Why The Russians Can’t Be Trusted In Syria

Wall Street Journal
September 16, 2013

Moscow isn’t even complying with a commitment to destroy its own chemical weapons.

By John Barrasso

When the Obama administration announced its “reset” of relations with Russia in 2009, Americans never expected that it would include making Vladimir Putin the de facto U.S. ambassador to Syria in 2013. Yet the Russian president has in effect taken over U.S. diplomacy with the Bashar Assad regime in Damascus.

The most recent evidence came this weekend with the announcement in Geneva that Secretary of State John Kerry had reached a “framework” deal brokered by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Syria’s chemical weapons. Assad is supposed to provide an accounting of all his chemical weapons within a week, international inspections begin in November, and Syria’s stockpiles of the weapons must be removed or destroyed by next summer.

Most experts on chemical weapons say the timetable is unworkable. But ridding Syria of chemical weapons is not the point. The Kerry-Lavrov agreement is simply a Russian delaying tactic on behalf of its Syrian ally—a tactic we’ve seen before.

On May 7, amid reports that chemical weapons had been used in Syria, the Obama administration joined the Russians in announcing plans for an international conference to help end Syria’s civil war. Within two weeks, Moscow was supplying Assad with advanced cruise missiles.

Moscow’s military support of the Assad regime is one of the main reasons that more than 100,000 Syrians have been killed in the current conflict. On the political front, the Russians have vetoed every attempt by the United Nations Security Council to do something to bring about an end to the civil war. For example, on Feb. 4, 2012—one day after Syrian forces slaughtered 250 of their own citizens—Russia vetoed a resolution that would have condemned the violence there. This was after Russia had weakened the resolution so that it included no sanctions. Mr. Putin’s government even voted against a nonbinding resolution that expressed “grave concern at the continuing escalation of violence.”

It is extremely unlikely that Russia is suddenly now going to cooperate with the U.S. on Syria. It is downright naïve to think that Mr. Putin will do anything that President Obama asks him to do without exacting a huge price in return. We have also seen this before. For more than four years, the Obama administration has capitulated to Mr. Putin’s demands and accepted his rebukes.

It began with the New START treaty on arms control signed in April 2010. U.S. negotiators limited our missile defense deployments, reduced our delivery systems and hampered our ability to monitor Russian missile production plants. In return, Russia gave up little to nothing of value: The U.S., for example, allowed limits on missile delivery vehicles requiring us to make unilateral reductions, as Russia was already well below the limits.

Later, in March 2012, a microphone accidentally picked up President Obama telling Dmitry Medvedev that following his re-election he would have “more flexibility” to grant the Russians further concessions on missile defense. Mr. Medvedev memorably replied: “I will transmit this information to Vladimir.”

Russia’s actions in Syria are not the only reasons to distrust Mr. Putin. Moscow has opposed attempts by the U.N. in November 2011 to increase sanctions against Iran for its illicit nuclear program. The Russians voted against a December 2011 resolution that expressed only tepid concerns about repression in North Korea. And Russia continues to refuse to extradite the fugitive Edward Snowden, who stole U.S. national-security secrets.

Meanwhile, the human-rights situation in Russia continues to deteriorate. The country is consistently ranked among the world’s most corrupt and least free.

Moscow is not even complying with a commitment to eliminate its own chemical weapons. A State Department assessment in January reported that Russia has provided an “incomplete” list of its chemical agents and weapons to be destroyed. It has also missed deadlines to convert former chemical-weapon production plants. Why would we expect Moscow to help enforce similar restrictions against Syria?

Assad is fighting for survival and has no interest in surrendering his chemical weapons voluntarily. Russia wants Assad to stay in power and will not do anything to risk his position. Nor will Mr. Putin need to do so, since the Kremlin has bent the Obama administration to its will before.

Secretary of State Kerry himself has dismissed the plan he is now pursuing. On Monday last week, he said that the U.S. could ask Assad to turn over his chemical weapons, “but he isn’t about to do it, and it can’t be done.” That assessment is likely to prove correct. But Russia and Syria cynically seized on Mr. Kerry’s words and now are feigning an effort to prove that it can be done.

Based on the experience of the past four years, the Russians, like the Iranians, are well aware that pretending to go along can buy time until the Obama administration becomes distracted with another issue. The U.S. should be prepared for the diplomatic effort on Syria to fall flat and have more effective alternatives ready.

The president needs to go back to the drawing board and come up with a coherent, realistic Syria policy—one that does not rely on Russia’s cooperation.

Dr. Barrasso is a Republican senator from Wyoming.

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