be the basis for a Security Council resolution that would authorize the two countries to go into Syria and remove Assad's stockpile of chemical munitions. He says Russia can't do the removal on its own, so the US help is needed, under UN auspices.

"The Syrian government is ready. The issue now is to get some clear answers from our colleagues in Washington, and agree upon the basic elements of the enabling Security Council resolution," he adds.

Karaganov, one of Russia's top foreign affairs experts, says he understands that Americans may worry that Russia may be utilizing the diplomatic plan to protect its longtime client, Assad, by stalling for time. And it may be that the US threat of force is what is pushing the Syrians to negotiate over the chemical weapons.

"But that isn't what's motivating us to take on the position of broker here. In fact, if Russia were truly anti-American and wished the US ill, we'd have left Obama in the box he was in, and let him go ahead and bomb Syria.…" he says.

"Of course we're doing this for Russian prestige, and because we fear spreading instability in the Middle East. But we also see this as an instrument to improve our relationship with the US, and perhaps put it on a better footing than before. That's something we care a lot about," Karaganov adds.

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