Who out-manoeuvered whom on Syria’s chemical weapons?

Bashar Assad with Vladimir Putin

After the debacle of seeing America’s allies drop out of support for an attack on Syria’s chemical weapons (with the possible exception of France), an exit strategy for all sides to climb down their tree has been found. Or so it seems.

It all started when US Secretary of State John Kerry made a seeming gaffe when he suggested that the Syrians could avoid a strike if they handed over their chemical weapons within a week – and the Russians jumped on the suggestion in order to carry it through:

Certainly when Margaret Brennan of CBS News asked John Kerry if there was anything the Syrians could do to avert American bombing, she could not have imagined the impact his response would have.

In an apparent jest, the US Secretary of State said that if Bashar al-Assad’s regime handed over its chemical weapons stock in a week, then maybe, just maybe, America’s guns would remain silent.

His exasperated tone carried no hint that he hoped for a breakthrough. But within hours, Syria’s ally Russia had proposed that Damascus should surrender all such weapons to international control in order to prevent a US bombing campaign threatened as punishment for a sarin attack on rebel-held areas.

A diplomatic scramble ensued, in which the White House decided it liked the idea and made a dramatic policy shift, announced by President Barack Obama on Monday evening in several prominent television interviews.

By Tuesday, it appeared as though America might just have ad-libbed its way out of going to war. But had it? And was Mr Kerry’s answer so spontaneous after all?

The Russians seemed keen to cover up any American embarrassment:

On Tuesday, US officials were keen to play down the idea that the White House’s change of direction lacked any background preparation. Mr Obama told his US interviewers that he had discussed the idea of a chemical weapons surrender with Mr Putin last Friday at an impromptu 20-minute meeting at the G20 Summit in St Petersburg.

The Russians likewise said the suggestion was “definitely discussed” between the two leaders at the G20.

“[It] is not an entirely Russian initiative,” said Mr Lavrov. “It stems from contacts we have had with our American colleagues, from yesterday’s statement by John Kerry.”

The idea of presenting such a demand to Damascus had in fact been floated publicly for the first time over the weekend at the end of an EU foreign ministers’ conference in Lithuania that was addressed by Mr Kerry and where opinion was sharply divided on the wisdom of US air strikes.


David Cameron wryly observed on Tuesday that “things have moved faster than was perhaps expected” after Mr Kerry spoke, suggesting he thought the effects were more unintentional than not.

But some experts thought there had been a mixture of conspiracy and cock-up from the Americans.

Following the Russian offer to take charge of Syria’s chemical weapons, President Obama has vowed to explore their offer though he did suggest caution:

US President Barack Obama vowed on Tuesday to explore a diplomatic initiative from Russia to neutralize Syria’s chemical weapons but voiced skepticism about it and urged war-weary Americans to support his threat to use military force.

Obama said a Russian offer to push Syrian President Bashar Assad to place chemical weapons under international control opened up the possibility of halting the limited military strike that he is considering against Syria.


Obama set no deadlines for diplomacy to run its course, but said any deal with Assad would require verification that the Syrian president keeps his word.

“It’s too early to tell whether this offer will succeed. And any agreement must verify that the Assad regime keeps its commitments. But this initiative has the potential to remove the threat of chemical weapons without the use of force, particularly because Russia is one of Assad’s strongest allies.”

The Russian offer had the effect of extending Obama a lifeline as he fought an uphill battle to persuade Congress and Americans to support a go-it-alone attack on Syria.


In a sign of the shifting political mood in Washington toward diplomacy, a group of Republican and Democratic US senators began drafting a modified resolution on the use of military force that would give the United Nations time to take control of Syria’s chemical weapons.

The Russian diplomatic initiative, which emerged after off-the-cuff remarks by Kerry on Monday alluding to such a deal, marked a sudden reversal following weeks in which the West seemed headed toward intervening into Syria’s 2-1/2-year-old civil war.

Syria too has agreed to take up Russia’s deal to give up its chemical weapons in order to prevent an American strike:

Syria said Tuesday it has accepted Russia’s proposal to place its chemical weapons under international control for subsequent dismantling.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem said Tuesday after meeting with Russian parliament speaker that his government quickly “agreed to the Russian initiative.”

Al-Moallem added that Syria did so to “uproot US aggression.”

His statement sounded more definitive than his remarks Monday, when he said that Damascus welcomed Russia’s initiative.’

