The Cuban Missile Crisis produced great scholarship. A classic of the period, ‘Essence of A Decision’ by Prof. Grahame Allison, is a study of decision making in the Kennedy administration during a crisis when the world came close to a nuclear collision.
By that reckoning, research proposals must be in the process of being cleared as to who ordered the two ballistic missiles towards Syria which Russian intercepts brought down in the Mediterranean? The whole episode is frightening.
It was therefore a chastened Barack Obama who turned up at G20 Summit in St. Petersburg. The Russian suggestion that Syria sign the chemical weapons Convention and surrender its chemical weapons was a practical idea which would also be a face saver for Washington which had painted itself into a corner on surgical strikes in Syria.
In the whispering gallery of diplomatic leaks, it has been suggested that if Syria acquiesced in some highly restricted missile attacks on its territory, to satisfy US, Israeli, Saudi hawks, the crisis would be over. Bashar al Assad said he would have none of it. Unspecified retaliation would follow.
Why has Assad now agreed to surrender his strategic chemical weapons?
First, the advantage in his willingness to surrender the nasty arsenal is clear in Putin’s article in the New York Times and later in Obama’s weekly address to the nation.
Putin said: “No one doubts that poison gas was used in Syria. But there is every reason to believe it was used not by the Syrian army, but by opposition forces, to provoke intervention by their powerful foreign patrons, who would be siding with the fundamentalists.”
Putin then issues a warning. “Reports that militants are preparing another attack, this time against Israel, cannot be ignored”. This last sting is enough to set the cat among the pigeons. The implication is straightforward. Having failed to provoke foreign intervention after the August 21 chemical attack in Ghouta on the periphery of Damascus, the Syrian Opposition were planning an even bigger provocation by attacking Israel. Putin clearly knows more than he has revealed. Note his cocky assertiveness a few days ago: “It is a sly provocation by the Syrian Opposition.”
That is how worrisome the Syrian chemical arsenal has become. The opposition can either use its existence as a cover to obtain supplies of lethal agents like Sarin from across the border or to find defectors from the regime with access to Syrian chemical weapons.
It therefore becomes a critical item in its inventory that Syria is surrendering.
In his address, Obama said: “Until recently, the Assad regime would not admit that it possessed chemical weapon”. “Today, Syria has signaled a willingness to join with 189 other nations, representing 98 per cent of humanity, in abiding by an international agreement that prohibits the use of chemical weapons”. And, Obama proceeds to pay a compliment to Moscow. “Russia has staked its own credibility on supporting this outcome”.
Washington’s new found reliance on Moscow to navigate it out of the Syrian minefield, is a historic new development. For this very reason it is a fragile arrangement. Israel and Saudi Arabia, for instance, would scream murder if a Washington-Moscow entente sidelined their interests in the eventual outcome in Syria. How does Washington square this circle? This is the pressure on Washington.
Now that clouds of war have cleared a bit, Syria is beginning to feel self confident with the hand it has been dealt to play. So what if it has to surrender its chemical weapons. The gesture will enhance Russian profile in the region which is useful for the entire team – Hezbollah, Iran.
In any case, the strategic shortfall on account of its chemical weapons, would be made up by Russian SS300s or 400s, which have already shown their effectiveness in bringing down US missiles over Syria.
This one act of statesmanship will be seen to have saved West Asia from a calamitous conflict. Would it not boost Assads regional profile? Within Syria, he will seen to have defeated the regime’s opponents and as a national leader who prevented the breakup of his country into autonomous regions.
All of it seems to be fitting nicely into the Russian aim of Middle East free of weapons of Mass Destruction, an aspiration which has implications for Israel too. Iranian Supreme leader, Ayatullah Khamenei obliged on this score at a meeting with commanders and officials of the Revolutionary Guard Corps. He said Iran’s opposition to the possession of nuclear weapons was based on the beliefs of the Iranian nation. This, was more or less reiterated by President Hassan Rouhani who, while in the US for the UN General Assembly, is also expected to meet President Obama.
Does the script appear to be proceeding advantageously for one side?
To restore balance, how does Russia work closely with the US in ensuring Israeli security, which is the cornerstone of US policy in the Middle East? Moves of interest to Saudi Arabia could be in the works after US diplomat, Jeffrey Feltman, turned up in Teheran recently wearing a UN cap.
After all, Tehran and Riyadh have been on talking terms some years ago. Remember the Mecca Summit?
(Saeed Naqvi is a senior Indian journalist, television commentator, interviewer, and a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation. Mr. Naqvi is also a mentor and a guest blogger with Canary Trap)