Some U.S. officials and media analysts refer to Russian President Vladimir Putin as a “thug,” but now he’s being touted as a “statesman” after deflecting, at least temporarily, the prospect of a U.S. military attack on Syria’s chemical-weapons capability.
Putin’s initiative has shown many members of Congress who reject President Obama’s request for a “limited” attack that further diplomatic options remain.
At the same time, it has cast the Russian president in the role of diplomat and peacemaker while Obama seems bent on a military response.
If Putin’s effort is successful, it will give him the renewed influence he needs in the Middle East to replace the diminishing U.S. influence in the region.
Putin’s initiative also helps him to re-establish control over much of Russia’s former territories from the Caucasus to Central Asia at a time when the U.S. similarly has sought to place its imprint in the region.
Putin sees the need for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to remain in power as the Syrian military battles Sunni al-Qaida and its affiliates, including North Caucasus Islamic militants who eventually will return to southern Russia battled-hardened and ready to engage Russian security forces.
The Islamic fighters want to carve out a Caucasus Emirates in their predominantly Muslim-populated provinces of southern Russia.
The leaders of these fighters also have threatened to launch terrorist attacks on the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, just next door to the predominantly Muslim provinces.
For Putin, the stakes are high.
Just as the U.S. has been moving military assets into the eastern Mediterranean to prepare for an attack on Syria, Putin has ordered some 16 warships into the same region, showing his determination to defend the Assad government at all costs.
Syria also is strategically important to Russia, because it has the only port, Tartous, outside of the Russian region where it maintains its navy and access to the Mediterranean.
Syria also is an important ally of Shiite Iran, which is engaged in a proxy sectarian conflict with Sunni Saudi Arabia.
The Saudi kingdom wants to replace the Assad regime with Sunni leadership. Assad is an Alawite, a Shiite offshoot.
For that reason, the Saudis have been financing and providing weapons to the Sunni al-Qaida-affiliated groups, such as the Jabhat al-Nusra Front.
As recent events have demonstrated, al-Nusra, said to be the most organized and fiercest of the Syrian opposition fighters, has indiscriminately been killing innocent civilians and taken over villages and towns in Christian areas, killing many of their residents if they don’t convert to Islam.
Experts agree that the U.S. focus on Syria has ultimately been for regime change and to bring in a Sunni government, but not those associated with al-Nusra, which will be difficult to differentiate.
In undertaking regime change, the U.S. also is attempting to limit Iran’s growing influence in the region and to halt its nuclear development program which the U.S., Israel and some Western countries believe is masking efforts to build nuclear weapons.
Given the stakes, Putin saw a challenge to his standing in the Middle East, where he is attempting to reassert Moscow’s influence.
For that reason, he couldn’t pass up the chance to further negotiate the preservation of the Assad regime when it came up in an off-hand remark by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry last Monday.
Kerry’s remark – a response to a question of what it would take to avoid U.S. military action against Syria – was the catalyst for action when it appeared there were no more diplomatic options.
Kerry said that Syria had to place all of its chemical weapons under international control – a statement that had the effect of knocking the pegs out from under the effort then underway early last week to make the case for U.S. military action.
Within hours, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov seized on the diplomatic opening, saying that Russia supported the idea and thought Syria would similarly welcome it.
The next day, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem committed Damascus to the Russian initiative and immediately filed an application to join the multilateral Chemical Weapons Convention, conceding for the first time to the open secret that Syria had chemical weapons.
In citing the condition to avoid U.S. military action, Kerry had undermined the Syrian opposition that saw U.S. action as a basis to change the tide of the two-year Syrian civil war in its favor on the battlefield.
Kerry and Lavrov now are meeting in Geneva to iron out the implementation of what will be a Herculean effort to dismantle some 1,000 tons of chemical weapons at about 50 separate sites sprinkled throughout Syria.
Putin has become so buoyant that he penned an op-ed page piece for the New York Times lecturing the U.S. on democracy and American “exceptionalism,” insisting it’s arrogant to claim any nation is better than another.
If Kerry and Lavrov come up with a plan, it will further consolidate Putin’s efforts in the Middle East, at U.S. expense.
“If the U.S. administration were to ignore Russian protests and proceed with a (military) strike with at least rhetorical coalition support, Russia would have little to show for its claimed influence in the Middle East,” according to the open intelligence group Stratfor.
“However, if Russia could effectively stunt the U.S.-led military campaign through an airy diplomatic proposal, then Russia will have played a hand in directly showcasing U.S. unreliability to its allies,” it said.
A proposal could make the U.S. look weak and indecisive while Moscow comes off “as the voice of reason” in a war that no one wants, and it will be all the Obama administration’s doing.
F. Michael Maloof, senior staff writer for WND and the G2Bulletin, is a former security policy analyst in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. He can be contacted at [email protected]