Dealings behind the scenes of international politics are often shrouded within private meetings and top-secret documents. The crisis in Syria has opened a tiny window through which we, the citizens of the world, can peer.
Most of the clarity at the moment doesn’t come from our own government, but from other countries. President Barack Obama has held his cards close to his chest, refusing to share intelligence that allegedly proves that the Syrian military has used chemical weapons. The United Nations investigation, which determined that chemical weapons were used suggests no possible culprit.
While President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry blame the Syrian regime for the attacks, Assad refuses to accept responsibility for their use, claiming that rebel forces used chemical weaponry against his soldiers. The world leader most willing to speak publicly about the issue has been none other than Syria’s primary ally in the U.N. Security Council, Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The relationship between Obama and Putin has been rocky these past few years; Putin’s desire to reestablish Russia as a major geopolitical power has fed into his interest in Syria, which hosts the only Russian naval base outside of the former Soviet Union in Tartus. It’s one of the few ports in the Mediterranean capable of servicing Russian ships.
Edward Snowden’s flight to Russia over the summer offered another point of conflict between the U.S. and Russia. Faced with a U.S. whistleblower trapped in the transit zone of an airport in Moscow, Obama offered an ultimatum to Putin — turn Snowden over to American authorities, or else. Faced with the choice of appearing subservient to Obama or asserting Russian sovereignty by refusing, Putin decided to flex his international muscle.
On Sept. 11, the New York Times published an op-ed penned by Putin himself in which he lays out his case against intervention. In addition to the very real threat of a U.S. strike causing spillover violence and instability across the region, he argued that any intervention by the U.S. or some other power wasn’t justified under international law, since the conflict in Syria doesn’t directly threaten us.
To conclude, Putin pointed to the positive strides made between Russia and the U.S. with nuclear nonproliferation. He continues to push a recent policy option that has gained support in Russia, Syria and the U.S. that aims to use similar mechanisms to achieve a degree of arms control in Syria over its chemical weapon stockpiles.
Under the plan, all chemical weapons in Syria would be turned over to international authorities who would then destroy or otherwise dispose of them. There wouldn’t be any chance of them being used in the ongoing conflict, and they also couldn’t fall into the hands of the rebels or dangerous terrorists and criminals who might seek to use them. Negotiations are ongoing to see if this is a viable option, but there is hope that things can be resolved. For President Putin, the hope remains that Russia’s international credentials will be improved by crafting, pushing and implementing such a plan.
Follow Patrick Rear on Twitter: @pgrear92
As published in the Sept. 19 issue of the Pepperdine Graphic.