By rescuing Obama, Putin invites US-Russia collaboration


In this handout image provided by Host Photo Agency, Russian President Vladimir Putin greets US President Barack Obama at the G20 summit on Sept. 5, 2013.


Guneev Sergey/Host Photo Agency

OWL’S HEAD, Maine — Saved by Putin.

Last week, President Barack Obama was on the verge of an embarrassing rejection by Congress that would have forced him to choose between two equally disastrous responses to the crisis in Syria.

He could have ignored Congress and initiated a military strike against Syria, an action that would more likely have added to the chaos than reduced it. Or he could have abided by the congressional vote, thus revealing the US under his leadership to be a paper tiger.

Not only the Russians and the Iranians; the Syrians and the Chinese would have seen the weak side of Obama's foreign policy, as would have the Israelis, the Turks and the Saudis.

We could ask how in the world such an apparently smart individual as Obama, with four years of experience on the world scene, painted himself into a lose-lose corner.

But the bigger question is, why in the world would Russian President Vladimir Putin want to save Obama from this embarrassing dilemma?

The obvious answer is that Putin saw a collaborative effort to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons to be in Russia's strategic interest. And that is good news indeed.

The US shares Russian strategic interest in Syria, with its focus on the dangers radical Islamists pose to the long-term stability of the Middle East.

From Putin's point of view, the threat of radical Islam is a direct and growing danger to the Caucasus region of southern Russia. Working together to contain this threat was worth tossing Obama a lifeline.

Analysts and commentators reacting to the Russian proposal to have Assad hand over all chemical weapons have focused on the obvious difficulties of rounding up Syria's large arsenal of chemical weapons in the midst of its violent and spreading civil war. Certainly this represents a formidable obstacle. They also have been speculating what Obama will do if Assad proves unwilling to carry out the agreement reached between Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and US Secretary of State John Kerry.

But this speculation misses the point. Chemical weapons should no longer be the key American focus, as Obama so ineptly made them. With Russian support and pressure, Assad will presumably do the minimum to uphold his side of the bargain. Barring another chemical weapons attack, it's important that Obama be flexible in overseeing the dismantling of Assad's chemical weapons.

Specifically, he must zero in on working with the Russians to find a solution to the overall Syrian crisis. Resolving the Syrian civil war is in the long-term interest of the US and must take precedence over red lines and other short-term issues.

For starters, this means Obama's declaration of two years ago that "Assad must go" must now give way to a different strategic aim that “the Islamists must not come."

To be sure, working with the Russians will not guarantee a successful outcome; but working at cross-purposes will surely prevent it. Using quiet diplomacy behind the scenes, Kerry should acknowledge to the Russians that the US accepts the reality that Assad will remain in power for the next year or so.

The Russians also should know that the US envisions a safe haven for Assad, his family, and his close colleagues in Russia, and that the US will not seek to try him for war crimes before the International Criminal Court. This point will be particularly distasteful to human rights advocates, but if it's part of an overall approach that ends the civil war, it will be worth the price.

Finally, and most difficult, the US and Russia must move toward creating a coalition of moderate anti-Assad groups and some of the more moderate Alawite members of the Assad government and armed forces. There are Christian and Sunni business elements in Syria that would welcome such an approach.

Not surprisingly, Col. Salim Idriss, head of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), was vociferous in his denunciation of the chemical weapons deal struck by Lavrov and Kerry because it precluded a US military strike. The FSA is made up primarily of Sunni militias that the US and Turkey have been supporting. Idriss correctly interpreted the new arrangement as a setback for FSA aspirations to score a military victory.

It's an incredibly complex situation. The only givens are that the longer the war continues, the more Syrians are killed; the more refugees cross the Syrian border to further destabilize Lebanon and Jordan; and the more militant Islamists flood into Syria from Iraq, the Saudi peninsula and beyond.

Luckily, both Russia and the US have a vested interest in preventing this continued deterioration. If we are smart enough to find a compromise, it will be messy and unsatisfactory to many. But it will be better than the all-or-nothing alternative that could stretch out the Syrian conflict for years and suck its neighbors into the maelstrom.

Mac Deford is retired after a career as a Foreign Service officer, an international banker, and a museum director. He lives at Owls Head, Maine and still travels frequently to the Middle East.