May 12, 2013

David Rohde: Russia gains, not the Syrians

Kerry deserves credit for a diplomatic advance, but Moscow's help toward peace is 'wishful thinking.'

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Secretary of State John Kerry, left, talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Moscow.

The Associated Press

"In Putin's view, they were all victims of a cynical U.S. plot for global domination," journalist Lucian Kim wrote last year, "where any weapon is fair game, be it smart bomb, a pro-democracy grant or Twitter."

Instead of being the West's potential victim, Putin is now its vital interlocutor. Maria Lipman, a scholar-in-residence at the Carnegie Moscow Center and a leading political analyst, said Putin's logic is simple. "You may denounce us," she said, "but when it comes to the most important international issue today, you come to Moscow."

So, with all this, why is the Obama administration turning to Putin for help? The answer is simple: the White House's deep desire to not get entangled in Syria. To American officials, a deal with Russia is a cost-free solution. The geopolitical equivalent, if you will, of a drone strike. No Americans lives will be lost. There will be little domestic political risk.

In truth, though, there is no easy way to stem the conflict in Syria, which increasingly threatens to destabilize the region. Blame is widespread.

Assad, of course, is the worst culprit. His refusal to relinquish power in the face of an initially peaceful protest movement has led to the killing of an estimated 70,000 people. In Washington, Obama allowed exaggerated fears of another Iraq to paralyze his administration.

Putin, though, has arguably been the most cynical. He exaggerated his control of Assad and may also be double-dealing.

Twenty-four hours after Kerry left Moscow, news reports emerged that Russia was planning to sell surface-to-air missiles to Syria that would make any American intervention in the conflict vastly more difficult. The Wall Street Journal reported that Israeli officials had warned the Obama administration of Russia's imminent sale to Syria of sophisticated S-300 missiles with a range of 125 miles.

Asked about the sale at a news conference in Rome on Thursday, Kerry said Washington would prefer that Russia not provide arms to Syria and called the missiles potentially "destabilizing" to Israel. If true, the missile sale would be a personal affront to Kerry, who lauded Putin and Lavrov in Moscow.

Sale or no sale, the proposed conference should be carried out. Both sides may miraculously agree on an interim government.

But it is more likely that the United States has lost control of the rebels, particularly the jihadists. And Russia has lost control of Assad, who retains Tehran's backing and has killed so many people that he cannot compromise.

Syria's downward spiral will continue.

Maine native David Rohde is a columnist for Reuters, a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, and a former reporter for The New York Times and Christian Science Monitor.

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