Now that the deal has been suggested and accepted by all sides, the next stage is execution and verifying, which is  a much more complicated matter.  Scepticism abounds in every quarter, for example David Meyers in the Algemeiner who talks about Obama’s insanity on Syria:

It’s hard to understand how anyone could even consider this plan to be a serious option.

How can we trust the word of a Assad – a man who has murdered tens of thousands of his own people, used chemical weapons, broken every international norm and law, reneged on all of his promises to the UN, U.S. officials, and international mediators, and is supported by Iran, one of the most duplicitous nations in the world?

Do we really believe that Assad would give us all of his weapons? How could we verify this? We don’t even know where the weapons are or how many Assad has. How can we take him at his word? How do we know he won’t transfer them to Russia or Iran? (If you think that’s impossible, think about how much military hardware Iran and Russia have shipped into Syria. Do you really think they can’t reverse engineer that process?)

The West is trying to avoid conflict at all costs. This is a mistaken strategy that emboldens our enemies, and will lead to serious trouble down the line. If we’re willing to engage in such a silly charade as this to avoid a missile strike in Syria, what kind of message does that send the world?


Obama is not a stupid man. He knows any plan to let Assad “surrender” his WMD is unfeasible and unrealistic. But the President is so desperate to avoid a conflict, that he’s apparently willing to consider it. This is shameful for the leader of the United States. America, and the free world, deserves better.

[…] How are the large international teams needed to secure the weapons going to get into Syria, move the stockpiles, and ensure no terrorist groups get access to them? Assad’s own forces have trouble moving around the country and securing their military objective. But international forces will somehow be able to?


Obama’s willingness to even consider such a plan has made the President, and America, look like rank fools. The world is upside down. Will anyone come along and right it?

Jeffrey Goldberg at Bloomberg has two important pieces on this deal. Firstly, he has 15 questions about the Syria debate. Some highlights:

1. Is Kerry a national-security genius, or a guy who says whatever half-baked idea comes to mind, or both?

2. Why are the Russians seemingly so ready to aid Kerry and President Barack Obama by helping relieve Syria of its chemical weapons? Since when is Russia interested in helping the U.S. out of a jam, even if it burnishes its own reputation in the process?

3. Do these early signs that Russia might be interested in making a deal to avert an attack prove that threatening to attack was the right thing to do?


6. How do you possibly verify that Assad has given up all of his chemical weapons? The Syrian regime possesses hundreds of tons of these munitions.

7. Does Syria get to keep its biological weapons under this still nonexistent deal?


9. How do you secure and transport all of these chemical-weapons components in the midst of a horrifically violent civil war?

10. Even if the theoretical strike was intended to be “unbelievably small,” why would the U.S. tell Syria this?


13. If Assad’s behavior is even somewhat analogous to Hitler’s, as administration officials (and surrogates like Senator Harry Reid) are suggesting, then how is it possible to argue for anything other than Assad’s total defeat?

Read the entire list. He raises some very important questions in a scathingly cynical way.

His second article expands on his theory that the Russian-Syrian plan won’t work anyway:

So, in order to obviate an attack on a country that Americans evidently care about not at all, Vladimir Putin, the State Department’s new Syria desk officer, working in concert with President Barack Obama and his intermittently slap-happy secretary of state, has come up with a fake solution to a real problem.

Here is the best thing you can say about the proposal: The byproduct of this bizarre episode is that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his allies would have to be utterly self-destructive to use sarin gas or other chemical weapons against civilians right now. That would push Obama to strike, whether Congress approves or not.


Here are a few bad things: All Assad has to do to forever stave off a punitive strike is to keep promising that he’s in the middle of giving up his chemical weapons. (No one, by the way, has addressed the fate of his biological weapons.) This is a process that could go on for months, or even years. Yes, that’s right — we might be reading stories soon about United Nations weapons inspectors roaming Syria (a war zone, it should be noted) in a hunt for missing WMD. There are hundreds of tons of chemical munitions in Syria, and very few people think Assad would part with all of them. Why would he? Chemical weapons are a major deterrent to those outside Syria who seek his demise.

