Moscow appears to have better positioned itself to exploit the tumult in Syria as well as Ukraine. On the other hand, within the Euro-Atlantic alliance, the lack of vision and will has ushered in a policy of presumed containment in Syria and Ukraine, more or less by default. The consequence, (or at least until Russia rushed in), has been more a vacuum that the most brutal and dangerous forces as ISIS and ever more emboldened Putin are exploiting to fill with their own agenda.
Putin Invites Obama to Make Deals or Deal Poker?
Putin's offer to sit across the table from Obama at the UN to many within the Euro-Atlantic alliance, including in Washington, initially might have seemed as a salvation as alternatives shrink. After Russia's bombing though the options are even less palatable, and inaction as well as action carries even more dangerous consequences with diminishing returns for the victims of the prolonged conflict, the US and its allies.
In defining all opposition to Assad as "terrorists", the objective is to save the Regime. As critically for Putin, the deployment of Russian forces in Syria also dynamically expands the sphere of influence along with the more permanent military presence. By bombing "legitimate opposition" to the Assad Regime, he has offered a provocative slap to the "Coalition" fighting ISIS, particularly the US. Washington needs an assertive response to the targeting and killing of its allies by Russia or face a seismic eclipse of US influence. The actors on the ground are being forced to choose between the extremism of ISIS or authoritarian brutality of the Assad Regime. Washington, NATO and regional allies have warned of the consequent strengthening of the appeal of ISIS and its extremist ideology, but this is Putin's deal of the cards: make all acquiescent if not complicit to his definitions of the conflict, unless we dare challenge him. We need to ask whether Putin in fact, as Assad, wants to strengthen for the moment ISIS's appeal, (similarly to the strategy employed in the Caucuses previously to undermine any moderate opposition to Moscow then.)
Ukraine for Syria or a Play for All?
Putin's hand had not been particularly strong but with bluff and sitting out the West he now projects strength. By design, such also buttresses his nationalist policies and entrenches his hold on power at home. The West seems tired of sanctions against Putin's policies in Ukraine, even more so than such have substantively drained Russia. Some anticipate Putin dealing the sacrifice of Assad in exchange for absolution for past and future sins in Ukraine. However, the game may be not an exchange but where the deal is part of the gamesmanship. This not so much chess and movement of pawns and bishops as it is manipulation of the perception and nerve of those sitting across the table from you.
During the earlier stages of the UN Security Council, ("UNSC"), debates on Syria, when a credible resolution was within reach, I had the opportunity to observe behind-the scenes interaction between then-US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and still current Russia Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, (and previously my counterpart as Russia's UN Ambassador to the UN in the 1990's.) The more public debates around the UNSC's horseshoe table provided a hint of conflicting positions, but the behind- the-scenes jockeying was perhaps more telling. As Secretary of State Clinton sought some form of consensus that would include Beijing and Moscow, Foreign Minster Lavrov appeared most interested in positioning his government as a counterweight to Washington. As Clinton spoke to the UN press corps, Lavrov eagerly waited to counter. Rather than promoting any longer-term strategic interest, Syria appeared to be a means to raise the profile of Putin's Moscow as an equal to the US in diplomatic jousting.
Putin in the past has not been a credible partner in deal making. Rather, he sees the deal as the first part of a prolonged poker game, where by sheer longevity in a corrupted political system he views himself as seated indefinitely at the table. Putin may have walked into the room with a relatively weak hand, but he sees time and style to be to his advantage, particularly if he can impose his narrative to define the cause of the conflict and thus the nature of the presumed peace.
Putin's Gambit or Calculated Gamble?
Compromise should not be a bad word, even for the globe's greatest superpower. However, before you sit down at the table, it is wise t o know what is the "game" and who are the players. There is an old saying in poker: "when you sit down at the table, and you cannot recognize who is the designated sucker, then it is probably you." Of course, Washington with its vast wealth of economic and military might and capacity to influence the media's narrative can afford to sit at the table for a long time without feeling the effect of losing in the game particularly if the chips constitute the future of other countries, whether Syria, Ukraine or Bosnia?
