Stewart M. Patrick

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Obama, Putin, and Syria: The Makings of a Deal?

by Stewart M. Patrick
June 19, 2012

U.S. President Barack Obama meets with Russia's President Vladimir Putin in Los Cabos, Mexico, June 18, 2012 (Jason Reed/Courtesy Reuters).


As often happens at G20 summits, the major diplomatic action in Los Cabos is taking place not in plenary sessions devoted to the world economy, but in discreet conversations between world leaders. Witness the bilateral meeting yesterday between presidents Obama and Putin over the deteriorating situation in Syria. That conversation suggested the outlines of a potential breakthrough, as both sides stare into the abyss of an all-out Syrian civil war. In their closing statement, Obama and Putin committed to the common goal of a “political transition to a democratic, pluralistic political system that would be implemented by the Syrians themselves.” Making tangible progress toward this objective will require restraint on the part of the Obama administration, and the stomach to grant Putin the outsized diplomatic role he craves as mediator.

Since the Assad regime began its bloody crackdown more than a year ago, Washington and Moscow have remained far apart.  The Obama administration has repeatedly sought strong UN Security Council (UNSC) condemnation and sanctions against the Syrian government for atrocities that now transcend Muammar al-Qaddafi’s transgressions in Libya. Senior U.S. officials, from Obama on down, have made it clear that Assad must go, only to be stymied by Moscow, determined to shield its most important client state and diplomatic foothold in the Middle East, which besides being a loyal arms customer, hosts Russia’s only naval base in the Mediterranean.

Despite its rhetoric, the Obama administration has flinched from arming the Syrian rebels as part of a deepening proxy war (in which Russia and Iran are arrayed against Sunni Arab states), much less organizing a Kosovo-like “coalition of the willing” outside UNSC auspices to depose Assad. Washington’s reluctance to bite the bullet reflects uncertainty about the coherence of the Syrian opposition, concern about the spillover effects of a deepening sectarian war, and the domestic political risks of launching yet another military intervention in the Muslim world a few months before the November elections.

This leaves a diplomatic agreement between the United States and Russia as the only realistic option to try to avoid all-out civil war in Syria. Fortunately, the distance separating Moscow and Washington may be narrowing. Saturday’s decision to suspend the UN observer mission in reaction to escalating violence places pressure on Moscow to launch a serious diplomatic initiative, to head off all-out civil war and eventual external intervention that it may oppose but cannot stop. In Los Cabos, Putin and Obama agreed on the need to avoid civil war, through a “political process” that leads to a negotiated settlement.

For the Obama administration, this provides an opportunity. The key is to recognize that what Putin craves above all is the mantle of a global statesman and recognition of Russia’s continued global power status. The United States should invite Moscow to take on a stronger mediation role, including by convening a conference in St. Petersburg or another Russian city that involves both the Assad regime and representatives of the Syrian opposition. Such an invitation from Moscow would be tough for Assad to decline. For its part the Obama administration should hold its nose and stop talking about regime change in Syria, opening up the possibility that a negotiated settlement could leave Assad in power during a defined transition phase. It is telling, in this regard, that Obama refrained in Los Cabos from saying that Assad had to go.

Would such a diplomatic gambit work? Given the massive flow of arms into Syria, and the support of powerful outsides sponsors like Iran and Saudi Arabia for the contending sides, it may be too late to head off full-scale civil war. And certainly, Syrian rebel forces would look skeptically on any Russian hosted peace conference, particularly if Russia’s own arms flows to Assad continued. But U.S. presence as an ally for the Syrian rebels would give them significant sway at any discussions. It is worth a final effort to head off catastrophic bloodshed and regional upheaval, particularly if the gathering includes heavy involvement by the United States and other major representatives of the “Friends of Syria” coalition. To agree to such an arrangement, Putin would need certain guarantees. These could include a promise that any transitional government would not alter Russia’s naval presence.

Launching such a peace overture might not stop the violence immediately, but at this stage there are simply no better alternatives, given the incoherence of the rebel forces, the risks of sectarian implosion, and the likelihood that deepening violence will spill over into Syria’s neighbors, including Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, and perhaps Turkey. While the U.S. military stands prepared to do whatever its commander in chief decides, both the current chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, and one of his predecessors, Colin Powell, have warned of the complexities of any U.S.-led military operation.

Given these constraints, the most promising way forward is for the United States and Russia to jointly draft a Security Council resolution they can both live with. This would build on the joint statement of principles Putin and Obama agreed to in Los Cabos, setting out the contours and preconditions for the envisioned “political transition.” Ideally, it would call for an immediate cease-fire, the cessation of weapons shipments by all outside parties, the cantonment of the Syrian army and armed rebels, the establishment of humanitarian corridors, and the deployment of armed UN peacekeepers to replace the suspended observer mission—with a mandate to enforce separation of forces while negotiations occur over political transition.

Post a Comment 4 Comments

  • Posted by Alan MacDonald

    While I fully agree that the US and Israeli segments of the DGE (Disguised Global Empire) — which has ‘captured’ and now fully “Occupies” the faux/’Vichy’ governments of these and other former post-nation-state countries — is angling toward the fastest path to a greatly expanded war in the Middle-East, I strongly argue that Syria has been selected by the Global Empire as the fuse with which to start this fast approaching war.

