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

(Continued from page 1)

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Associated Press photos/Staff Photo Illustration by Michael Fisher

Russia fought two destructive wars in Chechnya, radicalizing Islamists throughout the entire southern belt of the country. Today it is fighting a low-grade war in Dagestan, where bombings, assassinations and outright assaults by guerrillas kill moderate imams and a few dozen Interior Ministry troops every month.

Russia is extremely concerned about a spillover of violence from the Middle East.

"Syria," he said, "is closer to us than to Washington."

In a column that was published before the Russian proposal became public, Fyodor Lukyanov, the editor of a foreign affairs magazine with a good sense of the Kremlin's thinking, wrote about the unknowns facing President Obama -- but he could have been describing Putin's dilemmas, as well.

"The international system has reached a turning point," Lukyanov wrote. "It is no longer possible to ignore the absence of a stable world order since the Cold War ended. Increased interdependence between countries does not guarantee the integrity of the global system. On the contrary, though inseparably linked, the world is fragmenting, and it's hard to understand or predict what some fragments might do."

An American strike could lead to various forms of intervention by Iran, Mirsky wrote, and Russia, which has been placing a squadron of warships in the eastern Mediterranean, would inevitably have to contend with increasing pressure to step up its own involvement.

Putin's foreign policy values stability above all else. It views the Arab Spring as a dangerous failure that has let loose worrisome Islamist extremism, said Dmitri Trenin, of the Carnegie Moscow Center. The fall of Assad would hasten that trend, the Kremlin believes.

There's an issue of pride, as well. If the United States takes action against Syria, Putin could savor his indignation, but he would not go to war to stop it. That would demonstrate Russia's limited ability to move events. It would show, in other words, that Russia is not fully a country to be reckoned with.

"If you're not equal, you can't operate equally," Trenin said. "Russia isn't the Soviet Union."

With its diplomatic proposal, Russia is able to fend off a direct comparison with U.S. prowess and remain in the thick of things.

And though Syria launched its chemical weapons program with ample help from Moscow, those arms are now in fact a major concern for the Kremlin. Russia would view with alarm a chemical weapons attack by Syria against Israel. It would consider it a catastrophe if the weapons fell into unfriendly hands -- such as those of Islamic extremists.

"Even now, in this chaos, they need to remove chemical weapons for disposal under international control, without losing time," Adm. Vladimir Komoyedov, head of the defense committee of the upper house of parliament, told the Interfax news agency Wednesday.

"God forbid, if the Assad government were to collapse, the army would disintegrate and then no one would be able to predict who would seize this chemical arsenal and how it would be used," he said. "It would not only mean the collapse of Syria, it would harm the entire Middle East."

Klimov laughed when asked if the Russian plan helps Obama, who was facing strong opposition at home to military action.

"You can say so, if you like," he replied. "But we're not thinking about how to help Mr. Obama, or Mr. Assad, or anyone else."

Still, he added, if the proposal succeeds in persuading the Americans not to attack and the Syrians to hand over their chemical weapons, it could set the stage for further diplomacy finally to resolve the Syrian conflict itself.


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