Vladimir Putin deserves the Nobel Peace Prize. Not for public speaking or for simply being someone other than his predecessor; others have won it for that. And certainly not for stamping out democracy, judicial independence and multiculturalism in his own country. The Russian president has, however, played a critical role in prospects for peace in the Middle East. He pulled Washington from the brink of repeating in Syria the same mistakes committed in Iraq 10 years earlier.
In an open letter to the American people, published in the New York Times last September, Putin outlined the rationale for a more measured and deliberate approach to the Syrian conflict. His missive cautioned against employing the kinds of ill-conceived and incomplete policies that have, in the past, destabilized countries and fomented insecurity in a region overwrought with conflict.
Couching the issue in terms of instrumentalization of international law, he also warned that a unilateral strike against Syria might undercut credibility to mediate on other issues, such as the impasse over the Iranian nuclear program and the long-standing Israeli-Palestinian dispute.
In late summer, U.S. President Barack Obama faced seemingly insurmountable hurdles in convincing not only Congress, but also the general public, of both the legitimacy and necessity of using armed force against the regime of President Bashar Assad. With the shadows of Iraq and Afghanistan looming large, there seemed to be little appetite for intervention, and growing impatience with further adventures in unilateralism.
Enter Moscow. Recognizing the low momentum in U.S. domestic politics, at a time when the British Parliament had already blocked participation in any armed operation in Syria, the Russians served to avert Moscow’s horror scenario of a destabilizing intervention. It also provided a face-saving option for a White House that had become prisoner to its own rhetoric, thus saving Obama from becoming in 2013 what he had campaigned against in 2008.
Russia’s initiative to have Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal destroyed – as an alternative to punishing Assad – was a diplomatic masterstroke. This stratagem was laudable on two fronts: It spared the region what would have surely been an escalation of the conflict, particularly when neither the United States nor other proponents of intervention had devised a plan for effectively dealing with Al-Qaeda-affiliated elements of the armed opposition. These groups pose as much a challenge to the moderate opposition as they do to the regime. Second, the plan set in motion an institutionalized and internationally accepted program for ridding the world of a significant stockpile of weapons of mass destruction.
Talks between Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on this issue have signified a shift in the Syrian crisis. They have rebalanced Russo-American coordination over the future of Syria. A verbal aside by Kerry to his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, may well have precipitated a much-needed change of direction in the approach to the Syrian conflict.
These consultations have forestalled any interventionism in the near future. This development has affected the credibility of Obama when it comes to the threat of force. Previously drawn red lines became blurred lines and then seemingly disappeared. Importantly, this now frees Assad to continue airstrikes against the rebels and, lamentably, the civilian population.
The unmistakable message, conveyed as much in Putin’s open letter as by his actions, is that Russia is again relevant on the international scene, and its voice is one to be reckoned with if solutions to the most pressing conflict zones are to be found. By forcing America to think through alternatives to another hastily planned military operation in the Middle East, Putin made international relations more democratic. Or so say the Russians.
Recognizing a negotiated political settlement as the only viable option, Washington and Moscow have ruled out the use of force against Assad. Prospects for Geneva II (scheduled for Jan. 22, 2014) look bleak, however. It is not at all clear, for instance, whether the opposition will speak with a single, unified voice.
The structure and composition of any transitional government also remains a major point of contention among the actors. Consideration has been given to an interim government reminiscent of the 1995 “Dayton model” that ended the conflict in Bosnia; this was inclusive of Slobodan Milosevic, ostracized as a war criminal at the time. The Friends of Syria and the Syrian National Council have voiced strong opposition to the inclusion of Assad in such a framework, with Russia supportive of Assad’s role in a transition.
Syria has become a litmus test for regional security. Confessional and ethnic complexities – much like those in Bosnia during the early 1990s – obstruct possible solutions. And the parameters of the conflict have not changed: It has become a proxy war, with Iran, Turkey, Saudi-Arabia, Qatar, Russia, Hezbollah and Western countries involved while the massive refugee crisis only expands.
This makes Syria an explosive mixture of the worst elements of the Yugoslav wars and the Lebanese civil war. Much is riding on how a negotiated settlement takes shape, a process that should not be disconnected from the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons. Regarding those as parallel, not consecutive, elements for a road map for Syria may provide traction for Geneva II.
Moritz Pieper and Octavius Pinkard, Brussels-based specialists in foreign policy analysis and Middle East politics, are doctoral researchers at the University of Kent. They wrote this article for THE DAILY STAR.