Obama moves on Iran, Putin keeps Syria

Por • 1 oct, 2013 • Sección: Política

M K Bhadrakumar

The euphoria over the Syrian chemical weapons resolution passed by the United Nations Security Council on Friday is swirling around making the headlines, but a sense of dark foreboding also lurks below the surface threatening to spoil the party.

True, after an inordinately long interval when nothing seemed to be going well between them, the United States and Russia agree on something. That calls for celebration. But then, details are emerging that there was much wrangling between the two foreign ministers, John Kerry and Sergey Lavrov, including some tense moments. The trust deficit is palpable.

Potentially significant step
To be sure, there is testiness in the air. President Barack Obama hasn’t spoken a word with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, since their 20-minute chat during the Group of 20 summit in St. Petersburg almost a month ago.

In his statement on Saturday, Obama was conspicuously modest. The eloquence was lacking. His understanding of the resolution probably needed a clarification by Lavrov on Russian state television the next day.

Obama viewed the resolution as «legally binding, that would be verifiable and enforceable, where there will be consequences for Syria’s failure to meet what has been set forth in the resolution», and to that extent he saw that the resolution «actually goes beyond what could have been accomplished through any military action».

Obama noted the resolution’s «explicit endorsement» of the Geneva process on Syria. He was «very hopeful» about the prospects but immediately voiced concern «whether Syria will follow through on the commitments» and agreed with «legitimate concerns» as to how the implementation of the resolution will be possible in civil war conditions.

All things concerned, however, Obama cautiously estimated that the Security Council resolution «represents potentially a significant step forward». What probably was not audible was the sigh of relief on his part that a military action against Syria was not necessary – for the present, at least.

Obama’s reticence stands in comparison with the triumphalism with which Lavrov claimed the resolution as a victory of Russian diplomacy, which «did not come easy». Lavrov listed the gains:

·  Russia made sure the professionals of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons will be the main actors in the implementation of the resolution rather than the UN Security Council;

·  Russia «achieved its goal» of ensuring there are «no pretexts or loopholes» for the use of force, bearing in mind the Libyan experience and «the capabilities of our partners to interpret the UN Security Council resolutions».

·  The possibility of any military strike against Syria within the ambit of the resolution is «out of question.» Whereas Obama put the onus of implantation of the resolution on President Bashar Al-Assad and his government, Lavrov underscored that the mentors and sponsors of the Syrian rebels bear a special responsibility by ensuring that their «fosterlings» do not indulge in provocative acts.

Lavrov has every reason to be satisfied that Moscow negotiated an optimal resolution. The fact of the matter is that the resolution does not contain any mechanism allowing for sanctions against Syria in the event of non-compliance, leave alone military action by foreign powers.

Russia has blocked any sort of condemnation of the Assad regime for use of chemical weapons. In effect, the American side has tacitly allowed a watering down of its self-defined «red-line- doctrine,» while the resolution puts the onus on both the regime and the rebels.

Fooling ourselves
Lavrov glossed over the civil war conditions in Syria and indeed the resolution’s major lacuna insofar as it lacks a roadmap towards a ceasefire.

The likelihood of the implementation running into difficulty in a few months down the road is exceedingly high. If that happens, the possibility of the Security Council passing a second resolution under Charter VII of the UN Charter is very remote, given the acrimonious nature of the US-Russia relations at present.

Simply put, Syrian regime’s cooperation is entirely voluntary. What needs to be factored in is that the resolution deprives the regime of several billions of dollars worth of military goods, which constituted its strategic deterrent against external aggression.

In the prevailing climate with the protagonists in the civil war locked in mortal combat and looking for outright victory, Syrian regime cannot even be faulted if it chooses to hide away for any emergency a portion of its chemical weapons stockpiles. It could be 10% of the stockpiles, as Henry Kissinger thinks; it could be more; or, it could be less. But the high probability is already being discussed openly.

Turkish President Abdullah Gul was candid in his interview with the CNN over the weekend, warning «we should not fool ourselves» that Assad would comply without the threat of military force. He said, «If it’s going to be real cleaning, that will be wonderful. That’ll be good for everyone. But if it’s going to be given some time, that at the end still there will be some chemical weapons there [in Syria], so that would be a loss of time.»

Gul is one of the most moderate voices from his part of the world. Now, coming from a country that is neck deep involved in the Syrian civil war, his words are ominous.

In fact, the attitude of the Syrian opposition groups – and, more important, the regional states sponsoring them – is going to be highly critical. Interestingly, no one is celebrating out there in Ankara, Amman, Doha or Riyadh that on Friday there has been a Security Council resolution on Syria.

These regional capitals, who are power brokers in Syria, feel uneasy that the regime change agenda is being superseded by the chemical weapons initiative.

As for the opposition groups, the picture is even more dismal. They are hopelessly divided and are increasingly at each other’s throats but the one thing that brings them together is their common rejection of the whole idea of the chemical weapons initiative.

General Salim Idris, the relatively moderate head of the military council, which notionally supervises the Free Syrian Army, was plainly dismissive, saying all this «does not interest us». The onus lies on Washington to bring on board the ilk of Idris. But, as a Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty commentary admitted,

With the opposition so negative, an enormous amount of diplomacy now must be done to assure rebel groups do not find it in their interest to sabotage the deal in hopes of still getting Western military intervention. But that diplomatic job is complicated by the fact that the fastest rising opposition groups in Syria today appear to be Islamist groups that have few or no ties to Western powers.

When it comes to the hardline groups, the scenario is actually frightening. Last week, 13 major rebel factions rejected the leadership of the Western-backed exiled opposition to announce the formation of an «Islamic Alliance».

