The risks of playing the Russians’ diplomatic game: Putin, al-Assad, and their willing dupe–Barack Obama

Unless the military balance shifts, talk of diplomacy is little more than an excuse to ignore atrocities and red lines. The choice is not between diplomacy and greater U.S. involvement. Without the latter, the former will fail.
–Trudy Rubin, “What Russia gave Kerry on Syria: Very little,” Philadelphia Inquirer, May 12, 2013 (3:01 a.m.)

To watch U.S. and Russian diplomatic efforts regarding Syria, one is tempted to view developments related to Obama’s decision to “work through the Russians” one more time, just as the U.S. did this time last year, as a kind of historical “instant replay”.

Unfortunately, what is occurring now is immensely more serious than what happened last year. History has not stood still. The situation in Syria is infinitely worse than it was a year ago, bad as it was then.

What many perceived as the risks of U.S. inaction, of the U.S. not leading at all, not even from the rear, have in large degree materialized.

The risk that extremists allied with Al-Queda might assume a commanding position among the insurgents has materialized in the form of the al-Nusra Front and other groups.

The risk that the conflict might spill over into other countries and become a regional conflict is increasingly being realized, as Hezbollah militia members fight alongside al-Assad’s Syrian army forces in al-Qusair, exerting such extraordinary pressure on Lebanon that the latter could itself explode in civil war within the next year.

Iran, perhaps emboldened by Obama’s failure to back his word regarding the “red line” of chemical weapons with actions when that line was crossed, now have trainers in Syria, and are very much engaged in the conflict, providing arms, intelligence, and advice.

A year ago it was argued that the U.S. should intervene in part because that would cause a severe setback to Iran. The opposite has occurred. U.S. passivity and inaction have handed Iran a victory, and emboldened it in its support of the al-Assad regime. Indeed, Hesbollah, which is highly dependent on Iran, may have sent its fighters to Syria at the Iranians’ request. It is hard to discern a thread of logic that would justify such an action within the Lebanese political context.

The risks of Israel, the U.S. and Russia getting drawn into the conflict have also increased, and begun to materialize.

On May 3-5, Israel conducted air strikes within Syria which were reportedly aimed at destroying a shipment of Fateh-110 missiles, which are medium-range advanced guided missiles capable of hitting targets at a range of up to 300 kilometers.

The first strikes were on May 3-4.

See Syrian media reports Israeli rocket fire targets military research center; Western intelligence sources confirm, say targets were Fateh-110 surface-to-surface missiles,” Haaretz, May 4, 2013 (10:48 PM).

President Obama argued that the air strikes (if they occurred) were justified. Haaretz reported,

Obama, in an interview with the Spanish-language network Telemundo as part of a three-day Latin America tour that ended in Costa Rica, would not comment on whether the strikes had in fact taken place.

“I’ll let the Israeli government confirm or deny whatever strikes that they’ve taken,” he said.

But Obama, who visited Israel in March, made clear such strikes would be justified.

“What I have said in the past and I continue to believe is that the Israelis justifiably have to guard against the transfer of advanced weaponry to terrorist organizations like Hezbollah. We coordinate closely with the Israelis recognizing they are very close to Syria, they are very close to Lebanon,” he said. (emphasis added)

–Reuters, “Obama: Israel has the right to guard against Hezbollah arms transfer; Syrian media reports Israeli rocket fire targets military research center; Western intelligence sources confirm, say targets were Fateh-110 surface-to-surface missiles,
Haaretz, May 4, 2013 (10:48 PM).

Subsequent to Obama’s statement, Israel unleashed a second attack within Syria reportedly aimed at destroying the missiles.

See Gili Cohen, Amos Harel and Reuters, “Israel overnight strike targeted Iranian missile shipment meant for Hezbollah’; Only a few days after an alleged Israeli strike, Syrian media reports Israeli rocket fire targeted a military research center; Western intel sources confirm Syrian reports, say targets were Iranian Fateh-110 surface-to-surface missiles,” Haaretz, May.05, 2013 (8:13 AM).

