Russia Picks Up Kerry's Fumble

Is the world today experiencing a reversal of the history of the international behavior of the Great Powers preceding World War II? On August 23, 1939 Vyacheslav Molotov and Joachim von Ribbentrop, foreign ministers of the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany signed a secret non-aggression pact. The cynical Stalin, aware of the indecisiveness of the Western democracies in response to the increasing aggressiveness of Hitler, had already in his speech to the 18th Communist Party Congress on March 10, 1939 explained that the Soviet Union would "avoid pulling other nation's (United Kingdom and France) chestnuts out of the fire." The result was further Nazi aggression and World War II.

Today Russia has, for its own national interests in a somewhat cynical manner, appeared to be disobeying Stalin's injunction with the proposal by foreign minister Sergey Lavrov on September 9 that Syria should place its chemical weapons under international control for subsequent dismantling. By its proposal Russia has saved President Obama and the US Administration from political and diplomatic disaster, if not humiliation.

The Russian proposal was made immediately after the off hand, semi-serious remark by Secretary of State John Kerry at a press conference in London the same day that Syria might be able to avoid a US strike if it turned over all its chemical weapon within a week. His own press secretary, Jen Psaki, then commented that President Assad "this brutal dictator with a history of playing fast and loose with the facts cannot be trusted to turn over chemical weapons. Otherwise, he would have done so long ago."

Before this astonishing display of amateurish and reckless diplomacy goes any further it is salutary to recall how the US got into this situation. Mighty oaks from little acorns grow. The political crisis caused by President Obama's initial call, and latter request for authorization of Congress, for the use of military force against Syria because of its use of chemical weapons, sprang from his unwise, offhand remark at the press conference on August 20, 2012. At that time he clearly stated regarding his policy towards Syria, "a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized." This appeared to be bravado, rather than well-informed analysis, on the part of the President often accused of being weak on national security issues.

To escape from his Red Line linguistic ineptitude, Obama attempted to modify his statement by seeking justification from the amorphous international community. At another press conference on April 30, 2013 he remarked, "What I've also said is that the use of chemical weapons would be a game changer not simply for the United States but also for the international community." This is hope for change in light of the three vetoes by Russia and China of resolutions in the UN Security Council threatening sanctions on Syria.

Of course it is true that the Chemical Weapons Convention, signed in 1993 and entering into force in April 1997 outlawed the production, stockpiling, and use of chemical weapons.  It is commendable that almost all countries have assented to it but the crucial relevant fact is that Syria is one of the six countries, together with Angola, North Korea, Egypt, and South Sudan, not to have signed the Convention.

Moreover, moral righteousness on the issue of chemical weapons was not apparent in practice for at least two reasons. Recent revelations about British policy make clear that the British government in January 2012 granted licenses for companies to sell materials to Syria that could be used to develop chemical weapons. Licenses were only revoked after the European Union tightened regulations on the issue. Also, British officers helped train military leaders of the Assad regime at least until 2009.

Yet although the use of chemical weapons is a violation of international law, or agreement, it is not clear what consequences follow from its use. The deployment by Assad of those weapons in Ghouta, in Damascus on August 21, 2013, which killed more than 1400 people, was not the first time he had used them. The "international community" had disregarded the previous Syrian use of chemicals using war planes and heavy artillery in attacks in April and May 2013, as it had disregarded their use by Iraq in its war with Iran in the 1980s.  Even now, the Lavrov proposal requires for its enforcement a credible international body to monitor the dismantling of the weapons. Caution is in order for a formidable task since both Russia and the US are fully aware of the more than 40 sites in Syria where chemical weapons are said to be located. It is an enticing notion that Syria has agreed to monitoring of the weapons which hitherto it has denied having.

Whether this process of discovery and dismantling of the WMD will end successfully is arguable in view of the lengthy time that UN inspectors take for examination of the facts. What is not arguable is the Russia has allowed Obama to escape ignominious international and domestic defeat by postponing a vote for a strike, even if limited, on Syria, and allowed Congress to avoid a vote on the issue. The Arab League is divided on a strike, and in Europe only France shows any interest in action.

Obama has hitherto avoided US intervention in Middle East conflicts. Even the small arms supplies promised by the President to aid the moderate Syrian groups opposing Assad have apparently never arrived. To strike or not to strike is a question Obama is still pondering. If he is not Hamlet he is equally not Henry V.  It is clear that he is not a militant warrior.  Genuine concern for action against Syria on humanitarian grounds seems equivocal in view of the lack of any action as 120,000 Syrians were being slaughtered in the civil war, and more than 2 million made refugees. It remains unclear what the projected US "narrow, limited" action against Assad means in practice.  Most important, the US Administration is paying less attention to the most important issue in the Middle East, the enrichment by Iran of uranium for a bomb and the building of centrifuges that will facilitate that.

It would be welcoming if there were less recourse to offhand remarks at press conferences, and more explicit, thoughtful statements on US national interest in the Middle East, now that the US is not the policeman of the world. Russia has made known its own interest. It is time for the US Administration to do the same.

If you experience technical problems, please write to