Interestingly, George Friedman in his article”Syria, America and Putin’s Bluff (republished with permission of Stratfor) posits that Putin has had his bluff called by the United States, and not the other way round:

Putin is bluffing that Russia has emerged as a major world power. In reality, Russia is merely a regional power, but mainly because its periphery is in shambles. He has tried to project a strength that that he doesn’t have, and he has done it well. For him, Syria poses a problem because the United States is about to call his bluff, and he is not holding strong cards. To understand his game we need to start with the recent G-20 meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Putin and Obama held a 20-minute meeting there that appeared to be cold and inconclusive. The United States seems to be committed to some undefined military action in Syria, and the Russians are vehemently opposed. The tensions showcased at the G-20 between Washington and Moscow rekindled memories of the Cold War, a time when Russia was a global power. And that is precisely the mood Putin wanted to create. That’s where Putin’s bluff begins.

The article goes on to detail Russia’s domestic and international troubles over Serbia, Kosovo, Georgia, Albania etc., and comes to the conclusion that:

Russia felt it deserved more deference on Kosovo, but it couldn’t have expected much more given its weak geopolitical position at the time. However, the incident served as a catalyst for Russia’s leadership to try to halt the country’s decline and regain its respect. Kosovo was one of the many reasons that Vladimir Putin became president, and with him, the full power of the intelligence services he rose from were restored to their former pre-eminence.

Which brings us eventually to Syria:

Since 2008, Putin has attempted to create a sense that Russia has returned to its former historic power. It maintains global relations with left-wing powers such as Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia and Cuba. Of course, technically Russia is not left wing, and if it is, it is a weird leftism given its numerous oligarchs who still prosper. And in fact there is little that Russia can do for any of those countries, beyond promising energy investments and weapon transfers that only occasionally materialize. Still, it gives Russia a sense of global power.

In fact, Russia remains a shadow of what the Soviet Union was. Its economy is heavily focused on energy exports and depends on high prices it cannot control. Outside Moscow and St. Petersburg, life remains hard and life expectancy short. Militarily, it cannot possibly match the United States. But at this moment in history, with the United States withdrawing from deep involvement in the Muslim world, and with the Europeans in institutional disarray, it exerts a level of power in excess of its real capacity. The Russians have been playing their own bluff, and this bluff helps domestically by creating a sense that, despite its problems, Russia has returned to greatness.

In this game, taking on and besting the United States at something, regardless of its importance, is critical.


The al Assad regime’s relations with Russia go back to 1970, when Hafez al Assad, current President Bashar al Assad’s father, staged a coup and aligned Syria with the Soviet Union. In the illusion of global power that Putin needs to create, the fall of al Assad would undermine his strategy tremendously unless the United States was drawn into yet another prolonged and expensive conflict in the Middle East. In the past, the U.S. distraction with Iraq and Afghanistan served Russia’s interests. But the United States is not very likely to get as deeply involved in Syria as it did in those countries. Obama might bring down the regime and create a Sunni government of unknown beliefs, or he may opt for a casual cruise missile attack. But this will not turn into Iraq unless Obama loses control completely.

This could cause Russia to suffer a humiliation similar to the one it dealt the United States in 2008 with Georgia. The United States will demonstrate that Russia’s concerns are of no account and that Russia has no counters if and when the United States decides to act.


Putin made this a core issue for him. I don’t think he expected the Europeans to take the position that al Assad had used chemical weapons. He thought he had more pull than that. He didn’t. The Europeans may not fly missions but they are not in a position to morally condemn those who do. That means that Putin’s bluff is in danger.

This is a very interesting almost lone voice in counterpoint to the general view that the Russian deal, triggered by Kerry’s now-denied gaffe, is either a trap, impractical or outright dangerous.

In this game of international chess, the only thing we know for certain is that more Syrian civilians will be killed.

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21 Responses to Who out-manoeuvered whom on Syria’s chemical weapons?

  1. cba says:

    I just read this at the Treppenwitz blog: http://www.treppenwitz.com/2013/09/let-me-tell-you-how-this-all-plays-out-in-syria.html

    It sounds very plausible, unfortunately. I echo his final sentence:
    This is one time that I pray I am wrong.

    • anneinpt says:

      It’s something that hadn’t occurred to me to be honest. I echo your prayer and his, and hope that Putin and Assad are the 2 people in the world who do not read Treppenwitz.

      On the other hand I think if this was being considered there would have been rumours or trial balloons being leaked (do we actually leak trial balloons?) by now. That’s my optimistic side anyway.

