Watching the maneuvering between the United States, Russia and Syria over the plan to remove Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad's chemical weapons, it can look like a catastrophic mess. No one seems to be on remotely the same page, everyone is making crazy demands and it looks functionally impossible that everyone could actually reach an agreement.
Here's the thing to understand: Everything that happens now between these three countries is a negotiation. Everything. The United States wants to see Assad's chemical weapons removed as surely and as quickly as possible. Russia wants to protect Assad from Western military strikes and, if possible, from Western meddling of any form. Assad wants to keep the West uninvolved in his war.
Almost every single thing you're seeing these three countries do right now, no matter how crazy it looks, is about getting as close to their desired outcome as possible. But these are high-stakes negotiations, which means they're starting from maximalist positions, making crazy, unfulfillable demands, trying to game the process. That's actually all normal. It's just part of the game.
Take Russian President Vladimir Putin's op-ed in the New York Times. It would be easy to characterize it as Putin chest-thumping or as a frontal assault on American greatness. But maybe a simpler explanation is that it was an act of public diplomacy, an attempt to secure a political goal. By putting his thumb a bit on the domestic U.S. debate over whether or not to strike Syria, Putin is hoping that he can up the internal pressure on President Obama to abandon strikes. Because Putin knows, as does Obama, that the U.S. only has leverage on chemical weapons as long as Obama can credibly threaten to strike Syria.
This also explains why Russia, as soon as it got Obama to endorse their proposal to scoop up Syria's chemicals weapons in exchange for deferring U.S. strikes, immediately backed off their own plan. Moscow wants to force Obama to horse-trade it into renewing its support. That's not because the Russian government is somehow unusually craven or cynical. It's because that's how negotiating works.
Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad is doing this, too. He said in a recent interview with Russian TV that he would only agree to abandon his chemical weapons once the U.S. pledged never to strike Syria or to aid Syrian rebels, which the U.S. would never agree to. He also said, somewhat absurdly, that his government would give chemical weapons data to the United Nations 30 days after signing the convention banning chemical weapons. Assad surely realizes that these are crazy things to demand. He likely had two goals. First, by demanding as much as possible, he starts from a stronger negotiating position because he has a lot to trade away. Second, even if he doesn't get the full 30 days, he really likes anything that stretches out the timeline. The idea is that, eventually, Obama will lose momentum on strikes and Assad can safely renege on his promises without worrying about any inbound cruise missiles.
Yes, even the United States is deploying these sorts of negotiating tactics. Obama is still threatening Syria strikes that he'll probably never carry out, because he's couched them in congressional support that he'll probably never get. But the threat of strikes is his best leverage with Russia and Syria. So he's got to thread the needle of always appearing just on the verge of strikes, so as to coerce Assad and Putin into actually removing Syria's chemical weapons, without actually going through with it. And the initial U.S.-backed United Nations resolution included some provisions that Russia would be extremely unlikely to accept, such as a line requiring that Syrian officials suspected of chemical weapons attacks be referred to the International Criminal Court. That provision, like so many of the impossible asks being made by Washington and Moscow and Damascus, are gimmes. They're meant to be traded away.
This may also help explain why, after months of U.S. promises to arm Syrian rebels, those weapons finally started showing up on the battlefield just this week. Obama, despite his pledge to arm some rebels, appeared hesitant to carry this through. By doing it now, he's strengthened his hand at negotiations because now he has the power to turn that arms pipeline off – something that Assad and Putin would probably pay heavily to get.
So how do we know if these negotiations are working? For Obama and the United States, the ideal outcome is for things to move quickly and that Russia agrees to allow the United Nations Security Council to pass a resolution approving the chemical weapons plan. That resolution, the U.S. believes, should be passed under something called Chapter 7 authority, meaning that it's the kind of resolution where the world can legally punish Assad with military strikes if he reneges or cheats on the deal. (The U.S. and U.K. did this, for example, when it launched strikes against Iraq in 1998 to punish Saddam Hussein for cheating on U.N.-approved weapons inspections.) The idea is that, once that deal is through, Assad is really on the hook to follow through, and the United Nations is on the hook to hold him to that.
For Russia and Syria, the ideal outcome is that nothing happens: no strikes and no chemical weapons deal. The best way for them to achieve this is to keep delaying until Obama loses the political will to follow through on strikes, at which point we'd likely return to the status quo of Assad's unchecked mass killing. The big question, though, is what is Russia and Syria's second-most preferred outcome? If they'd rather accept some U.S. military strikes against Syria than allow Assad to give up his chemical weapons, then this whole plan is just a bluff and there's no way for Obama to win.
But. But! If Russia and Syria would rather see Assad lose his chemical weapons than be attacked by American cruise missiles, then they would eventually accept a deal, if they absolutely had to, to avert strikes. We don't actually know which of these Assad and Putin would prefer. But if it's the latter, then Obama has a real window to remove Assad's chemical weapons and achieve his long-stated goal of upholding the norm against chemical weapons.