The Caucasus and Russia's Syria Policy

Those who ignore Russia's internal worries won't understand its Syria policy—or spot a common ground.

The United States and Russia are both running out of options in Syria, and their joint initiative to place Syrian chemical weapons under international control and destroy them is only a potential and unlikely solution to one part of the Syrian crisis. The plan pushed by Russian president Vladimir Putin will probably not solve the chemical weapons problem and could very well exacerbate it and the real challenge of the Syrian crisis—the jihadist threat.

President Barack Obama and his administration missed the moment two years when it was possible to support a moderate opposition in overthrowing the brutal regime of Bashar Assad. The Obama administration then compounded matters. It rushed to judgment about the world’s obligation to punish Assad for allegedly crossing a poorly thought out ‘red line’ by using chemical weapons without providing any concrete evidence to allies and potential partners that Assad had done the attack. According to Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov in a September 15 interview, the Obama and Putin administrations had been discussing the danger of Assad’s chemical weapons falling into jihadi hands since the June 2012 G-20 summit in Los Cabos, and the Obama administration had even contacted people around Assad on the issue. Thus, Secretary of State John Kerry’s seemingly spontaneous musings about a fictional agreement under which Assad would turn over those weapons that was picked up on by Putin functioned as a ‘dog whistle,’ if unintended.

Until Putin jumped on that signal and intervened with his proposal to bring Assad into talks, the administration was confronted with following through on its pledge to punish the Alawite regime in the face of almost universal, including Russian, resistance to such action. The U.S. administration’s failure to get its ducks in a row before declaring its military strike policy by lobbying properly for international support exposed allies like British prime minister David Cameron and offended competitors and occasional partners like Putin, transforming them into neutral observers or interested opportunists, respectively.

Meanwhile, evidence emerged from German intelligence sources showing that Assad may not have ordered the chemical strike, suggesting that local commanders acted on their own in exceeding previous controlled chemical strikes in recent months. This comes on top of a UN official's remarks that the rebels were behind a similar but more limited attack in March and the still nagging sense that not everything about the August attack is known, a sense reinforced by the Obama administration’s to make its evidence public, past U.S. intelligence failures on issues such as Saddam Hussein’s WMDs, and recent falsehoods issued by President and other administration officials with regard to the NSA’s spying programs. Given the Obama administration's mishandling and ensuing isolation on the issue, the Putin plan has gotten Obama and the world off the hook, but only temporarily.

Why Did Putin Act?

Putin’s motives for intervening in the Syrian crisis and for giving President Obama what amounts to a ‘mulligan’ in his handling of the Syrian chemical weapons crisis have been subjected to all manner of suspicions and attributed to all kinds of ulterior motives, from trying to embarrass the United States, revive Russian influence in the Middle East, support its Syrian ‘ally’, and the like. The fact is that the main reason is that the United States, Russia, and their respective allies in the region have the most to lose in Syria and have a common interest in removing chemical weapons from the Syrian equation.

In addition, Putin is trying to address two Russian national security problems currently presented by U.S. policies in general and in the region specifically: Western-dictated ‘humanitarian intervention’ and ‘responsibility to protect’ doctrines and the possible strengthening of the Caucasus Emirate (CE) mujahedin as a result of the growing jihadi threat not just in Syria but across the Muslim world. These issues are especially relevant now, given the recent and unfolding history wherein the United States has intervened and then withdrawn, leaving states in the region in the lurch to deal with the jihadi threat by themselves—as is occurring in South and Central Asia and the Persian Gulf region with the imminent U.S. and Western military intervention and withdrawal from Afghanistan and the past intervention and withdrawal from Iraq.

The first problem is well known and has been much discussed. Specifically, Russia (and China and other states) has no interest in legitimizing a Western-defined ‘humanitarian intervention’ and ‘right to protect’ doctrines, given the way these have been used against Russian allies in Yugoslavia and Serbia in the past and the way they could be applied to potential similar separatist crises in Russia and/or along its borders.

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