President Obama in his address to the UN (September 28, 2015) reminded of the UN as well as US values embodied in the UN Charter. President Putin came to the UN with his own dictionary, narratives and has backed them up with bluster and now realities on the ground. There is no indication of a will to compromise or deal but play his biggest hand so far to establish Putin's Moscow as not merely equal but the power broker more dynamic in taking and winning the gambit. Putin sees the rule of law and diplomacy only relevant as table talk but not defining the outcome - risk is part of the play but it is a calculated gamble based on his ability to read the will and nerve of his adversary on basis of present tells and past misplays.
"Is Diplomacy in Syria Failing the Lessons of Bosnia?"
Last month I had the opportunity to address a significant audience of students and faculty at Florida International University. The refugee crisis overwhelming Europe has renewed interest in Syria. On basis of the depth and breadth of interest of the participants at America's 8th largest university, Syria is more than a coincidental interest and not just focused on ISIS or refugees. Among America's emerging youth, there is a greater sense of both the global citizen and the inter-connectivity of issues that reach beyond borders. Digital-diplomacy is becoming the methodology, from activism to defining careers. As most of the audience were not yet born or cognizant of events in the 1990's, Bosnia & Herzegovina ("BiH") was more a narrative than reality, similar to the Holocaust, the Cold War and the Soviet Union. Thus, it was an opportunity to instill some currency to the events of two decades earlier and ask: "Is Diplomacy in Syria Failing the Lessons of Bosnia," and also remind how the rule of law perhaps may shape the future more than the divides which have ruled in the past.
We should be reminded that between bad and worse choices, doing nothing can be the worst, and options may only further deteriorate, as was the case in BiH and now in Syria and perhaps Ukraine:
--- Failing to find a quick solution to the crisis within Syria, the default option of containment was adopted. However, not only in terms of refugees but also brutality and ideological extremism, the conflict quickly spilled over the borders, to the region and then beyond now engulfing Europe and the Euro-Atlantic alliance.
--- Becoming a vacuum, Syria and increasingly neighbors as Iraq, became conducive to the most brutal and extreme. ISIS came about not so much as opposition to Assad as it has now become in effect a strategic rationale for his Regime's survival. Putin offers Assad as ally to the West in the fight against ISIS even though it is that Regime which in effect remains as the ultimate obstacle, as well as cause.
--- There was a viable and more inclusive opposition to Assad at the outset of the dissent during the "Arab Spring" and early years of the armed uprising. However, gaining very limited practical support from the West and not enough to counter the Regime, the opposition has not only splintered but for mere survival many recruits were drawn to more extreme ideologues and brutal methodologies. During the BiH conflict, despite the aggression from outside and tides of ethnic cleansing/genocide, the BiH central government managed to maintain the framework and largely the substance of a historically pluralistic and tolerant BiH, (a history also defining Syria). This marginalized extremism, suffocated revanchist cycles and still provides the hope and opportunity for reintegration of country and society. Spiraling extremism was part of the scheme by Slobodan Milosevic, Serbia's strongman, and his cohorts who engaged in brutal war crimes within BiH; however the international community was more involved even if marginally and such helped us maintain the lid even when at moments all appeared as savage as now in Syria.
--- The Assad Regime's brutality, from chemical weapons to rule of the skies and barrel bombs set into motion both the refugee exodus and a difficult choice for many Syrians who remain, when ISIS or Assad are the only two viable options. While the "safe areas" of Srebrenica and Zepa were betrayed, nonetheless combined with a NATO enforced no-fly-zone, not only were civilian lives saved but a greater vacuum was minimized thus countering ever more cycles of brutality and extremism. (See: "Reckless Diplomacy Disguised as Caution Cost Lives in Srebrenica ... & It's Happening Again, this time in Syria.")