      • cba says:


        Note the subheading:
        Syrian president tells Russian TV he plans to submit data on weapons a month after signing international convention, calls on Israel to follow suit

        Here are the relevant paragraphs in the article itself:

        Speaking to Russia’s state-run Rossiya-24 TV, he [Assad] added that any war against Syria would destroy the whole region, and said that Israel should be the first country to follow suit and join weapons ban conventions.

        “If we want stability in the Middle East, all the countries in the region should stick to [international] agreements,” he said. “And Israel is the first state that should do so, since Israel possessed nuclear, chemical, biological and all other kinds of weapons of mass destruction.”

        • anneinpt says:

          That’s a standard call issued on a regular basis by all Arab leaders. This is one matter where I don’t see anyone, not Bibi and not even Peres, folding on.

          • cba says:

            I agree, they won’t fold.

            But as David Bogner says in that article I linked to above:

            But then……… just as the document is about to be signed, and the international inspectors/collectors are en-route to Damascus, President Assad (at Russia’s urging, no doubt) will drop the other shoe: He will demand that Syria’s compliance be linked to Israel’s compliance to the exact same terms.

            Assad will state that if the international community is really serious about ridding the region of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) and not just giving lip service to the idea, Israel must also be forced to open up its chemical, biological and nuclear facilities to international inspection, and to turn over everything for destruction.

            At that point, the success or failure of the Russian Initiative will be laid entirely at Israel’s feet. All of the word’s superpowers will align in a rare show of unity and demand that Israel must – for the sake of regional and world peace – abandon its longtime stance of ambiguity regarding WMDs, and agree to the same terms as are being imposed on Syria.

            It won’t matter that Israel has never even hinted at the use of such weapons (much less confirmed their existence), and that Syria has actually used them; quite frequently, as it turns out. Israel will be painted into the same corner as a pariah regime. And when we refuse to comply (as we surely will), the failure to punish Syria will be blamed not on Russia, China, the UK, US or even the UN Security council… but rather on Israel.

            • anneinpt says:

              At that point, the success or failure of the Russian Initiative will be laid entirely at Israel’s feet. All of the word’s superpowers will align in a rare show of unity and demand that Israel must – for the sake of regional and world peace – abandon its longtime stance of ambiguity regarding WMDs, and agree to the same terms as are being imposed on Syria.

              That’s the bit that I don’t think will happen. Yes, the failure might well be laid at Israel’s feet, though I think Obama is getting plenty of a bashing already and he deserves it. Where I differ from Trep is that I cannot see the world’s powers uniting davka on this. Of course it’s possible, but I just don’t see it, at least to that extent.

              Let’s hope…

    • Earl says:

      Interesting monograph. Uncharacteristically, I am far more sanguine. Two responses:

      1. Wahhabist/salafist jihadis eating Alawite human body parts whilst mahdaviat lunatics behead a Christian priest. The Western world is sick of both shi’a and sunni- let the parties fight it out between themselves- throughout the MidEast. An absolute containment strategy. Israel’s security against these barbarians trumps all else, and can be spun that way in the MSM.

      2. Tamar gas. I predicted this as an absolute game-changer for IL- the EU will shut up if secure, stable gas can be supplied, averting political chaos at home as pensioners and the poor freeze in the dark. Who hd ever heard of “energy poverty” until recently? And The One’s approval ratings are in the toilet- the American public will be fixated on 2016 as Obama’s miscues and a moribund economy fester.

      • anneinpt says:

        I agree with your general sanguinity (a much better description than optimism) but not necessarily for the same reasons. I don’t believe the MSM would be particularly willing to spin anything in Israel’s favour. On the contrary. However I think that where decisions are made – at governmental level – they are more willing to accept and defend Israel’s security, particularly now that Middle Eastern barbarism is so prevalent and so evident, although the EU still have that nasty obsession with Jewish housing estates in certain areas of Israel’s historical heartland.

    • cba says:


      If the resolution is passed by the International Atomic Energy Agency, Israel will be called upon to sign on to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and submit to IAEA scrutiny of its nuclear facilities.

      Diplomats were expecting the vote to be close, Reuters said.

  2. Senior D says:

    Given his abominable behavior as a Naval Officer who gamed the system for his personal benefit, his traitorous discussions with North Vietnamese and Viet Cong while still a serving Naval Reservist, his ‘Winter Soldier’ conspiracy and an ego surpassed only by the current Oval Office Occupier, I wouldn’t trust John Forbes Kerry to fix a parking ticket. Vladimir Putin may have seized the high ground on the Syrian debacle but it comes via the ineptness of the current US Administration and its closeted Social Leftists. This Administration is no friend of Israel, Great Britain or any of our usual allies. I sense a spot on response from Russia at the cost of whatever honor this country has left.

