September 15, 2013

Commentary: Putin's Syria plan

In Russia's attempt to broker a deal on chemical weapons, analysts see two goals: The protection of its citizens and a chance to burnish its image as a force to be reckoned with.

By WILL ENGLUND The Washington Post

MOSCOW - Though he likes to bet on sure things, President Vladimir Putin made an uncharacteristic gamble this week when Russia stepped into the middle of the gathering Syrian crisis. His success will depend on forces outside his control.

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Associated Press photos/Staff Photo Illustration by Michael Fisher

The Obama administration was wary when it first heard Russia's proposal that Syria turn over its chemical weapons for destruction, coinciding with Syria's signing on to the chemical weapons convention.

It looked as though it could have been a tactic intended to delay the impending U.S. military strike on Syria or a posturing stunt meant to embarrass Washington. But Russia had seen an opportunity Monday and leapt at the chance to show that it is still a nation to be reckoned with.

Politicians and analysts here point out that Russia has genuine reasons to step in at this moment and try to broker a deal that would forestall Western intervention as well as secure Syria's alarmingly vast stock of chemical weapons.

"This is not a theoretical question," Andrei Klimov, deputy chairman of the foreign affairs committee of the upper house of parliament, said Wednesday. Russia has the safety of its own citizens to protect, he said. "And we have the solution."

The Kremlin believes that an American military strike would roil the entire Middle East and threaten to expand the conflict beyond Syria's borders. It sees a danger in a violent reaction among Muslim extremists within Russia itself. Moscow fears that Syria's chemical weapons could fall into the hands of radicals who wouldn't hesitate to use them.

And there's a question of pride: Russia poses as the counterweight to the United States. Its diplomatic initiative helps maintain that image. To be a relatively passive bystander to an American attack would be a moment of uncomfortable truth.

For the more than two years that Syrians have been at war with each other, Russia has been the consistent nay-sayer, blocking any action by the United Nations to address the conflict and providing a stalwart defense of the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Until this week, any attempt to find common ground with the West on Syria would have made Russia appear to be "dancing to the U.S. tune," wrote Georgy Mirsky, a Middle East expert, on the website of the Ekho Moskvy radio station.

Putin wasn't going to let that happen. Russia, in his conception, must be seen as a great power, and that precludes any agreement to toe the American line on an issue where Russia has other ideas. In 2011, Moscow went along on the intervention in Libya, which Putin quickly decided was a major error, not to be repeated.

But Monday's chemical weapons proposal enables Russia to take center stage on its own initiative and offer a solution to part of the Syrian crisis rather than put up an obstacle.

Russia took the lead and put the question to the United States. If Washington had balked, Putin could still present himself as a thwarted peacemaker.

There are risks for Russia nonetheless. Now that the Obama administration has expressed interest, an inability to work out an agreement with the other members of the U.N. Security Council would scuttle the initiative, and Russia could get the blame. If Assad too obviously ducks his obligations to turn over chemical weapons, Russia would have to answer for him. If there is another major nerve gas attack in Syria, and it can be traced to Assad's forces, that would be a disaster for the Kremlin.

Yet the benefit for Russia, if the plan succeeds, is clear to policymakers here. Putin's government believes that an American military strike on Syria would have unpredictable, but almost certainly devastating, consequences. It could let loose forces of disorder, Klimov said, that might reach into Russia itself, in the Muslim areas along the Caucasus Mountains.

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