From Russia, with love

Moscow is signalling that Russia, even in its diminutive state, does count in an evolving world order in which the United States, still the most powerful nation, can no longer impose its will to solve the world’s problems

It is advantage Russia in the diplomatic war that is being played out in the projected air strikes by the United States on Syria to punish it for the chemical warfare attack that America and part of the West is convinced the Assad regime carried out.

For the second time, President Barack Obama has been wrong-footed on Syria; previously, he had decided to hold his hand on striking Syria at the last minute, to strengthen his position domestically by seeking congressional approval.
The US President has suffered from two kinds of handicaps as he has sought to honour his commitment that the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime would be crossing a red line. Earlier reports of the use of such weapons led to prevarication on Mr Obama’s part. But the August 21 chemical strike leading to hundreds of deaths the Assad regime blamed on the Opposition, vividly uploaded on social networks, forced President Obama to threaten punitive strikes.
The second handicap was that the US President was very conscious of the fact that he was elected and re-elected as the peace leader and all opinion polls suggested that Americans were tired of fighting another war, particularly in West Asia, after Iraq and Afghanistan. These factors led Mr Obama to switch gears and seek congressional approval before ordering strikes.
The delay gave the Russians, hosting the Group of 20 Summit in St. Petersburg, an occasion for grandstanding. And even in the Western ranks there was little enthusiasm for punitive strikes on Syria, the French President François Hollande being the most enthusiastic despite a striking lack of enthusiasm on the part of his people. In fact, Mr Hollande had to pedal back to say he would not go it alone and give a bow to the report of the UN inspectors.
The speed and alacrity with which the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, grasped an off-the-cuff remark of US secretary of state John Kerry at a London briefing were remarkable. Mr Kerry had said in a rhetorical answer to a question that one diplomatic way out of the crisis would be to place all chemical weapons of the Assad regime under international control. Following in Mr Lavrov’s footsteps, the Syrian foreign minister, Walid al-Muallem, being hosted in Moscow, chimed his agreement.
President Obama, keen on getting approval for the strikes from a reluctant Congress, sought to make the best of a bad situation by embracing the Russian proposal as “positive”, signaling his intention to work on it. For the moment at least the prospect of imminent strikes has receded.
Beyond the immediate stakes the Syrian crisis has involved are the more portentous questions of America’s role in world affairs and the future peace architecture. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon quickly jumped into the diplomatic game by endorsing the Russian proposal; he had earlier pleaded for suspending contemplated action until UN inspectors had submitted their report although their brief did not include apportioning blame on who carried out the August 21 attack.
The world hopes some good will come out of the new turn the Syrian crisis has taken. But a harsh light is shining on Mr Obama and the remaining period of his presidency. To begin with, he had boxed himself in by declaring a red line for probable intervention. Second, instead of going ahead with his decision to order punitive strikes, he got cold feet and decided to seek congressional approval giving the Assad regime all the time to safeguard his military assets. And now he has been felled by the clever footwork of Russian leaders.
In a situation that has seen so many false starts and surprising turns, it is difficult to predict the outcome. But the chances of the long-awaited and receding Geneva II conference among the contending players have brightened because at least on record everyone is for a diplomatic solution. Even more significantly, Russia has announced its coming out party internationally after the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the break-up of the Warsaw Pact. Moscow is signalling that Russia, even in its diminutive state, does count in an evolving world order in which the US, still the most powerful nation, can no longer impose its will to solve the world’s problems. Besides, a rising China is giving its support to Russia in the United Nations Security Council.
After the misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan, Americans do not have the stomach for another war in West Asia. President Obama’s earlier announcement of a “pivot” to Asia was to move away from West Asia, to engage in the future challenge of containing China, particularly against the backdrop of nervous Asian neighbours seeking a powerful ally to checkmate an assertive Beijing.
The tragedy of the Syrian civil war continues with two million refugees seeking refuge in neighbouring countries and close to a third of the people internally displaced. There are no simple answers to the turmoil because of the pastiche of sects and confessions that constitute the nation, with the minority Alawites, a Shia sect, being the ruling authority.
Besides, Sunni extremists allied with Al Qaeda have been growing in strength, making the prospect of a change less attractive to the US and the West. The Russian diplomatic initiative, thus, comes as a godsend. As it is, it has brought down the political temperature, giving all sides some breathing space.
The US will tread the diplomatic path warily, given the antagonisms that have built up with Russia over a period of time. But President Obama left himself little room for diplomatic manoeuvre, with most Americans reluctant to authorise another military intervention in West Asia, however limited its scope. Therefore, much to Mr Obama’s chagrin, it is Russia’s President Vladimir Putin who has emerged as the peacemaker in a curious twist of fate.

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