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Putin holds the stronger hand in Syria

Updated: October 15, 2013 7:06AM

His advocates say only the threat of a military strike by President Barack Obama make a diplomatic solution to Syria’s chemical weapons even possible. Obama’s critics say Russian President Vladimir Putin has found a way to come to the rescue of his ally, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. Both are true. But the more significant point is that Putin holds the stronger hand as Obama and Putin try to solve the Syrian crisis.

Obama’s goal is tactical, small ball. He has to find a way out of the corner he painted himself in with his off-the-cuff red-line remark warning Assad against the use of chemical weapons.

Putin’s goal is strategic, big picture. Saving Assad will preserve Russia’s sole ally in the Arab world, safeguard the Russian navy’s only base on the Mediterranean Sea, restore Moscow to something like its Soviet-era status as a power player in the Middle East and strike a blow to American stature in the region.

Obama laid down his red line a year ago, then looked the other way when Assad used chemical agents last winter. Emboldened by Obama’s non-response, Assad or someone in command in his armed forces unleashed sarin gas last month, killing 1,400 men, women and children.

Obama’s credibility, and that of the United States, was on the line. But as the crisis unfolded, even admirers saw his policy as unfocused, chaotic, muddled and, worst of all, out of step with the American people. He first asserted he had the power to launch a strike on his own, then asked for authorization from Congress — only to find his chances of success in the House near zero and in the Senate declining every day. Mixed messages about how destructive any strike would be haven’t helped garner support. His speech Tuesday night fell flat — his heart wasn’t in it because the last thing Obama wants to do is open a new U.S. war front.

It’s no wonder Obama leaped at Putin’s offer to prod Assad to turn over his chemical weapons to international control and ultimate destruction. Assad jumped as well, no doubt pushed by Putin. The dictator’s regime and possibly life are at risk. Any military strike, even a small one, might tip the civil war balance to the rebels. Giving up chemical agents would deprive Assad of weapons responsible for less than 2 percent of the more than 100,000 deaths so far.

Putin will push for the best deal for Assad — seeking, for example, to take a U.S. military option off the table and halt any flow of American arms to the rebels. Obama can’t give up the military threat. Look for any resolution from the U.N. Security Council to be worded in such a way as to give both sides cover.

Confident he’s in the driver’s seat, Putin beat his chest with an insulting op-ed in the New York Times. The White House responded by asserting Russian prestige is on the line. But it looks like Obama has the most to lose and Putin the most to gain.

In the end, if all the complex parts — which essentially boil down to the issue of will Assad actually do it? — come together, Obama can claim an important achievement. But he couldn’t have done it without Putin throwing him a lifeline. The Russian boss will be seen as a dealmaker who stopped a U.S. military strike, saved a valued ally and returned Moscow as a heavy hitter in the Middle East.


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