The 13 groups are estimated to control tens of thousands of fighters and, as Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty noted, «if the [Islamist] coalition holds, it could mean Western powers would have no influence over what happens on the ground over a large part of the north as well as parts of Homs and Damascus».

Suffice to say, if the Islamist groups find it in their strategic interest to seize the chemical weapons or in any other way to sabotage the Security Council resolution, the US and its Western allies (and Israel) will get sucked into the affair. Cynics may even say that such a specter may just be the alibi needed for a Western military intervention – with or without a second UN Security Council resolution.Where Russian calculations can go wrong is in the confidence that Moscow has veto power in the Security Council. But, on the contrary, there is a widespread indignation today about the credentials of the council’s five permanent members (P5) – the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China. This has become the leitmotif of the speeches by the world statesmen at the ongoing UN general assembly. To quote John Key, New Zealand prime minister,

We now seem to have a practice whereby the permanent members can not only block council actions through the veto. They also appear to have privileged access to information and can stop the council from meeting if it does not suit their collective purposes.

 

Key told the media that the Security Council’s functioning is so farcical that the P5 diplomats haggle and then reach some consensus only to turn to Twitter first to relay it before even sensitizing the non-permanent members of the Security Council.

In sum, the incredible diplomatic pirouette performed by the US and Russia over Syria has largely enabled these two great powers for the present to escape a tricky situation. The US has been extirpated from the use of force (which it probably wasn’t looking for in the first instance), while Russia no more could be lampooned in the West as «Mr Nyet». To be sure, there has been a marriage of convenience that resulted in the Security Council resolution.

But then, has Russia assumed a disproportionate share of responsibility to nurture the offspring? Consider the following.

Obama is clearly taking a back seat on Syria for the present and concentrating on the Iran question, which is fraught with profound, direct and long-term consequences for the US’ vital interests and the core concerns and those of its allies in the West and in the Middle East – in a way that Syria never has been or can be.

So, is Russia holding a can of worms? Difficult to say, but the danger is very much there.

On balance, the US has allowed the Russian side to prevail at the UN Security Council. Prima facie, the prospect of a US-led military strike is receding so fast and so far to the background that it cannot be taken seriously anymore as in Obama’s consideration zone.

It seems Russian diplomacy has scored an extraordinary success, which, anyway, is how it is being perceived by the international opinion, and in turn it embellishes Russia’s «arrival» as a global power on the Middle Eastern theatre.

However, on closer look the danger arises that the Russians could be pressing ahead with their impressive diplomatic successes over Syria in recent weeks and might well be outstripping the rest of the world community already, including its best friend China. This is one thing.

Secondly, Russian officials have offered that the Moscow-led Collective Treaty Security Organization (CSTO) is willing to deploy forces in Syria to provide security cover for personnel from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and also to guard the chemical weapon sites. The CSTO is a fig leaf; it’ll be veritably a Russian contingent. Now, what if the Syrian rebel fighters draw Russian blood at some point?

Countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar who mentored these fighters, especially the Salafist fighters, are having a bad taste in their mouth at the sight of Russia being on a roll on a turf that spy chief Saudi Arabia’s Prince Bandar Sultan fancied as his playpen.

In the womb of time
Not that it is a trap being set for the Kremlin by Washington, but sometimes it so happens that what may appear grit and decisiveness to push enterprises with all good intentions in diplomacy may end up having tragic consequences. At the end of the day, through the coming months, Russia is pitted against the «jihad» in Syria.

Meanwhile, Obama is moving on. After giving the Russians a relatively free hand to exercise the privilege of walking through the mine fields of Syria, Obama is able to concentrate on a much more productive front that will ultimately impact on the politics of the Middle East in a far more significant way than the fate of Bashar Al-Assad – the United States’ normalization with Iran.

The speed with which Obama moved last week on Iran is simply breathtaking. Following up on Obama’s UN General Assembly speech, Secretary of State John Kerry met his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Zarif, and seemed to have discussed a one-year timeline for a road map to sort out the nuclear issue.

And, during the Kerry-Zarif pow-vow, a wonderful idea was born that Obama and Rouhani might as well have a phone conversation. Which, of course, they eventually got around to doing just before Rouhani left to catch the long flight to Tehran.

What stands out from Obama’s account of the historic phone call as well as from Rouhani’s is that the tree of hostility between the US and Iran is about to shed its fiery red leaves like the autumn trees.

Rouhani turned to Twitter as he was leaving American soil after the 15-minute phone conversation with Obama. This is his version on Twitter:

@BarackObama to @HassanRouhani: I express my respect for you and ppl of #Iran. I’m convinced that relations between Iran and US will greatly affect region. If we can make progress on #nuclear file, other issues such as #Syria will certainly be positively affected. I wish you a safe and pleasant journey and apologize if you’re experiencing the [exasperating] traffic in #NYC.

@HassanRouhani to @BarackObama: In regards to #nuclear issue, with political #will, there is a way to rapidly solve the matter. We’re hopeful about what we will see from P5+1[the P5 plus Germany] and your govt in particular in coming weeks and months. I express my gratitude for your #hospitality and your phone call. Have a good day Mr President.

@BarackObama to @HassanRouhani: Thank you, Khodahafez. [literally, Persian for «God be with you»]

Make no mistake, Obama hopes to return to the Syrian question at a future date – holding Rouhani’s hand. Until then, it’s all – well, mostly – Russia’s privilege to hold the can of worms.

The fact that Obama hasn’t cared to speak to Putin regarding Syria in this entire month since G-20 summit in St Petersburg on September 5-6, but touched on Syria in his very first conversation with Rouhani gives away what lies in the womb of time. It not only gives away the drift of the US’ priorities, but also exposes the poor alchemy of US-Russian relations.

Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001).

http://www.atimes.com/atimes/World/WOR-02-300913.html

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