Why Not Give Russia the Lead?


By Tyrus W. Cobb


Moscow tabled, and the US accepted, a proposal that if the United States were to postpone a planned military strike against Syria, Russia would help broker an agreement in which the Assad regime would place its chemical weapon stocks under UN supervision. The end goal would be the total destruction of the Syrian chemical weapon stockpiles.

Everyone knows the agreement contains a number of challenges that seem daunting. Indeed, even the task of identifying, let alone securing, Syrian chemical weapons in the middle of a war zone appears unreasonable. At some point Syria may even insist on conditions that could collapse the agreement or fail to provide a complete accounting of its weapons.

The punditocracy decried the agreement! Gads, we hear, it gave Moscow a new lead role to play in global politics, perhaps at the detriment of the U.S. Really, tell me how giving Moscow a positive role to play is a bad thing?

We heard that the agreement signed by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov lacked definitive steps that needed to be accomplished? Au contraire, my friends, it includes a number of concrete actions that need to be taken by Syria.

And guess what? That seems to be happening, and at lightning speed! The U.N. Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution that included legally binding demands, specifically that the Syrian government agree to relinquish its chemical weapons stockpile and that independent inspectors be given unrestricted access. The Lavrov-Kerry accord required that, first, an inventory of Syrian chemical weapons be undertaken, and then, that the Syrian stockpile be placed under international control.

The agreement appears to on track for implementation. Just this week a team of 20 international disarmament experts arrived in Syria, the advance element of the group that is charged with impounding, dismantling, removing or destroying Syria’s CW arsenal. Another team of 20 is slated to arrive shortly to begin dismantling the equipment used to assemble these weapons. This has never happened before, let alone in a war zone.

And this is a black eye for the U.S.? Someone please tell me why.

Moscow takes center stage—and why is this bad?

I am amazed at the speed of events that have occurred since the signing of the Lavrov-Kerry pact, and the responsibility Russia has assumed in the process.  As the Washington Post’s David Ignatius has written, “Russia has been drawn into the process of collecting and destroying Syrian chemical weapons”.

We would be well advised to encourage the continuation of this process, including the elevation of the Kremlin to a key role in the implementation.

The question that arises, of course, is can we trust Moscow to serve as an honest broker and assist in securing an agreement that catalogs and ultimately destroys Assad’s chemical weapons?

Of course no one wants to put full faith and trust in the hands of the Kremlin. In following President Reagan’s dictum, “Trust but Verify”, we will want to verify the implementation of the mandated steps rather than rely on “trust”. With an emphasis on verification.

President Obama’s off-hand characterization recently of Russian President Vladimir Putin as the “angry kid who sits in the back of the classroom throwing spitballs” is most apt. Russia has not been constructive in diffusing international disputes, it has threatened its neighbors, and has exaggerated the intent behind US deployments of a missile defense system.

But maybe part of the reason Moscow has acted so petulant is that it really hasn’t been given any opportunity to play a more positive role. Now it has–Russia has accepted a key role in the process of collecting and destroying Syria’s chemical weapons.

No one should be so naïve to think that Moscow has suddenly become an impartial player in the Syrian crisis, or that the Assad regime has warmly welcomed this international intrusion. However, both Moscow and Damascus believe that the threat of a devastating American military strike remains real, which may or may not be the case. But they seem to believe that President Obama will, in fact, order a punitive strike, if chemical weapons are employed again. I certainly hope that he would. And no going to Congress—just do it!

Further, it reflects the conclusion by the Assad regime that from a military standpoint, the employment of chemical weapons really does not alter the course of the tactical struggle. They have minimal military significance.  But they do invoke the passionate ire of the international community when employed! Do they really have any tactical utility? Are they worth keeping? Probably not.

So, critics, tell me what Plan B is

The agreement gave the US some badly needed breathing space after a politically damaging series of shifts by the White House.

President Obama retreated from his initial inclination to immediately attack Syria for crossing the infamous “red line”, employing chemical weapons on its own populace. Then, overriding his closest advisors, the President decided to seek more backing for the strikes from Congress, our allies, and perhaps even the United Nations. None of these alternatives panned out.

Despite initial strong support for a strike, France, Germany, and the UK all retreated in the face of wide-spread parliamentary and public opposition. Backing from the Sunni Arab nations proved equally ephemeral, quickly dissipating from a call for action to reservations over any western military intervention. Finally, any hopes of securing UN backing in the face of likely Russian and Chinese opposition was abandoned.

More importantly, domestic US public opinion swayed decisively to the side of non-intervention. Most Americans—and those in Congress– just want the issue to go away

Without a realistic alternative, the U.S. should support implementation of the agreement

In reality, here is where we are. First, President Obama has little support from any constituency for a strike on Syria. Second, President Assad still maintains control over considerable stocks of chemical weapons. Further, his hold on power seems only to have been strengthened over the past year, thanks to the intervention of the Iranian Quds Force and by Hezbollah. Third, the rebel coalition itself is wracked by serious internal fractionalization and is losing ground. More worrisome is that it is increasingly dominated by elements associated with Al-Qaeda and other radical Sunni groups.

In the end, the Russian brokered agreement that is intended to remove chemical weapons from Syria may fail. The Assad regime may remain in power despite US efforts to see him removed. But the prospects for a transition to a representative democracy in Syria does not seem promising, certainly no more so than it was in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Egypt.

So I ask again, if you “don’t trust Russia” and believe that the agreement only buys time and space for Assad, then what is your preferred alternative?

I doubt you have one.

In this light, I recommend that we give support to the Russian brokered agreement and see where it leads. If the demilitarization of Syrian chemical weapons succeeds against the obvious odds, then that would have the added value not only of securing this horrific arsenal, but would have the added benefit of bringing Russia into playing a more positive role on the world stage.


Dr. Tyrus W. Cobb served as Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan for National Security Affairs, and as Director of Soviet, European and Canadian Affairs on the NSC.


One comment

  1. Dear Ty,

    It has been several decades since we were last in touch–you were in the White House and I was pointed toward Somalia. This is just to say that I agree with your article on the Russians and Syria, and I hope a lot of people will read it, including some Republicans.


    Peter Bridges

    Peter Bridges

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