    The Iran situation of a supposed ‘nuclear threat’ (which even psychopaths like Cheney and Netanyahu threaten is “existential”, when the Soviet Empire was not) simply won’t light that fuse.

    “That dog won’t hunt”.

    As dumbed-down and deluded as the American people have been by the DGE and its deceitful and treasonous corporatist media, the American people are understandably leery of another lie-induced war based only on the possibility of a vague and unlikely threat, of which Iran’s becoming more of a nuclear threat than the real Soviet Empire was with its tens of thousands of proven, and multi-mega-ton thermo-nuclear weapons in the 60’s, just doesn’t pass the ‘straight-face test’.

    So, with no road to immediately providing the excuse to —“bomb, bomb, bomb. Bomb, bomb, Iran”, as that brain-damaged war-monger, John McCain sang, the US HQ of the DGE (prodded by the Israeli sector of the DGE), is going with the proven two-ball bank shot of using the American people’s sympathy for others average people to light the fuse in Syria — which is the same ignition ploy used by Slick Willy ‘bite my lip’ Clinton in Kosovo, George ‘he’s tearing babies off incubators’ Bush I in Iraq I, and George ‘he’s killing his own people’ Bush II in Iraq II.

    And the timing of the fuse for attack on Syria is now both short and already ignited!

    John ‘war-monger’ McCain, John ‘Ambassador death-mask’ Negroponte, and Leon ‘the lesson of Vietnam is that our people like to die for nothing’ Panetta have been virtually screaming “ATTACK the murdering bastard” into any media microphones they can grab (AEI on C-Span, Solidad O’Brien on CNN, and ABC’s “This Week”) to cry great big alligator tears for the Syrian people, and to hype the ‘humanitarian justification for war’ to their naive but empathetic targets, the American people.

    This path of “going to war against the target that you have, not the one you would like” (paraphrased from Rummy) is now the reality for the fast brewing war against Syria, rather than the preferred war on Iran — but with the high probability that this ‘bank shot’ to war will hit Iran also on the rebound.

    The one thing that ‘figuratively’ “absolutely kills me” (but will ‘literally kill’ thousands, if not millions of people more innocent than myself) is that no one, no body, no friggin sector of the supposedly open minded, principled, and progressive anti-war community and leftish alternative internet media, in the country formerly known as the US, has paid a rat’s ass of attention to the thousands of times that I have presented the PROOF that Thomas Barnett’s 2004 Naval War College strategy and book, “The Pentagon’s New Map” has been the clear and present danger for this friggin war that we are about to have dropped on our empty heads.

    Oh, well, my ranting about the danger of the equally friggin DGE, Empire, Global Empire, and every other way I could possibly rant about the real seminal danger and certain death-spiral of this god damned EMPIRE for the last four or five years has either been actively argued against by ‘un-useful idiots’ of what passed for the left, or politely ignored on every god damned web-site that claims to be both ‘open-minded’, ‘left’, and ‘anti-war’ for longer than I want to remember.

    So, so-long, gang.

    As Nixon might have paraphrased it: “you won’t have that old MacDonald ‘DGE’, ‘Empire’ and ‘Pentagon’s New Map’ raving nut to kick around anymore”.

    Have a nice war, guys — even if you ignored EMPIRE.

    Best luck and love to
    the “Occupy Empire” educational and revolutionary movement.

    Liberty, democracy, and justice

    Alan MacDonald
    Sanford, Maine

  • Posted by Pianki

    I had to hold my nose and could only get through 2 paragraphs. Whatever happen to mediocre journalism?

  • Posted by Reader

    Am I really paying for this drivel? When Henry Kissinger writes for your publication he can give an opinion without completely ignoring and glossing over the actual facts underlying the situation.

    “Despite its rhetoric, the Obama administration has flinched from arming the Syrian rebels”

    Ok, if you have not read a foreign paper in the last 16 months you might be gullible enough to accept this… At least until the day after this was published when the NYT front page even confirmed that we have been arming rebels in a clear ‘along party lines’ writeup.

    Please, I come here for informed opinion and discussion – not the same propaganda I can watch on CNN. Get it together – pretend to have a shred of journalistic integrity – or give me a job – or give me my money back.

  • Posted by Stewart Patrick

    Dear Reader: Thank you for your comment. While you are correct that New York Times reported ( that the CIA is operating in southern Turkey, “helping allies decide which Syrian opposition fighters across the border will receive arms to fight the Syrian government,” you should note that in the third paragraph of the article it says that their purpose is “in part to help keep weapons out of the hands of the fighters allied with al-Qaeda or other terrorist groups.” While there is of course a probability that the United States is covertly arming Syrian rebels itself rather than merely advising to ensure the weapons do not fall into dangerous hands, this has vastly different diplomatic, political, and ultimately military consequences. For, the Obama administration has indeed flinched from fully arming the rebels, but accepts that other countries in the region are doing so. It is clear that—for political reasons—if the United States were to publicly announce that it was arming rebels while Russia continues to arm the Assad regime, the likelihood increases of a full blown proxy war, in which Iran and Russia clash with the United States and Saudi Arabia (in addition to other countries). Therefore, I stand by the original intent of the statement, which is that the Obama administration has flinched from publicly arming the rebels.

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