Worth noting in passing is the fact that the U.N. Charter and international law do not permit anonymous attacks on another country for which no legal justification is given. Moreover, Obama’s argument, for the Israelis, stretches the right of self-defense recognized by Article 51 of the U.N. Charter far beyond the breaking point, as that right in international law is limited to situations where an armed attack “occurs”.

Russia has been reported as shipping ground to sea missiles to Syria (known as “Yakhonts”), and as being on the verge of shipping a new, more sophisticated air defense system and missiles (known as S-300) to Syria.

See

Michael R. Gordon and Eric Schmitt, “Russia Sends More Advanced Missiles to Aid Assad in Syria.” New York Times, May 16, 2013.

With Israel bombing arms shipments destined for Hezbollah within the territory of Syria, Russia delivering ground to sea missiles to the al-Assad regime, and Russia threatening to ship S-300 advanced missile defense systems to Syria, the risk of a direct confrontation bwtween Israel, Russia and/or the United States is substantial.

Wars often happen by accident, it may be useful to recall.

The other risk of playing the Russians’ diplomatic game in 2013, like the U.S. did in 2012, is that another 50,000 people, or more, may be killed in the coming year.

This, however, appears to be the least of the considerations being taken into account in Washington.

Russia is pushing the peace conference and negotiations with Bashar al-Assad because it limits the ability of the U.S. and other countries who oppose him to mount any kind of military action that might actually shift the balance against al-Assad and help bring the fighting and his commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity to a halt.

The Russians now appear to have decided to engage in a more direct confrontation with the United States, introducing substantial military assets for Syria into the mix. They, like the Iranians, may be starting to think that al-Assad can murder his way out of the current situation, and retain his hold on power. This has always been al-Assad’s preferred–and perhaps only–solution.

With Hesbollah and Israel directly entering the fray, the risks of playing the Russians’ diplomatic game, which provides Obama with diplomatic cover for his continuing inaction, are becoming very great indeed–and potentially explosive.

The Trenchant Observer

About the Author

The Observer
"The Trenchant Observer" is edited and published by The Observer, an international lawyer who has taught International Law, Human Rights, and Comparative Law at major U.S. universities, including Harvard, Brandeis, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Kansas. He is a former staff attorney at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States (IACHR), where he was in charge of Brazil, Haiti, Mexico and the United States, and also worked on complaints from and reports on other countries including Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. As an international development expert, he has worked on Rule of Law, Human Rights, and Judicial Reform in a number of countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and the Russian Federation. In the private sector, The Observer has worked as an international attorney for a leading national law firm and major global companies, on joint ventures and other matters in a number of countries in Europe (including Russia and the Ukraine), throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and in Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, China and Japan. The Trenchant Observer blog provides an unfiltered international perspective for news and opinion on current events, in their historical context, drawing on a daily review of leading German, French, Spanish and English newspapers as well as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and other American newspapers, and on sources in other countries relevant to issues being analyzed. The Observer speaks fluent English, French, German, Portuguese and Spanish, and also knows other languages. He holds an S.J.D. or Doctor of Juridical Science in International Law from Harvard University, and a Doctor of Law (J.D.) and a Master of the Science of Law (J.S.M.), from Stanford University. As an undergraduate, he received a Bachelor of Arts degree, also from Stanford, where he graduated “With Great Distinction” (summa cum laude) and received the James Birdsall Weter Prize for the best Senior Honors Thesis in History. In addition to having taught as a Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, The Observer has been a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University's Center for International Affairs (CFIA). His fellowships include a Stanford Postdoctoral Fellowship in Law and Development, the Rómulo Gallegos Fellowship in International Human Rights awarded by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and a Harvard MacArthur Fellowship in International Peace and Security. Beyond his articles in The Trenchant Observer, he is the author of two books and numerous scholarly articles on subjects of international and comparative law. Currently he is working on a manuscript drawing on the best articles that have appeared in the blog.