Russia urges Syria to give up chemical weapons. Game changer or a shrewd bluff?

September 9, 2013

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov discusses Syria in Moscow. (YURI KADOBNOV/AFP/Getty Images

Syria isn't a Russian client state, exactly, but President Bashar al-Assad is existentially reliant on Russian support. In many ways, Russia's willingness to negotiate matters even more than Syria's – the road to peace almost surely runs through Moscow. So when Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced Monday that Syria should surrender its massive stockpile of chemical weapons to the international community, apparently endorsing U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's call for the same, it was a big deal, and not just because Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem quickly announced that he "welcomed" the plan.

This certainly looks like a potential game-changer for the Syria crisis. But whether for the better or the worse depends on whether Russia really wants Assad to give up his  weapons or is just bluffing. Either way, the announcement is a telling moment in the international stand-off over possible U.S. strikes on Syria – and a sign that the threat of strikes might actually be working better than we think.

There are two ways to look at Russia's proposal. Either it's an earnest proposal that has a good chance of actually happening or it's a shrewd delaying tactic. The former would be much better news for Syria than the latter. But, in either case, it suggests that Russia sincerely believes the U.S. may go through with the strikes – and that it wants badly to prevent this. Even if Russia's proposal is just a bluff, it shows that President Obama's threat has backed Moscow into a bit of a corner, and has forced Russian officials to at least pretend to negotiate seriously for the first time in a long time.

The best-case scenario is that Russia's plan is legitimate, in which case they are positioned better than anyone else in the world to compel Assad to give up his chemical weapons to international control. That would be good news for Syrians, relieving communities from the very real fear of chemical weapons attacks, which are not just a horrible way to die but are so indiscriminate that they kill far more civilians than conventional weapons attacks. It would be good news for the United States, allowing it to declare a very real success and to back off strikes. Obama has consistently argued that strikes would be to uphold the international norm against chemical weapons; what better way to do that than by pulling those weapons off of the battlefield entirely?

The bad news is that if Russia and Syria do go through with this plan, it would signal that both believe Assad can still win without chemical weapons. They would probably be correct. And it would significantly reduce the odds of any U.S. action against Assad, although it's debatable whether that would be a good or bad thing for Syria. But, as Washington Institute for Near East Policy Executive Director Robert Satloff pointed out to me on Twitter, the "exit of chemical weapons would end any possibility of U.S./Western military action to balance the battlefield." That's a sign that Lavrov's plan might be for real.

But there's also strong reason to suspect that Russia's plan is a bluff, a clever chess move meant to delay a U.S. strike and force lengthy negotiations that will go nowhere. That would certainly be signature Lavrov. It could take months to negotiate over whether Assad would accept the plan, the process of surrendering the chemical weapons, where they'd go and so on. Meantime, the United  States would be beholden to delaying strikes. If Russia does just want to delay, it will have many opportunities to do so along the way, and in the meantime any momentum within Washington for action will be lost.

So the good news is that Obama's campaign to rally support for striking Syria, though much maligned, does appear to have at least finally forced Russia to do something significant. The bad news is that Russia has, pretty shrewdly, flipped it around back on the United States. Obama has a tough call: call Lavrov's maybe-bluff and pursue what could be one of the few windows for a real victory on Syria? Or brush it off as a diversion? It's a cliche to call U.S.-Russia maneuvering over Syria a chess match, but sometimes it can sure look like one.

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Max Fisher · September 9, 2013