Weighing Russia's Syria Success

Does a big deal mean the Kremlin's back as a key global player?

Those who have bemoaned the acrimonious exchanges between the United States and Russia, watched with dismay as President Obama’s “reset” with Moscow (more of a marketing moniker than substantive policy) unraveled, and tried valiantly to insist that Russia remains a great power and ought to be respected and embraced by Washington as a partner have had their spirits lifted recently. What did it was Moscow’s dramatic demarche following the August 21 use of chemical weapons by the Assad government.

Russia’s creative and quick-footed diplomacy averted a possible American (and French) military strike against Assad and laid the groundwork for a deal that could lead to the tallying and disabling of Syria’s chemical-weapons stocks, said to total some one thousand tonnes. After Russian diplomats worked to secure Assad’s compliance, Russia and the U.S. took the lead in preparing a Security Council resolution aimed at ridding Syria of chemical weapons, and the Council adopted it unanimously. But, in yet another display of Russian influence, the resolution did not contain an authorization, under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, to implement its provisions by force if necessary, something that the U.S., Britain, and France had demanded. Any such move will require a follow-on resolution, which Russia can veto. A Russian diplomatic blitz preceding the Security Council vote was indispensable to the outcome. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov persuaded Assad that he had to surrender his chemical weapons or risk an American military attack. Russia also enlisted the help of Syria’s patron, Iran, showing that it had the kind of influence over Assad and a productive relationship with Tehran that none of the other big powers did.

So just how big has the Russian triumph been and what, if anything, does it tell us about Russia’s present and prospective power and influence?

The savvy of Russia’s diplomats, Lavrov’s in particular but also that of its UN ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, is undeniable. Contrast Lavrov’s virtuoso performance with the erratic role of his American counterpart, John Kerry. During the crisis Kerry, a man with vast experience in foreign policy, personified histrionic excess and inconsistency. At one point he likened the Syrian government’s chemical attack to “a Munich moment” (Assad as Hitler); at another, in an apparent effort to calm mounting opposition in Congress and among Americans more generally, he declared that the planned missile attack would be “unbelievably small” (a wrist slap for the latter-day Hitler).

The contrast between Kerry’s prolixity and hyperbole during his Congressional testimony and the measured tones of Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Martin Dempsey, who were also testifying, accentuated the Secretary of State’s melodrama while also stoking the expectations of those who were pulling for a strike as well as the anxieties of those who worried that it would suck America into another civil war. Worse, it conveyed the impression that the administration was divided. Then there was the ill-timed outburst of the activist-turned-diplomat, Samantha Power, who, having only recently arrived at the UN as Obama’s ambassador, blasted Russia for holding the UN hostage—this just as her boss was heading to the G20 summit in St. Petersburg in hopes of bringing President Vladimir Putin around.

President Obama didn’t shine either. Exactly a year before the August 21 chemical attack, he had warned Assad publicly that Syria’s use of chemical weapons would cross a “red line” that would alter his “calculus.” Despite evidence that Assad had crossed that line several times, Obama did nothing. Following the August 21 attack, a president who had been leery of getting involved in Syria’s conflict seemed to have no choice but to order American warships toward Syria in preparation for a military strike. But once Prime Minister David Cameron failed to convince the House of Commons that Assad had to be hit and Congressional and public opposition to a strike began to register, the president tossed the hot potato to Congress, giving Assad breathing space. That provoked a raft of comments about a White House in disarray. It also hung French president Francois Hollande, who had announced that France would join America in striking Assad, out to dry.