--- Failure to refer the Assad Regime at the outset and increasingly others as ISIS to the International Criminal Court is proving the greatest failure for today and the future for peace. Not only has the rule of law been betrayed and the sense of impunity emboldened, but this has clouded the potential for peace talks. The culpable now hide under the guise of national, religious and/or ethnic champions and thus make large segments of the population feel complicit or acquiescent to their crimes. (See: "Confronting ISIS: Is Rule of Law & Democracy Part of the Coalition?")
--- The "problems from hell" are generally dropped on the doorstep of the UN, not because that is the last hope for salvation, but as such becomes the limbo and part of the narrative. By blaming the UN and in broad terms the "international community" as compared to focusing accountability on the UN's most powerful veto-wielding states, responsibility is deflected. Frequently ill-equipped and at times improperly motivated "mediators" are mandated; but in the end they fall victim to frustrations, personal ambitions or just adopt the rationalizations of those seeking to hide behind narratives of age- old ethnic and/or religious hatreds, something that ignored Syria's and BiH's history and undermined a return to normalcy and peace. Despots and war criminals are nurtured even legitimized by a rambling search for an end to a conflict. The appearance of impotence of big powers, their leaders and mediators seduces us to accept the narratives and thus resolution at any cost even if such bears the seeds for future conflict. (Read:"Seduction Diplomacy")
Accommodating Putin's Narrative?
Peace accords built on pseudo-historical narratives of age-old ethnic hatreds or other presumed grievances assuming primacy also undermines efforts for a resolution in Ukraine as well as Syria. The religious narrative has been more awkward to ratify in defining the Ukraine conflict as both sides are predominantly Orthodox Christian. Nonetheless, it does not stop efforts at redefinition to rationalize expediency. Of course, defining the "rebels" in Ukraine as "Russian speakers" also incorporates the Russia proper regulars and mercenaries crossing the border. Paradoxically, "Russian speakers" also defines most of Ukraine's citizens loyal to the Kiev Government who speak it as their primary or secondary language. Crimea is no more Russian than it is Tatar, Ottoman, Polish or ... Rather, Crimea has been a sovereign part of Ukraine, with a complex history of cultures intermingling and imperial ambitions clashing for centuries. The sacrifice of Crimea needed a face saving rationale. Putin now seeks for Ukraine and probably Syria, delineations as offered by the precedent of the Dayton Accords in BiH. Whether ethnicity, religion or language is employed as pretext, it becomes Putin's weapon to expand his sphere of influence. The future of all of Ukraine and Syria he holds hostage, as in Georgia or BiH or .... (See: "Construction According to Putin's Model....")
Accountability for Inaction as well as Action:
The UN Charter is founded upon several principles of an inter-twined globe, where isolationism is not only an illusion but a danger in the face of a "threat to international peace and security." The US is frequently faulted for its interventions, implicit or direct, and the Middle East certainly is littered with false steps and/or poor policies. Beyond the US responsibilities arising from the UN Security Council, America has a role built on past mistakes, current interests or historical ties. Regardless, when you are perceived as the "king of the hill," the challenges will come from local despots and those seeking global imperial prerogatives, whether a resurgent Moscow or an ambitious Beijing. What differentiates is whether the rule of law and accountability are part of the assessment of the legitimacy of an intervention, particularly if not mandated by the UN Security Council.
The UN Charter provides foundation for intervention(s) from the longstanding principle of self-defense to the more recently branded "Responsibility to Protect" or "R2P," a new international security and human rights norm evolving from failures of the international community, (the UNSC, particularly in BiH), to prevent and stop genocides, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. Some legal principles of international law could in fact come into contradiction, and in Syria one can debate that the Regime representing a sovereign state is entitled to ask and receive from Moscow military assistance. However, can such estoppel international humanitarian law, grave violations and R2P? During a more extended discussion with FIU faculty and graduate students on the adoption of the Rome Statute and evolution of the ICC, Professor Mohiaddin Mesbahi of the University's Steven F. Green School of International and Public Affairs asked where has been the accountability, assessment of consequences as well as consideration of the welfare and interests of those populations most directly affected? Undoubtedly, the interjections may in hindsight appear reckless at best, (see current assessments re Iraq in 2003.) Libya appears a mess today post-NATO intervention, but could it have been even worse, as Syria today and with no hope for the future with the Gaddafi dynasty as entrenched as the Assad? Undoubtedly accountability is lagging, for both action and inaction. Syria's people are treated as pawns, chips in this "game" too often.The ICC and the rule of law are principles which are still evolving and certainly subject to selective application. Nonetheless, it is the best that we have to build upon.