    • anneinpt says:

      I don’t think anyone this side of the Mediterranean trusts Kerry – or Obama – as far as they can throw him. I’m trying to picture the Russians’ surprised delight on realising the victory that has just been handed to them on a silver platter.

  3. peteca1 says:

    I was just thinking this morning when I read the news – Vladimir Putin has stolen the “initiative” on the Syrian crisis. He’s the one who is negotiating the deal with Assad, and essentially Putin is making the final determination on the timing and the conditions. So he has the upper hand. Maybe the USA does not see it that way …. but many other people will.

    I don’t see how the deal is truly verifiable. How will we ever know if Assad tirned over all his chemical weapons? It seems impossible. But even if he turns over 90% of them, it is a step forward for Israel’s security – so it’s not all bad.

    Pete, USA

    • anneinpt says:

      I agree with you on all points except that the Russians didn’t “steal” any initiative. It was handed to them on a silver platter by Kerry and Obama in person. If Kerry had stopped to think before opening his mouth, or if Obama had reprimanded him or denied any such plan or simply rejected the Russians’ proposal, things would have looked very different today.

      As you say, the deal is completely unverifiable, not to say totally impractical.

      Re Israel’s security, our problems stem from a number of sources. Certainly if 90% of Assad’s WMD are destroyed it would be good for Israel, although even 10% can do a huge amount of damage. It would be excellent news for the rest of the region too. But Assad and Hezbollah still have huge amounts of regular weaponry, and although Assad is not in any mood or shape to attack Israel (threats notwithstanding) Hezbollah was itching to have a go until very recently.

      As I said above, Syria’s WMD are a source of enormous instability throughout the Middle East, not just for Israel. Jordan, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia are probably more likely targets than Israel and they have a lot more to worry about. Their armies and homeland security are nowhere near as advanced as Israel’s.

      I do have my gas mask ready, though, just in case…

  4. peteca1 says:

    Personally – I suppose what troubles me is that 1400 people, many of them women and children, were gassed to death. And yet now the culprit to this horrible crime may actually walk away scot-free. I have no idea if it is Assad’s crazy brother (or someone else), but I doubt seriously that any attack took place without Assad’s implicit consent. So far the only leader who has insisted on accountability for this crime is PM Netanyahu himself … and I say GOOD for him!!! But it appears that his wishes may be bargained away in this negotiated deal.

    What is an acceptable “loss of life” to nerve gas? Is it 1400 people? And then if 1400 lives is OK, how about 5,000? Do we draw a new red line at 30,000 lives lost – but we will decide that 25,000 lives is something we can live with? At some point this cannot be just arithmetic – a political calculus on what the Western electorate is willing to tolerate. Introducing weapons of mass destruction into the world is not like testing the brand image for a new Toyota.

    The world seems stangely mired in a bizarre “decision paralysis” – where all moves of the chess game are bargained against one another. I fear this approach will come back to haunt us.

    Pete, USA

    • anneinpt says:

      Excellent points Pete. I think the “decision paralysis” as you call it stems from the “new religion” of liberalism mixed with “human rights-ism”. It would seem like an oxymoron for liberalism to tolerate gassing civilians, and doubly so for the religion of human rights. But the western world has twisted itself into a pretzel in the last decade or two. They consider it illiberal, if not outright racism, to tell “the brown people” what they should and how they should act because after all, they themselves are not perfect.

      Of course there is no comparison between western liberal democracies and brutal dictatorships wherever they are, but if you point that out you are called, you guessed it, a racist. And being a racist is the worst thing there is. Worse than calling out the brutes for gassing their own civilians.

      Add to this toxic mix a wet fool like Obama and his sidekick Kerry and you get to where we are today. After all, what did Obama mean by “leading from behind”? The very term makes no sense. He objects to projecting American power because it might be considered racist, and so the Russians have jumped into the vacuum. One can hardly blame them.

      You are right that this approach will come back to haunt us all. It already has, with the Russians looking like the cat that got the cream. It won’t be over until America gets a new Reagan-like president and not before. Or unless Obama has a personality transplant.

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