Owning the Problem, whether by Inaction or Intervention:
The primary factor not to get involved may be more political than strategic. Once mired, the fear is that any US Administration would then be tagged as "owning the problem" and thus responsible until resolution. Putin's Moscow has felt less pressure for such political or legal accountability, and thus restraint. The criteria is defined by what facilitates its reassertion as global power as well as spheres of influence regionally. Here we also could be hindered in our superficial assessment of who are Putin's allies and/or potential adversaries. While Tehran has backed the Assad Regime, it does not share Moscow's interests more broadly. To the contrary, along with most of its Arab neighbors, Iran has a historical suspicion of Russian expansionism and has long sought to thwart such.
President Obama drew a red line on the Assad Regime's use of chemical weapons. However, this proved too narrow to be compatible with the safety of brutalized local populations, R2P and ultimately US interests. Echoing Professor Mesbahi's question, accountability was defined in purely domestic political terms reflecting not even US strategic interests but debates/rhetoric of the moment. No one could fault Syrians for thinking that they were being dealt with as coincidental to the conflict. Some within US politics were inclined to "let them kill each other," but now clamor for more robust US military intervention as ISIS has not only emerged from the chaos as more direct threat but also as politically more expedient bad guy. While some as US Senator John McCain have maintained a consistency in their calls for greater US involvement, others have transcended the spectrum from isolationists to hawks.
In the end though, both a viable resolution for the benefit of Syria's peoples and one that meets US strategic interests necessitate accountability - identifying leaders who have de-legitimized themselves to shape the future and thus opening the opportunity for fresh faces and political perspectives in Syria. Putin, and not only ISIS, provide harbor for those complicit in the destruction of Syria and employ such as proxies for even greater ambitions. The same dynamics are at play in Ukraine and to a substantial degree even infect the future of BiH today.
Rule of Law and Democracy not Bounded by Culture or History:
Learning the lessons of action or inaction in BiH does not necessarily produce easy or even immediacy in assessing the consequences. Resolution requires commitment as well as ongoing attention. BiH suffers as much from expedient narratives rationalizing neglect as much as the mistakes of the recent past. Naysayers argue that the US and its partners are not in the business of "state building." Some argue that culturally democracy is not probable or even possible in some states. Such rationale is not only fashioned by bigotry but ignores recent history of successful democracies evolving from a variety of circumstances many having limited or no background in such political systems. From Germany and Japan to the development of post-Soviet democracies, all have been aided by various degrees of assistance in institutional development and inclusion. (From Lithuania to Bulgaria, NATO inclusion also became a catalyst for EU enlargement, then encouraged by bipartisan US coalition including Senators Joe Biden, Bob Dole as well as McCain.)
The challenge of Putin as well as ISIS requires an answer beyond avoidance and containment. The threat is immediate but also the challenge to the rule of law and the ideology upon which free and democratic states have prospered as societies and economies over the last few decades. Here, the failure of the US to join the ICC stands out as expedient in terms of domestic politics but undermining US strategic interests as well as values. Differentiating the Euro-Atlantic partnership from the challenges of reinvigorated authoritarianism, whether Putin or ISIS, is about giving action to our rhetoric and stated values. "Moderate Islamic theologians" are not alone in having to counter extremists within the ranks. Oh yes, neither is Russia doomed to another dynasty of leaders defined by expansion and domestic repression, but Putin can no longer be afforded the free hand to deal.
UN PHOTO/Amanda Voisard
PHOTO: Ambassador Muhamed Sacirbey at Florida International University